For the last few months I've been managing submissions (and a host of other things) at the Atlanta Film Festival. The experience has been a re-education in the seemingly simple things that have the power to puzzle the uninitiated, and it puts me back where I was when I first started taking the notes that became Film Festival Secrets.
One particularly surprising point of confusion is the concept of a film's category. When submitting your film to a festival, it's important to tick the right box so your film will be routed to the correct programming department. Otherwise you run the risk of delaying your film's evaluation or even its disqualification from consideration. Here's a quick guide to the different categories you'll encounter as your submit your film.
Feature vs short
Traditionally, anything over 60 minutes is considered a feature film, and anything under is a short. Different festivals draw the line in different places, however, so pay attention to each festival's definition. If you have a film that falls into that weird gray area between 30 and 60 minutes, be aware that your film faces greater challenges in being programmed than more traditional shorts (under 20 minutes) and features (over 70).
Narrative = fiction. In general, if there's an element of fiction to your work, it belongs in this category. Don't get cute by submitting your documentary-style fiction film in the doc category.
Documentary films, while inherently biased through editing, purport to represent their subjects in a factual way. There can be a lot of blurring of this line, but if you have a doc on your hands you tend to know it.
Animated features and shorts get lumped into the animated category regardless of content.
Experimental is kind of a catch-all category for films that push the envelope of filmmaking: the weird, the off-kilter, the not-quite-narrative. Many festivals include a category for experimental shorts where they showcase films at the cinematic frontier.
If it's about 3 minutes long and it's set to a song, it's a music video.
These are generally narrative shorts, sequestered in their own category to allow for the "emerging" nature of the filmmakers. Each festival has its own definition of "student film" – some insist on films from students at film schools, others simply accept films made by students of all kinds. Consult the festival's policy.
You should now be able to place your film in the correct category when you submit. Good luck.