How Do You Know When it’s Time to Stop Submitting Your Film to Festivals?

 How do you know when to stop?

Heidi Burkey, director of documentary feature Makin' Wookiee, asks:

How do you know when to stop submitting to festivals?

To avoid confusion, let me just say that I'm going to answer this question in very general terms. I'm not making any recommendations or predictions about Burkey's film in particular.

My short answer to this question is usually: you can feel it in your gut

The less glib (but no more or less true) answer is: Feature films generally have a festival shelf life of about a year from the time of their world premiere. Short films can hold out for 18-24 months.

There are exceptions, of course -- external factors (like a surge of popular interest in your film's subject) can play a part, or maybe the festival director in question just loves your film *that much*. Some pictures just have a longevity with audiences that defies the common wisdom. 

But it's called common wisdom for a reason. That "new film smell" will start to wear off and festivals will opt for movies that are younger and shinier than yours. 

 Cover art for “Makin’ Wookiee."

By the time that period of a year is up, your film has either found a distributor or it hasn't. Statistically speaking it won't, in which case it's time to put Self-Distribution Plan B into action. (You do have a Plan B, right?)

You could continue to shop the film around to distributors, but in my experience, the average filmmaker would rather pursue new creative projects than continue the hard (and often unrewarding) task of figuring out how to build an audience for their last film. It doesn’t take a genius to see that festival audiences are far more forgiving of work from fledgling filmmakers than the open market is, so maybe this is the way it ought to work.

I would go so far as to say that many (most?) filmmakers don't decide to stop submitting to festivals. They just get drawn into another project, often before the festival clock runs out, and the previous film falls by the wayside. Maybe the film ends up on demand somewhere, maybe it doesn't. It depends on the temperament of the artist.

Waxing philosophical for a moment: there are plenty of great festival films gone by that never found a home. They can only be found in film cans or on tapes in their creators' basements, hopefully to be rescued someday by the likes of Mubi or Fandor. Hopefully you will pay your work the respect of making it available on a DIY publishing site like VHX or Gumroad, so that those people who cherish it or who hear about it in years to come at least having the option of tracking it down. 

If you have a question about film festivals you’d like answered, send it to chris@filmfestivalsecrets.com.