A few days after filmmakers sign up for my free "Film Festival Readiness" course, they get an email that asks them to send me a question, or to articulate their #1 challenge when it comes to the festival circuit.
The email below came in recently from a filmmaker named Allison. The frustration she expresses is so common that I've posted both her email and my answer below. (I've cleaned up my answer a bit for grammar and clarity.)
#1 challenge: GETTING IN!
I feel like many of the slots are handed to films with a celebrity - ANY celebrity - in them. Next time I make a movie, you can bet there'll be a celebrity in it.
Last year I made a feature adaptation of Macbeth (www.InnocentSleep.com) that's just not getting any traction. Too niche? I guess. No celebrities... and it was the first film for my partner, who directed.
So. Maybe it's just not any good, or maybe I'm just missing something...!?
Most of the time repeated rejection comes down to a few things like:
- the film just isn’t good enough, usually because there was little test screening prior to beginning submissions
- picking festivals that are simply inappropriate for the film (shooting too high, not paying attention to subject matter requirements, etc)
- something controversial that disqualifies the film
- unprofessional behavior by the filmmaker
- consistently handicapping yourself by submitting late (when many decisions have already been made and a huge crush of entries come flooding in)
- film is too similar to something else currently on the circuit that has more notoriety or just got there first
In your case I think the last one might be getting you a little bit. Shakespeare adaptations are quite common and programmers kind of roll their eyes when they recognize that is what they’re watching.
Of course the quality of a film (or the presence of something else “sellable” like name actors) can enable it to rise above this disadvantage, but it’s a tough place to start from. I had a client who made a film called Kitchen Hamlet and though I quite liked it, he had a heck of a time getting festivals to play it.
I recommend that you read my “fundamentals” article, which touches on most of the rest of those bullet points.
One last thought — given your own credentials, you might consider placing less emphasis on the festival circuit and “go to your base” of Shakespeare junkies to see if you can get play for the film at non-movie theaters. As you know, many stages have black box venues tucked away in their buildings that are perfect for specialty screenings.
[Email reply ends here.]
As it turns out, Allison and the film's director already had a grassroots screening plan in mind to engage their core audience of Shakespeare buffs. I don't think they should give up on the festival circuit until they figure out whether they're just having an early run of bad luck, but every filmmaker needs to be aware that their film might not be destined for festivals. It pays to have a Plan B in the works even before you start submitting.
If you're looking for more insight into the minds of festival programmers, I cover this topic in detail in my video course Film Festival Hacks (with filmmaker Alex Ferrari asking pertinent questions along the way). Pay particular attention to sections 3 and 4 to find out what programmers want from the films they play.