How to request fee waivers (and actually get them)

Will work for entry fees 

Are you looking for ways to save money on festival submissions fees? With fees starting at $20 and ranging as high as $100 per submission, those fees can add up quickly. One popular way of reducing these costs is to ask festivals directly for fee waivers.

I'm starting my second season working with filmmakers at the Atlanta Film Festival and I'm re-learning a lot of forgotten lessons about the do's and don'ts of festival submissions. Here are a few insights for requesting fee waivers and increasing your chances of actually getting to "yes."

Don't plead poverty.

While your instinct might be to explain that you're a poor student or that you maxed out your credit cards making your film, a lack of money will not score you sympathy points from festival programmers. Many film festivals are struggling non-profits with expenses of their own – the implication that you need the money more than the festival does could be construed as an insult.

What do you have to offer the festival?

Some things are more important to a programmer than your submission fee – a movie that fits into a particular niche, for example, or a film that has a proven track record. Festivals are always on the hunt for good content, so if you can tempt them with the promise of a film that serves an important audience segment or has already been accepted by other festivals, lead with that. A programmer desperate to fill out a sci-fi shorts block may be primed for your robot comedy, or simply curious about the fact that four other festivals deemed your film worthy of inclusion.

Say it with pictures.

An arresting still image that gets a reaction is like catnip to someone who works in film. If your film has one of those amazing images that pulls people in, use it. Try to embed it in the body of the email, though – you can't trust that your reader will be bothered to download and view an attachment. 

Empty wallet 

Don't swamp the reader with too much information...

So many of the waiver requests I see are hundreds of words long (cast lists, overly lengthy synopses, director's statements) with several files attached. Guess what? Festival programmers file them in the TLDR folder. 

…but make sure relevant info is available.

At the other end of the spectrum are those filmmakers who want to submit "a film" without providing any information at all. When I go looking for information on the web about the film, there's no web site, no Facebook page, nothing. If you're not prepared to build an audience for your film, why should the festival be interested enough to waive the fee?

Why are you asking ME?

When I bring up the subject of fee waivers with other festival staffers, one of the most common answers I get is that fee waiver emails are just generic requests shotgunned to dozens of festivals. If you have a reason for submitting to a particular festival (and you should), try to include that reason with your waiver request and do your best to build a rapport with the reader.

Include a private online screener link and password in the email with your request.

If a programmer is really curious about your film and excited that it might be a film she could program, nothing is more frustrating than having to wait to see it. Seeing the first few minutes of the film may be all that's needed to deem your film worthy of the fee waiver.

Got some favorite techniques of your own for asking for fee waivers? Send them my way and I'll consider them for inclusion in a follow-up article.