The programming director at the Austin Film Festival thinks DVDs are the best format for submitting your film to festivals. Here's why he's wrong.
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.
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.
Jon Gann, writing for Script Magazine:
Film festivals are a business to showcase outstanding films to established audiences, attract new audiences, and provide a solid platform for filmmakers to meet and connect with these audiences and one another. That’s a lot of planets to align, and sometimes the math just may not work in your favor. It really is that simple.
Jon has written a really excellent book of interviews with festival programmers - this article is just a taste of the wisdom that lies therein.
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.
Scott Macaulay, writing for Filmmaker Magazine:
“The secret magic of film festivals is that they offer audiences direct communication with the artist,” says Sundance Film Festival Director of Programming Trevor Groth. “You can definitely elevate the impact of your screening by the way you introduce the film and handle the Q&A.” Explains True/False Co-Director and Co-Founder David Wilson, “A great Q&A can really guide your audience, making them feel better about your film and have a clearer understanding of your intentions in making it. And a bad one can hurt that initial buzz that all films depend on at festivals.” “Having access to you, the director, is what makes festivals special for audiences,” agrees SXSW Film Festival Producer Janet Pierson. “And the Q&A will affect how audiences interact with your work and how they’ll talk about it later.”
I agree with some of these points and disagree with others, but overall it's a pretty good tip sheet for handling a festival Q&A.
For my take on the topic, see How to Nail Your Post-Screening Q&A.
Jason Guerrasio, writing for Indiewire:
Since 2008, a string of film/screenwriting competition events, or events that call themselves film festivals but do not screen films to the public, have popped up on Withoutabox that are misleading filmmakers into thinking that they are submitting to regional festivals set in beautiful locales when in fact they are sending their work to mere online competitions that may or may not have an event to celebrate the award winners.
What is impressive about this article is not so much the number of scam festivals outed here, but the fact that it still just scratches the surface of the questionable events that take money from credulous filmmakers. Scam fests are a relative rarity in terms of their percentage of the festival populace, but many filmmakers adopt a shotgun submission strategy. The result is many a wasted submission fee – sometimes on scams, sometimes on festivals that just aren't appropriate for your film.
Tom Roston, writing for the New York Times:
Career highlights may await filmmakers whose movies have been accepted at the Sundance Film Festival, which begins Thursday in Park City, Utah. But more common is the hurt, frustration and fallback strategizing that occupies the thousands of directors whose dreams have been dashed. Of more than 12,000 films submitted to this year’s Sundance, only 193 landed slots.
This is further compounded by the perception that there are only a handful of festivals that "matter" – as if anything but the most stellar of festival runs invalidates one's existence as a filmmaker.
No question, it's great to play Sundance. Or Tribeca. Or South by Southwest. But plenty of filmmakers have has fulfilling festival runs playing smaller festivals like Sidewalk and Newport Beach and IFF Boston. Some made incredible careers for themselves without playing a single festival. It's a big world of moving pictures out there, and festivals represent one corner of it.
This afternoon at 3pm Pacific time, Sundance Film Festival Director John Cooper will take questions from the general public in Reddit's "AMA" ("Ask Me Anything") format. AMA is an interesting way to hold a mass Q&A with the general public, and if you've ever had questions about the inner workings of Sundance, this is a rare opportunity to get some answers. Sundance has held public Q&As before (like a live video chat back in 2010), but the AMA format is well-suited to the task of getting the most sought-after answers to an audience. (Reddit members can "up-vote" questions from other members to indicate common curiosity.)
From Cooper's announcement on the Sundance site:
On Wednesday, Nov. 28 at 3:00 p.m. PT, on the heels of our announcement of the first 60 or so films selected for the 2013 Festival, I’ll be taking questions about just about anything — why we’re excited for this Festival, how we watch more than 10,000 films each year and narrow it down to 200, what it’s like to work for a festival that has launched the careers of many great artists, and why we love Park City, Utah!
The AMA section of Reddit is here - if you don't have a Reddit account already, go ahead and register for one ahead of time. Get familiar with how reading, posting, and up-voting works so you'll be ready to participate when the AMA begins. To see the AMA format in action, check out this AMA with animator Don Hertzfeldt, or this one with documentarian Eugene Jarecki.
There are plenty of filmmakers who rush to finish their film for Sundance, fill out the paperwork, send off the DVD, and then... stop. There's nothing wrong with waiting anxiously to hear from what is arguably the world's most famous film festival, but if you're not submitting to other festivals while you wait you could miss out on the entire Spring season. Break out your list of target festivals (see chapter one of Film Festival Secrets for more on this) and get cracking. Here's a handy (but by no means complete) list of festivals with upcoming deadlines. Check each festival's web site for their late deadlines, submission rules, etc.
- IFF Boston - October 31
- Dallas International - December 14
- Atlanta Film Festival - December 14
- Cleveland - November 30
- South By Southwest - November 1
Carmen Pelaez, writing for the Huffington Post:
A life is only as good and the friends that inhabit it and a movie is only as good as the heart your cast and crew are willing to put it in. In that regard, I think we've got a gem on our hands. I don't know what it will feel like to sit in that theater or what will come next for our little film or me. But I'm pretty sure I will once again wonder if it was all a dream or the start of a new wondrous road that I'll get to travel. I'm betting on it being a little bit of both.
Ed Fletcher, writing for The Sacramento Bee about the process of making his first short film. The metaphors clash a little bit, but it's a fun read.
Producing a film is a little like putting together a football team for one game. Thankfully, Long, a recent UC Davis graduate, brought his own connections and a team of people who were involved in his earlier projects. In the subsequent weeks, people from his network and mine joined as others dropped out.
The job of the producer is largely to rent the kitchen, buy the ingredients, then get out of the director's way until it's time to sell the soup.
Atlanta Film Festival programmer Charles Judson, writing for CinemATL.com:
I just finished watching a really strong short submitted to us for ATLFF13. When it began I was fearful it was going to be another cliched riddled affair because of the subject matter, but 60 seconds in I was hooked. By the halfway point I was excited we had gotten such a submission. By the end I was elated to know we’re looking at another strong year for shorts. If only it wasn’t 29 minutes long.
The film’s length, and because it’s a Graduate Thesis film, reminds me of the conversation I had with Christopher Holland of Film Festival Secrets about three weeks ago. Many film programs require that students start with short time frames and then work their way up. As Chris rightly brought up, this is a backwards way to train students.
I first encountered this phenomenon with a client, who was trying to get her short film into festivals and wasn't having much success. I asked her why the film was 20 minutes long when it didn't really need to be.
"It's my senior thesis film," she replied. "In my junior year they asked me to produce a ten-minute film, and for my senior year they wanted a film that was twenty minutes long."
This is "backwards" to me because a good filmmaker can tell the same story in ten minutes that will require twenty minutes in the hands of a lesser director. Economy of storytelling is incredibly important to film festivals, and it's not uncommon for programmers to approach short films with a running time over 15 minutes with some skepticism. There may be some good reason that a film school might require twenty minute projects from their students, but it handicaps those projects when they hit the festival circuit.
Lucas McNelly, writing for The Huffington Post, asks director Matthew Lillard what he learned during his efforts to fund the film with Kickstarter donations.
...the big surprise for me has been how difficult it's been translating eyeballs and people loving the film into donations. I knew because of our exposure in the world, the social media numbers we have behind the project, that we'd be able to spike awareness around the film and I assumed that would mean we'd generate enough interest in our story to give money. That has not been the case. Facebook, Twitter, etc. is about awareness but it's been direct contact with people that's made the greatest impact on our campaign.
Based on what I've heard from filmmaker friends and what I've read in articles like these, the big lessons of Kickstarter are the same as the big lessons of any marketing effort. You need to know your audience really, really well, you need to offer them something they want, and you have to make it easy for them to participate. Kickstarter is great for the last part, but the other parts are up to you.
This piece by Michael Wolf, writing for GigaOm, should be of interest to those considering crowd funding their films with Kickstarter or IndieGogo. I was unaware of the "thirty percent rule," apparently observed by others before but restated and confirmed by Wolf:
Once projects get over the hurdle of 20 percent funding and reach 30 percent or more of their funding target, the chance of reaching the funding goal grows exponentially.
Also of interest is the fact that film and video projects are by far the largest category of funded projects, with music and design projects following up. Read the entire article on GigaOm.
New from Film Threat: an entertaining series of videos about the film festival process, written and directed by my friends Mark Potts & Don Swaynos. Above: episode 1, in which a filmmaker wraps his shoot and gets a little bit ahead of himself.
Potts' newest feature Cinema Six will debut in April at the Dallas International Film Festival.
Chris & Jesse revive the podcast after almost 2 years. In this episode: the expedited death of 35mm exhibition, the protracted death of the Withoutabox message boards, and how to time your submissions to festivals.
- Austin's Paramount Theater
- Roger Ebert on the Sudden Death of FIlm
- Online Petition for 35mm
Got questions? We'll answer 'em! Send email to firstname.lastname@example.org or reply to @ffsecrets on Twitter.
Photo credit: D Sharon Pruitt
It's been a while since I've mentioned the 7 Days to a Film Festival Strategy seminar. Unlike my live seminars, this one is delivered as an email "class" once per day for seven days. For the rest of February, this seminar is available for just $2.99.
If you're submitting to film festivals and feeling like you're not getting anywhere, this seminar will help you zero in on the festivals that matter most to your particular film.
Angela Tucker at IFP's Resources Blog:
In this new era of digital downloads, film festivals are one of the few ways that you can see your film with an audience. Film festivals are like colleges – you need to apply to a wide range. And if you find that you need to have that icky conversation where you have to turn a festival down because another one offers you a premiere that is more ideal for you film, there are worse problems to have.
Charles Judson of the Atlanta Film Festival, writing for CinemATL.
Programmers are no different than anyone else. Just as it is with audiences going to a local multiplex, we look at trailers and we instantly decide if films are ones we think we want to see, as programmers and as film lovers, if we think will enjoy them.
. . .
Unfortunately, too many films submitted to festivals either have misleading trailers–stop playing by the Hollywood big budget marketing playbook and you would be much better off. Or they do not have strong trailers at all.
So far this season I’ve seen at least three films that a filmmaker sent me a trailer for that had me pumped, and I walked away a little disappointed that the film was nothing like the trailer.
I'm in favor of cutting a trailer for your film and as a screener for festivals I rarely watch the trailer first.