“Everyone thinks my film is great! You guys don’t know what is really good.”
“I’ve seen the films you program and mine is so much better.”
“My film won awards at four other festivals! I don’t understand why you didn’t pick it up.”
I receive these complaints (and worse) daily from filmmakers of every level of experience — from novice high school students to award-winning directors. I’m going to probably surprise you and say your film wasn’t rejected because it sucked — although that can definitely be a factor. The real reasons are complex and varied, but come down to a single factor: film festivals are not necessarily what you think.
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.
But everyone can agree on this basic premise: The desires of filmmakers and the needs of festival programmers are often at odds. And these often competing interests mean that it’s your job, as a filmmaker, to create an informed festival strategy for your film with care.
The programmers in this collection of interviews have the same concerns: primarily that most filmmakers do not have an appropriate (or any) festival strategy. Tired after the arduous process of writing, funding, shooting and editing their masterpiece, many filmmakers simply choose festivals from a list of big-name events or submit their project based on media buzz and fancy web sites, but they don’t research to learn if the event is a proper fit for their film. Millions of dollars are wasted every year on pipe dreams and vanity career moves. With a few days of internet research, well-crafted emails and strategic phone calls, filmmakers could enter 50 festivals with a 10% return (on average) or enter 10 appropriate events with a 90% return. Think of the money saved on entry fees, disc duplication, press kits and shipping — and the frustration of rejection letters.
Festival programmers are under a great deal of pressure to please sponsors, distributors, funders, and boards. They must deal with scheduling concerns, venue availability, subject matter and taste issues, and the glut of similarly-themed films that naturally occur every year.
But their greatest pressure is to appeal to audiences — every festival has a unique personality. One might be “crunchy and green” even though they screen bigger studio films. Another might be “preppy and conservative” although their late-night lineup might make a hooker blush. Their taste for dramas, comedies, documentary, experimental — short or long format — subtitled or silent — all vary from city to city. More frustrating is that even within the same event, audiences can vary greatly depending on time of day, location of the theater, the weather, or events happening in the news.
These personalities start with the programmers. While feelings are usually checked at the door, we’re human and we all love films for very personal reasons. On top of these influences are often factors you might never have considered, including workplace stresses, the frustration of random technical gremlins, and “film numbness” from watching and reviewing hundreds (sometimes thousands) of submissions. Ultimately, our final selections create the mood and zeitgeist of the event — which we hope entices, satisfies and builds a paying audience.
I have been fortunate enough to see the world of festivals from both side. As a filmmaker, I’ve traveled the globe to support films I wrote and directed. As a guest, I’ve enjoyed the hospitality offered by festival organizers, meeting audiences along the way. As a festival director, I have been fortunate enough to meet hundreds of other festival organizers, and have spent a great deal of time talking to them, asking questions about their systems and processes, and working to network for an open exchange of information.
This open exchange is out there. But it is up to you to research and find it.
Books are a great place to start. Of course, I would recommend my book Behind the Screens: Programmers Reveal How Film Festivals Really Work -- but there are plenty others, including Chris Holland's Film Festival Secrets: A Handbook For Independent Filmmakers and Roberta Marie Munroe's insights in How Not to Make a Short Film: Secrets from a Sundance Programmer. All of these books are written from festival insiders -- and get to the heart of festivals from a programmers perspective.
There are so many resources online for filmmakers to research festivals -- but online research will only get you so far. It’s easy to come up with a slick website. I’ve seen some sham film festivals with really slick websites, just as I’ve seen some legitimate festivals with horrific websites. It’s really about communicating with other filmmakers. Use Facebook, Twitter, message boards, listservs, and a new neutral website www.FestQuest.com — they’re great resources to communicate with other filmmakers who have attended festivals and find out, “What did you think of this one? Was it worth the time and effort? Did you really like it or not?” I mean, festivals are always going to toot their horn and say how great they are, but if you were actually to talk to other filmmakers — they are your greatest resource.
And for God’s sake — get out to other film festivals! Talk to filmmakers with films that are similar to yours and ask, “Well, where else did you apply? Where did you play? Where did you get rejected from?” If they loved a film festival, they’re going to tell you. Just as they’re going to tell you how much they disliked a festival that didn’t treat them right.
If one filmmaker reads a book, scours the web or meets a programmer and learns why it is critical to read the submission rules, or package a DVD so it doesn’t shatter in shipping, or remembers to keep their cool at a screening in the midst of a projection catastrophe, your efforts will create the desired effect — to level the playing field and create an atmosphere where filmmakers can create even better content that festivals will want to program — and audiences will love.
But above all, remember, “There is a festival for every film, but your film is not for every festival.” Once you truly understand this idea, you will find greater success.
Jon Gann is the founder of the DC Film Alliance, a non-profit organization supporting Washington, DC's film and video community, and the creator of the DC Shorts Film Festival; now planning its 10th year, the event attracts national and international filmmakers, and has become one of the country's premier short film showcases.