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Legally Speaking, It Depends – Film Festival Rules

What do film festival rules mean to the filmmaker? Pay attention to their rules, make plans that avoid conflict while retaining flexibility for your entry.

A brouhaha discussed among industry pundits was caused by the Toronto International Film Festival's director, Cameron Bailey's gauntlet throw down statements a while ago. He in essence warned distributors and filmmakers that any submission to the TIFF that is not at least a North American premiere, will be sanctioned. The films won't be shown during the prime slots of the first few days of the festival. The supposition by many is that Mr. Bailey was miffed by and was targeting the showings of TIFF touted “premieres” that had already been shown in the much smaller but maybe more prestigious Telluride Film Festival during the prior Labor Day weekend over the years. Telluride, to its credit as a long standing, boutique and unique film festival hasn't officially commented on the issue.

The ripple effect, if any, is still to be seen but that doesn't stop the prognosticators from speculating on how the statements and actions will change things. With the TIFF rolling out announcements of its selections for festival films from now until the actual festival, we'll start to see who blinks. But what do all these film festival rules mean to the lowly filmmaker?

fest rules

Ego plays, reactions and the filmmaker caught in the middle

It is a safe assumption to think that most successful film festivals have somewhere near the top of their management, a core of charismatic and opinionated leaders. It takes a strong character to will a film festival into existence out of nothing and keep it going against all odds. With that necessary character, often comes the unintended baggage of ego plays and power shuffling. I haven't met a festival director or staff yet that didn't think that their festival was better than others.

Since there is no really objective metric to assess the relative merits of each festival, we are left with a lot of unbridled claims and posturing that beget hurt feelings and sore “losers” which eventually leads to brash actions and untenable positions.

The filmmaker and their distributors have to navigate these issues with aplomb if they want to take advantage of what festival showings offer: exposure, caché and publicity. Here's where legal positions and prudent business practices might diverge when scouting the best path through the turmoil. First lets look at what can be legally enforced by a festival.

The terms are the terms

Whether you are a screenwriter or filmmaker, when you submit to a festival you are invariably entering into a form of contractual agreement. The terms of that agreement establish the expectations on both sides, what the submitter is committing to do and not do in exchange for what the festival will provide and support. These terms are usually spelled out in hopefully sufficient detail in the submission paperwork that you are required to turn in with your work for consideration.

You should always carefully read all the terms you are binding yourself to as a submitter and consider its impact on not only this festival but also on future potential avenues of marketing your works. You need to weigh the onerousness of imposed restrictions against the perceived merit of a festival slot for the work. Some festivals have very strict demands of exclusivity that preclude other avenues for the filmmaker. Each filmmaker must decide for themselves whether the benefits outweigh the cost (Say it with me, “It depends...”).

Take one aspect of the example I started this article with: premiere status. Here are the relevant rules language from the submission documents of each of the two festivals mentioned earlier.

Toronto TIFF

“(6) TIFF expects all Films that it presents at the Festival to be, at minimum, North American premieres, but reserves the right to present films that are not.”

Telluride TFF

“With very rare exceptions, feature-length films (60 minutes or longer) will only be considered if they are to have their first North American screenings at the TFF.”

These are not the only two festivals that have particular restrictions on where the films submitted could be shown prior to their events. Some festivals don't restrict per se, but, reward with better placements and more publicity given to world premieres and the like. And as you go further into the festival circuit, some smaller fests have more open “premiere” definitions, first in the North East, first in the State, etc. A savvy filmmaker can give their first premiere status to one of the big festivals, and then follow with a series of “premieres” depending on the varying definitions and flexibilities of the later festivals.

The one thing you don't want to do is lie about your film's former showing status. Attempting to do so would not only nix chances for that film but also sully the filmmaker's reputation for years to come for future projects.

Bruised egos take a very long time to heal.

But as long as you're honest, have you forgone your chances to get into other festivals if you don't meet their strict “rules” of submission? Maybe not.

The terms that are not really terms, aka “wiggle room”

If you read the two premiere status terms above, it seems like they are rigidly fixed. And in one sense, they are. In another you see that, like most festivals, these festivals reserve the right to bend the rules if they so see fit. In fact, most submission forms allow for the rules to change without notice if the festival deems it in their interest to do so. The key takeaway here is, the festival has the wiggle room. If you need them to consider your submission that falls outside of their stipulated strictures, you need to appeal to the powers that be and cross your fingers they'll see it your way. Blatantly ignoring the rules is highly unlikely to weigh in your favor. But certain stipulations are more “flexible” than others. Your mileage may vary. In most cases, if you can remain within the terms as set out, you'll have the best chance of getting in. Unless you know somebody. (Ego's rule, remember?)


Wiggle room doesn't always help when various contest rules conflict with each other, though. For example, Unlike all other festivals, Telluride has had, from its initial existence through today, the policy of not announcing its slate of films until the first day of the festival. The filmmakers are sworn to secrecy to not give away that they are going to be showing at the Labor Day weekend festival. That creates a dilemma for filmmakers considering both Telluride and TIFF.

Toronto stops taking regular submissions of films at the end of May. TIFF starts announcing whose films will be showing from late July up through the start of the festival. Telluride keeps taking submitted features into regular consideration through mid-July. They usually provide notice to the filmmaker starting the first week in August.

If Toronto announces they've accepted a film in July and the filmmaker doesn't know her film has been accepted by TFF until August there could be a conflict with TIFF's premiere policy and Bailey's further restrictions. Telluride demands secrecy, Toronto demands to know. How is a filmmaker supposed to abide by the intent of both festivals?

This is just one example of how difficult it is to plan a festival strategy. Screenwriting festivals are no different. You need to learn and pay attention to each festival's rules, make a plan that avoids as much conflict as possible while retaining as much flexibility for your entry as you can. Then you can only rely on the flexibility of the festival management to accommodate those impossible issues. Luckily, as long as you are honest and forthright, if the festival wants your work bad enough, they can usually find a way.

And in the meantime, it makes great fodder for the press to ponder. Sorry about that.

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