Community, Pro Tips

10 Tips for Surviving Film Festival Submissions


The film-festival circuit is a diverse creative ecosystem loaded with films of all types, genres, and lengths, where midnight screenings, double features, shorts programs, and local showcases are all commonplace. You might see an Edwardian epic preceded by a three-minute experimental film. You’ve got your community-college festivals, your small-town regional fests, short-film fests, arthouse fests, documentary fests, genre fests, and worldwide powerhouse fests — there’s even an NYC Porn Film Fest. Getting programmed can be tricky. Here are 10 tips to get the most out of those submission dollars.

1. Be Realistic

electric, neon movie marquee on black background
Neon Movie Marquee by jgroup

Marquee film festivals program between 1% and 3% of submissions. Sundance, in particular, programs very few films from submissions. They get away with saying they program from submissions by telling filmmakers whose films they’d like to show to submit through the proper channels, which of course they always do. It’s kind of a dirty little secret, but it’s a common practice amongst world-class festivals. Sundance receives over 4,000 feature films and 8,000 shorts via submissions, and even regional and small-town festivals will commonly reject far more films than they accept. Many films come in to programmers through outside channels by means of various connections. Your best bet to be programmed as an unknown filmmaker is in a smaller genre fest, a college or university fest, or a hometown or regional festival that has a local filmmakers program. Programmers are always looking for the best of the best, so it’s very tough. Don’t get frustrated. Most filmmakers get several “no’s” before their first “yes.”

2. Don’t Send a Rough Cut

Editing machine for 35 mm movie detail, spool and film selective focus vintage color effect
Editing Machine for 35 mm Movie by fabiopagani

Try to picture lock at the very least. If there are missing FX, put a title on screen to communicate that. If the audio isn’t perfect, put up a title saying “temp sound.” Don’t let the final touches hold you back from submitting, but do all you can and give it a very good last look. If you have your picture locked, the other details will be forgiven, but will need to be fixed before the screening.

3. Make ‘em Laugh!

A variety of human emotions of friends holding a cola and popcorn in the cinema.
Friends in the Cinema by Melnyk

Just as any stage actor will tell you, comedy is harder than drama. No disrespect to the tearjerkers and action flicks out there, of course — in fact, it’s because there are so many good non-comedies that a quick and light laugher is always sought after. The most programmable type of film is a 90-minute feature comedy or a 10-minute short comedy.

4. Consider Your TRT

Perspective macro shot of the display of the professional digital betacam video recorder. .Shallow dof. Visible data: timecode, VITC, Video input, composite
Digital Betacam Video Recorder by danr13

Try and stay out of the Dead Zone of 20-60 minutes. Shorts should be short — that means less than 20 minutes. Features should really be at least 60 minutes. The run times between 20-60 minutes fall into a dead zone which, though they may be great films, can make them tough to slot into a programmer’s schedule. Of course, if it’s an excellent film, the programmer will find a way, but you won’t be making it easy on them.

5. Start Small

CANNES, FRANCE - MAY 17, 2013: The Palais des Festivals during the ceremony 66th Cannes Film Festival on May 17, 2013 in Cannes, France. In 2013, the event takes place from May 15 to May 26.
Cannes Film Festival by gianliguori

You’ve got to start somewhere with submissions, but don’t start at the elite level. Don’t submit your first short to Cannes — start small and gain momentum from there if you’re a first-time filmmaker. Some larger festivals put a big emphasis on premieres, so if you really think you can break through, submit to these fests first and give them the opportunity for a premiere. Then if you’re unsuccessful, submit to the smaller ones.

6. Think Globally, Act Locally

Movie Theatre & Ticket Box
Exterior of a Retro Movie Theatre by jgroup

Supporting your local fest can also mean submitting your film. Pretty much no festival at any level actually turns a profit; they’re all dependent on donations and sponsorships. From your hometown fest at the local cineplex to elite festivals around the world, it’s expensive to show films, and ticket sales will not cover those costs alone. Festivals around the world need support by way of submissions, attendance, sponsorship, and in-kind offerings. Even if you wouldn’t consider submitting, still attend, if only to support your fellow filmmakers.

7. Screen Your Film Before Submitting

Family in living room with remote control and flat screen televi
Friends Watching a Movie by monkeybusinessimages

A fresh perspective from a trusted source is invaluable. Especially if you edited the film yourself, it’s incredibly important to screen the film for people you trust, and to gather feedback and opinions. Also try and screen the film for people you don’t know. They’ll be more likely to give you completely open and brutally honest notes, which are invaluable. This is why major Hollywood films have focus groups and test screenings.

8. Attend As Many Festivals As You Can

two tickets and spilled popcorn
Tickets and Popcorn by bakerjim

Any and all festivals. Go to your neighborhood festival, your regional fest — save up for your next vacation to be a fun, unique festival experience. Learn what they’re all about and be a part of that culture and celebration of art. You’ll meet fellow film lovers, programmers, and distributors, all of whom can enhance your experience and expand your knowledge base. I highly recommend the True/False Documentary Festival in Columbia, Missouri or the Telluride Film Festival in Telluride Colorado. These small-town fests offer the best cinema has to offer every year in charming locations without the pomp, crowds, or costs of a Sundance or Toronto.

9. Be a Passionate Promoter

Theatre Audience by caiapond5

If you’re submitting your film to festivals, you’re doing your own marketing, and that means networking and self-promotion. No one will be as big of an advocate of your work as you are. Arrive early, party late, and extend your stay. But stay away from this when submitting. Don’t send in a bunch of extra items or a fancy custom printed DVD or anything other than the film and relevant forms. Let the film speak for itself in the submissions process, then do your best to promote the film at the festival with your personality and enthusiasm. If you happen to bring an accompanying marketing item, make it small, useful, cool, and film-appropriate.

10. The Shorter, the Better

shadow of man working in front of colorbars monitor workstation
Color Bar Monitor Workstation by iamway

Oftentimes, filmmakers edit their own films, but if you can afford a good editor, get one. And cut that film down. We all have an inherent attachment to our own work, and that makes it hard to cut it down. We spend long hours shooting scenes and working with actors that are near and dear to us, and it’s difficult to have an unbiased opinion. We want to leave everything in, so we have a hard time recognizing expendability in our own work.
By submitting to film festivals, you’re doing just that: submission. You’re submitting to the judgments and opinions of others. You’re submitting your ideas, thoughts, hopes, and dreams to a body that is inherently judgmental. It’s their job to curate the best program possible. If your project is a part of that program, congratulations — you’ve been deemed worthy by that entity. If not, it apparently wasn’t a great fit for the program and it’s time to move on to the next opportunity. Don’t ever count on acceptance, no matter how great of a fit you think you are. What makes film so wonderful is its subjectivity and various interpretations.

And some words to remember: “Pick up a camera. Shoot something. No matter how small, no matter how cheesy, no matter whether your friends and your sister star in it. Put your name on it as director. Now you’re a director.” – James Cameron

Top image: Still from Friends Watching a Movie by kotlyarn