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Why Short Films Are Rejected from Festivals and Reasons You Should Make a Short Before a Feature

03.6.13 @ 10:08AM Tags : , , , ,

You finished your short film and it’s the perfect calling card. It embodies you as a director: your range of styles, the twists and turns of your scriptwriting skills, and your ability to create high production value on pennies. In short, you’ve made it awesome. Unfortunately, the programmers at your favorite film festival disagree. You cry on your keyboard, eat a roll of raw cookie dough, and shout “Why?!” to no one in particular. Maybe that’s a tad dramatic (or is it?) but nevertheless, I think everybody can agree that it’s frustrating not being able to find out why your film got chopped. In the videos below, HollyShorts Film Festival Co-Founder Daniel Sol talks about why shorts might get rejected from a festival, goes into detail about how they program their festival, and mentions why you might want to make a short before a feature.

Thanks to Film Courage for these videos, here is Daniel Sol giving an honest and candid explanation of some aspects that might knock your short out of the running:

Sol seems to suggest that in the short film realm, a tendency to try to fit in too much can really mess with the story — and ultimately, story is king. Sol’s points:

…people are trying to showcase their abilities in many different ways instead of just staying true to the one story you need to tell. You are dealing with a short film, short content.  Feature films can have that type of texture, you can go longer, and into backstory. When it comes to a short, you’re not making a feature, you don’t have that kind of luxury.

It sounds obvious, but staying true to the story in something as brief as 5 minutes is extremely difficult, especially when there’s an industry notion that a short should be a filmmaker’s calling card. In case you’re now racked with self-doubt about whether your recently-made-short has gone astray, I made this handy-dandy litmus test of festival potential based on Sol’s comments. Do you:

  • Describe your short as a mix of impossible genres, say “Requiem for a dream” meets “Meet the Fockers”?
  • Have a 1 minute opening title sequence in your 5 minute film?
  • Fear that while making your short superbly awesome, your story got lost?

If you answered yes to any of the above, your film probably has a greater chance of being rejected by the festival circuit. Of course, there are always other reasons for a rejection, as Sol points out in the subsequent Film Courage clips. He also goes into detail about how they program the HollyShorts festival:

As he says above, your film may not fit in with a festival’s particular program that year. There are also other basic reasons you may never have thought of: the DVD got stuck in the player because of your paper label, or the intern watching it was hungover. It’s a perilous journey.

In the last clip, Karen Worden mentions our own Ryan Koo’s Manchild project, and his choice to make a short before the feature. Daniel explains why this is a good idea, and why you might want to think about doing it with your next short:

The HollyShorts Film Festival has two deadlines coming up, so if you’ve got a film that fits the guidelines Daniel mentions above, the Regular Deadline is April 12th with a $50
 entry fee, and the Late Deadline is May 24th at $60

What do you guys think about good storytelling in the short film format? Do you agree with Daniel? Does it take different abilities to pull off a short over a feature?And what do you do, other than cry, when your short gets rejected from that festival you had your heart set on?



We’re all here for the same reason: to better ourselves as writers, directors, cinematographers, producers, photographers... whatever our creative pursuit. Criticism is valuable as long as it is constructive, but personal attacks are grounds for deletion; you don't have to agree with us to learn something. We’re all here to help each other, so thank you for adding to the conversation!

Description image 36 COMMENTS

  • This is really interesting! Thanks a bunch, more post like this!!
    I’m actually just started research and sent to a few Festival my new short film called “FISH HEADS”.
    You may have a look at the trailer if you’re interested:

  • Just reading the cost of entry to the festival & having been applying to many festivals lately – It’s really shameful how expensive majority of American festivals are to apply to. Really scandalous.

    • I should say though that I thoroughly enjoyed the post :)

    • Oakley Anderson-Moore on 03.6.13 @ 5:09PM

      I know what you mean. I feel like you have to be really sure a festival is worth going to in order to justify coughing up the $$$ (or €€€ or £££). I mean, we’re independent filmmakers, naturally we have no money! ;)

      • I actually just started a film festival called, “Awesome Film Festival” – applications are $250. Sure to have the best of the best!

        • Oakley Anderson-Moore on 03.6.13 @ 11:21PM

          Haha. Well that sounds like a deal…I just hope it’s also somewhere really far away and you insist that filmmakers pay their own expenses to get there!

    • john jeffreys on 03.7.13 @ 1:39AM

      withoutabox has search options that filter festivals by price, and there are HUNDREDS that are 15 dollars or less. Also, there is a blog covered on here a week or so ago that covers free festivals

      • No doubt there’s plenty of free festivals, on reel & shortfilmdepot etc. but the worthy festivals all seem to charge $50-80 for a short entry. It’s the ‘worthy’ ones that count.

    • Shameful is right and God forbid you send in that $50 all so a hungover intern can reject it. I highly suggest watching the documentary Official Rejection. Shines a light on the scam that is most film festivals.

  • I’ve actually been told by past festival runners that they prefer films that are short – if you’re pushing 12 minutes or more, they’re less likely to take them on because:

    -longer runtimes = less films to show
    -less films = fewer filmmakers showcased = lower ticket sales to a production’s family and friends

    I’m positive that if it’s an outstanding film, they’re open to showcasing it, but the logic above that was described to me by a couple of sources makes a lot of sense as well.

  • I didn’t know anyone got rejected from Hollyshorts. It didn’t seem like it from the screening I went to at least.

    • In what regards? HollyShorts had over 1000 submissions and only accepted/showed 320 of them? A lot were rejected or asked to screen during their monthly screening sessions, which they have during the off months of the festival. HSFF believes in showcasing quality work, not just taking filmmakers money for the sake of it. If you’ve ever been rejected from the festival, you receive an email explaining and asking you if you’re interested in showing your work at a later date. How many fests do that? Kudos to Daniel for sharing some information about the behind the scenes process. Looking forward to this year’s fest!

      • I think he’s joking that the quality wasn’t really there. I haven’t been there so I can’t personalyl. It’s not an easy job programming films. I saw some amazing shorts at Slamdance in 2012. Some that blew me away so much I contacted the directors to tell them how much I loved them.

  • The guy raises a lot of important points. I learned the hard way.

    My graduating Short Film, a “Superhero Drama” shot on Super16, was simply too big for its shoes. The Short Film format is very, very different to the Feature Film format and is, in some ways, harder to execute. You just simply do not have the time for multiple characters, extensive back story and sub plots. I’m currently working on a few scripts at the moment, and most of the time I’m asking myself “Is this getting too big?” Just focus on telling a great story in the time that you have.

  • Maybe Hollywood Shorts is different, and I’m sure SunDance and certain other festivals have their merits.

    But I’m wondering why I should actually PAY to submit my film to any festival. Like, ever.

    I’ve seen the trash that wins regional film festivals; often times they look like student films. Interviews with the rapping cowboy and his family.. “Best in Show!” at Atlanta Film fest. really? I couldn’t watch more than 5 minutes without turning away.

    My “local” film festival told me quite plainly “local films aren’t the draw here”, as they took an identical film from another state.

    Many, many film festivals will only accept content through WithoutABox, and I don’t down-sample my 4K timelapse work to the 640 pixels that will fit onto the DVD format.

    Who is doing who the favor here? Why should I even bother submitting to film festivals anymore, when they so clearly resent my efforts to share my work?

    My philosophy now is to only care about a film festival if my film has been invited. I didn’t realize what a big deal it was to have my film invited to the Vermont Film Festival, otherwise I would have made a grand effort to attend in person.

    This thing should be the other way ’round. Why would I pay them to reject my film? Why would I pay them to accept my film, either? Aren’t they charging admission at the door? Wait, so they’re charging the filmmakers and the audience?

    Yeah, maybe I just don’t get it. I’ll take 100,000 views from Gizmodo over winning just about any festival except for SunDance or Cannes. At least I don’t have to pay Gizmodo for sharing my video!

    • Right on. The festivals are scams.

    • You pay them for labor basically.

      Why pay the mechanic to find out what’s wrong with your car, if he ends up telling you nothing is wrong with it?

      Labor. Simple as that really.

    • Hello Daniel, you said you would take 100,000 views on Gizmodo than paying a festival to get your your film screened. That said isn’t the reason most film makes submit their film to festivals is to get it seen in hopes to receive exposure or recognition?

      I personally have performed in some films (shorts included) that I never saw or they never got seen outside my local area.

      How did you get invited to the Vermont Festival? Was it due to the success of your project on Gizmodo?

  • I would think that films with bad sound (kinda like in these videos) would probably raise a flag.

  • I’ve been thinking about and studying this a lot lately because I’m trying to decide on my next project. I think the way to go with shorts is to come up with all that backstory, and just hint at it.

    Look at the last episode of The Walking Dead (“Clear”). IMO one of the best episodes they’ve had and an example of what I mean. Without getting into spoilers, the most compelling parts were two people talking. (one actor was particularly great). They talked about things that happened in the past, things that you would have seen if you had been watching the show from the beginning, but you didn’t feel lost. In fact I think it was MORE compelling because there were no flashbacks and your brain was engaged.

  • I’m still curious to hear from Koo, what happens if the short doesn’t turn out well? For whatever reason it doesn’t connect or the performances just don’t do it, etc..

    You basically have almost no chance of making the feature at that point or raising further money.

    Granted you’ll still have the $90,000 to make your film, but as you’ve eluded to, that’s not going to be enough to make the feature.

    Just curious if you’ve thought of that aspect? Not to be a complete pessimist, but was just curious because I had your idea of making a short based off a feature and was talked out of it by producers who said if the short doesn’t work, kiss the feature good bye.

  • Film shorts are very similar to movie trailers except with condensed continuity. I’ve had decent luck using that concept. Start fast, build, keep it severely focused and end with a nail-biting teaser. Always ensure production quality is top notch. For credits (if they’re required by contract), put them on the paper label attached to the outside of the protective case. Use a magic marker to identify whatever media is used so it can be ID’d if separated from the protective case. As for budget, ensure a fair amount is spent on quality editing. Sure, it’s hard — but it’s not impossible.

  • Yeah my film is nearing 26 minutes and I’ve even submitted it to ones that have the 45 minute cap and I’ve even been rejected by those. Two of my film’s actors got nominated for the Young Artist Awards for their performances in my film and I’ve barely heard any negative feedback from anyone I’ve shown the film to and the film is even streaming on a major Hollywood producer’s website. Yet, it’s been rejected from every festival entered. It’s part of the game I guess. I’ve been told by other filmmakers that the festival circuit is worthless now and the best way to show your film is online to get noticed. Has anyone else gone this route?

  • This guy is talking rubbish. 9/10 most festivals have already preselected shorts before they even declare any deadlline. I know this as I have had films selected even before any deadline was announced. This is know in festival terms as an invitation. Also, the big corporate events normally select shorts that are associated with company’s which normally fund the festival. y best advice if you are making an independent short is to research free festivals and email them a months (If not a year) before the festival and make them aware of the film. Only pay money if they offer to screen your film, otherwise it is not worth your while to submit as not only is that burning money from your pocket but most likely the festival has already preselected its shorts. This is done to make sure the festival to make a profit incase there is a low turnout in submissions.

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