May 9, 2017

How to Make Sure Film Festivals Actually Watch Your Movie — And Hold Them Accountable

A filmmaker proved a festival lied about watching his movie. He got his money back. 

[Editor's Note: No Film School asked Chris Suchorsky to write about his experience figuring out how to track which festivals watched his screeners—and holding them accountable.]

Submitting to film festivals is an exciting and miserable experience all rolled into one. There’s a moment of joy and relief when you hit that submit button, and total depression when you get that short email that starts with, "Thank you so much for allowing us to view [INSERT FILM TITLE WE DON’T WANT]...."

Being accepted to film festivals is an entirely different experience. I like to tell the story of the time a top North American film festival rejected my film in 2007, only to send me an email eleven months later that said, “Hey, so-and-so (famous musician) said we should check out your film. Can we see it?” I almost called them out on their bullshit, but instead bit my tongue and threw a DVD in an envelope with a copy of the email. Three weeks later, I received my acceptance letter to the film festival that had rejected me a year earlier.

What’s the moral of the story? It really helps to have an advocate or inside person to help your film along its festival run.

Three weeks later, I received my acceptance letter to the film festival that had rejected me a year earlier.

When I began submitting to film festivals in 2003, filmmakers were required to send a VHS tape of screeners. (For the millennials out there, a VHS tape was a big black plastic box that magically played a low-resolution copy of films, television shows, and homemade pornography.) Making these copies was an exhausting experience: you played your film through a miniDV player, hit record on a VHS deck, and watched paint dry as you duped tape after tape. The worst part of the experience was that there was no proof that anyone at these film festivals was actually watching the result of these endless hours of tape-making. 

A year later, I met actor Vic Argo (Taxi DriverMean Streets). He told me that any time he was asked to be a programmer at a festival, he was handed a pile of VHS tapes and sent to a room with a note that said, "Watch the first five minutes. If it sucks, throw it away." This didn’t reassure me that my time as a filmmaker was well spent.

Credit: Chris Suchorsky

In 2007, I made my first feature-length film. The process of submitting screeners had transformed from VHS tapes to DVDs. This was a bit easier. I programmed a DVD on my computer and would burn a copy every time I submitted to a festival. Still, there was no way of knowing whether or not my film was getting a fair shot at playing said festival. 

Around this time, I met a successful director who had played Sundance in 2005, won multiple MTV Music Video Awards, and would later go on to be a very successful television producer. He was really impressed with my film and wanted to help me get into festivals. During our first conversation, he asked if I had already submitted to one of the “premiere festivals” in the country. When I told him yes, his response was, "Oh damn…if I'd met you sooner, I could’ve walked it in the door and, at the very least, made sure someone watched it. It’s kind of a boy’s club over there. You need to know someone." Yikes.

My filmed ended up having a very successful festival run, but I was never able to crack the illustrious Top 10 (Sundance, SXSW, Tribeca, TIFF, etc). This process of submitting "blind" took its toll on me—so much that I didn’t finish another film for 10 years. There are only so many times you can have the door slammed in your face before you begin to ponder your life and the career choices you’ve made.

What if I sent private screeners to particular film festivals and made sure they were watching my film?

That brings us to three months ago. I recently locked picture on my second feature-length documentary, A Shot in the Dark, about a blind high school wrestler attempting to win a New Jersey State Championship. I was in search of a big premiere and needed to get back in the game. My Withoutabox account hadn’t been opened in nine years and I had no idea what FilmFreeway was. When I began to fill out the submission forms, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the festivals had moved over to online screeners. No longer did I have to dupe tapes or burn DVDs! I could simply send a link to a private screener and be done with it.

With that said, this new process also gave me an idea: What if I sent private screeners to particular film festivals and made sure they were watching my film? I upgraded to a Vimeo Pro account and began to bask in the glory of tracking analytics. 

This process was easy for film festivals that require you submit through their website, like SXSW and Hot Docs. I would fill out the forms and send them private, password-protected links to my film with titles such as “A SHOT IN THE DARK - SX” or “A SHOT IN THE DARK - HD.” I could go into my Vimeo account, open the SX link, and not only make sure that SXSW watched the film, but also see how long they watched the film for. 

Credit: Chris Suchorsky

I had to get creative with festivals that only allow submissions through Withoutabox and/or FilmFreeway. The LA Film Fest only accepts submissions through FilmFreeway, for example, so that was an easy one: I submitted to LAFF through FilmFreeway, gave the screener a unique title that included “LA,” and password-protected it. I didn’t use FilmFeeway for any other festival. As for festivals that only accept through Withoutabox, I had to set up a single screener for multiple festivals to view. I was still able to track their viewing habits through Vimeo’s analytic system that comes with a Pro account; if my password-protected Vimeo link was viewed, I would simply go into “See all video stats” and then click “View more > Dashboard.” This brings up analytics that include the city the screener was viewed from, which app was used, and for how long the person watched the film. So if I submitted to a handful of festivals and saw that someone in San Jose watched the film for 97 minutes on their desktop, I knew that the film was viewed in its entirety by someone at Cinequest. If it was viewed in Seattle, I knew SIFF was watching it; if it was viewed in DC or the suburbs of Virginia, I knew AFI DOCS was watching my film.

This also gave me insight into festivals that were interested in my film and those that were not. If you know anything about the festival process, the first screening of any blind submission goes to a low-level screener who then gives it the “OK” to be sent up the ladder to someone who is important. When I submitted to Tribeca, someone watched my film from beginning to end. A few days later, someone watched the film again, but they only watched the first hour. That led me to believe that the intern at Tribeca dug the film, passed it up the ladder, and the higher-level screener wasn’t a fan and/or they had to stop the film because their kid needed to go to soccer practice and maybe they would watch it later that day. Two weeks later, the screener was stuck at 1.5 plays. It was at that point I realized I was dead at Tribeca.

You should never throw your money away on a festival that has no intention of ever watching your film.

What’s funny about this story is that after I launched my Kickstarter—around the same time I was submitting to festivals—a high-profile sales agent reached out to me and asked what the plan was for my festival run. I told her I was waiting to hear from Tribeca, but that I thought we were dead in the water. She simply said, “I’ll call them.” A few days later, the film was viewed again in its entirety. That brings me back to one of my earlier points: It’s good to know the right people.

Over the last three months, I’ve been surprised to learn that the majority of festivals have been watching the film. It’s become a bit of an obsession; I check every morning to see if my film has been viewed and who is watching it. I have to tip my hat to some of the larger festivals, like SXSW, Full Frame, and the LA Film Fest. All of these festivals have watched my film a number of times. LAFF has watched it around 10 times.

On the other hand, there was one festival that really surprised me. I won’t name names, but it is a large North American documentary festival that is known for playing a lot of Sundance, SXSW, and Tribeca premieres. It’s essentially the second stop after your premiere; they even state in their rejection letter, in so many words, that there are very few spots available due to all the films they play from other festivals. Regardless of this questionable business practice, this festival is a good name to have on your poster. So I submitted in mid-December. It took the festival a month to watch my film—and they only watched the first 21 minutes, never to play it again.

For the last seven weeks, I’ve been waiting for this particular rejection letter. Yesterday, I got it.

What really bothered me about the rejection letter was one simple phrase: “Please be assured that all submissions were considered thoroughly and thoughtfully.”

I sat there for an hour staring at that phrase. I had the proof that they did not consider my film “thoroughly and thoughtfully.” I pondered the consequences of calling this high-profile festival out on their BS. This is one of those moments where veterans of the festival circuit tell you not to burn bridges, but after 14 years of filmmaking, I’ve been biting my tongue for too long.

I took a few screen grabs of my Vimeo analytics that prove the film was viewed only once and that a 97-minute film was played for less than 21 minutes. I went to the festival website and found the Programming Director’s email, along with emails of the President and Executive Director of the Festival. I wrote them the following email:

Hi [Programming Director’s Name],

I just received my rejection from [Name of Festival]. In the email below, it states that “all submissions were considered thoroughly and thoughtfully.” I submitted my film, A SHOT IN THE DARK, on December 12th, 2016. It was viewed only once on January 12th and was watched for 20 minutes and 56 seconds. My film is 97 minutes long. I’ve included screen grabs from the private password protected link only [Name of Festival] had access to. I don’t see a 21-minute viewing of a 97-minute film as a “thorough and thoughtful” consideration. I’d appreciate it if you could refund my submission fee of ($XX.XX USD).

Sincerely,

Chris Suchorsky

Honestly, I never thought I’d hear back. But less than 24 hours later, I got a response from the Director of Programming:

Hi Chris,
 Thanks for your message, and for bringing this to my attention.
 We can refund your submission fee and will start that process today.
 Thank you,

[Programming Director’s Name]

I appreciate this response and am grateful that, in some way, the festival is righting their wrong by refunding my submission fee. But to my dismay, there was no apology, no admission of wrongdoing, and no offer to actually watch the film.

So, what’s the moral of the story as a filmmaker? You have a responsibility to your investors, your backers, and your personal checkbook to make sure your money is being spent wisely. You have to accept the fact that your film will be rejected by film festivals. There are limited numbers of slots to screen films and not every film is right for every festival. But with that said, you should never throw your money away on a festival that has no intention of ever watching your film. Get someone to advocate for your film from the inside.

And the takeaway if you’re running a film festival? Just because Alex Gibney or Judd Apatow didn’t hand-deliver a film to your door doesn’t mean the little guys should be overlooked.      

Your Comment

28 Comments

That's a fucking incredible trailer.

May 9, 2017 at 2:41PM

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Max Masters Fry
Writer
74

Indeed that´s an amazing trailer

May 9, 2017 at 3:20PM

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Nicolas Gril
DP
20

I know it's hard to read tone in internet comments, so I want to clarify that this is just a sincere question I'd be curious to hear people's thoughts on: do you think the called out festival would ever consider taking one of Chris's future films if someone with clout or an inside connection was vouching for him, or do you think he's been blacklisted by the called-out festival?

May 9, 2017 at 2:42PM

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Daniel Shar
Writer/Director
187

My first thought as I was reading this was, "this guy will never play that festival again." Maybe I'm wrong but I think festivals like most other institutions have their own agenda and standing where we're all standing as filmmakers, we'll probably never know what that agenda is. I think what this filmmaker did for his own peace of mind was smart. I'm just not sure if I would have called them out on it. The fact that they never apologized for not watching it kinda says it all, no?

I'd also like to add that the film looks excellent.

May 9, 2017 at 3:29PM, Edited May 9, 3:32PM

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William Speruzzi
Writer | Director
29

Yes, I forgot to mention that I also loved this trailer and look forward to seeing this movie whenever it becomes available.

May 9, 2017 at 3:54PM

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Daniel Shar
Writer/Director
187

Love this post, the trailer is fantastic. This movie is bigger than the wannabe gatekeepers at the festivals. Keep up the awesome work.

May 9, 2017 at 3:39PM

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Nick
283

What I took from this is, if you don't have access to someone to champion your film from the inside, you're throwing away your money. So now we need an article that tells us how to accomplish that little trick. It comes as no surprise really. The entertainment business has always been an old boyz club and the little man has never had any real chance. There are the exceptions that get through but in reality, they are the few not the many. The UK is the worst for this, there's a reason most of our big stars talk with a plum in their mouth.

May 9, 2017 at 3:47PM, Edited May 9, 3:47PM

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John Stockton
Film maker, Editor, Photographer.
314

Right on.

May 9, 2017 at 3:48PM

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Terrell Lamont
Director, Director of Photography
351

Boy, this is so tempting, to want to track all of this. I've been going through this lately, trying to figure out if I'm just tossing my film into a black hole or if people are watching. Part of the trouble with this though is that nowadays I'd guess someone in a different city could be watching for a festival. I had people view mine in Indiana, but never submitted anywhere near that state, so who knows what that was.

May 9, 2017 at 4:42PM, Edited May 9, 4:42PM

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Thomas R. Wood
Director
1

Amazing trailer. and great way to find out if festivals watch your movie or not. I made the mistake of sending the same link to all festivals, so I wasn't able to track each festival submissions.

May 9, 2017 at 4:48PM

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Saj Adibs
Director of Photography
16

As someone who's part of a team that watches a lot of online screeners, you need to know that the reported view metrics aren't 100% accurate. Each video hosting service is different, but any number of things can happen that can lead to a dropped play event from being logged. Things like a temporary internet connection loss, a service error, or watching a film offline, or starting a video on one device and continuing on another. Vimeo and YouTube may show you a specific number (9,457) but know that it's always +/- a few %.

If it happens once or twice, it may just be chance. If it happens consistently over and over again, then it's safe to suspect foul play.

May 9, 2017 at 4:49PM

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They aren't 100 percent accurate. But do yourself a favor and enter a film into a number of festivals. The trends you'll see in your analytics is beyond suspicion and indicative of FF industry wide scam.

June 24, 2017 at 4:07PM

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Tim Naylor - DP
Director of Photography
169

Meanwhile, anyone know any good short film "advocates?"

May 9, 2017 at 4:54PM

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Thomas R. Wood
Director
1

I have found that it is even worse for short films. By using the same methods of tracking mentioned above, we have many intstances with your little film "Emma" where it was never watched and we never recieved "dear filmmaker" letter either. This seemed to be a more common occurance with the bigger film festivals. As the author points out you really need to find a "friend" at these festivals to have a chance. Sad but true...

May 9, 2017 at 5:02PM, Edited May 9, 5:02PM

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Howard Lukk
Writer/Director
46

So was it Toronto or Telluride? Don't let the rest of us waste our money on bogus festivals...

May 9, 2017 at 5:18PM, Edited May 9, 5:18PM

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BD
418

How sad that there the "bad apples" are giving honest Film Festivals a bad rap. All of our Programmers are required to sign an agreement to watch submissions in their entirety. And every submission gets 5 views/reviews that are individually weighted - these then decide the outcomes for acceptances/rejections. In the end fractions of points separate who gets in and who gets left out. We are limited by total number of days and screening time at our venues - and excellent films always get declined solely because of this fact.

May 9, 2017 at 7:03PM

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Erika Tucker
Senior Programmer
14

I've looked at the analytics on my Vimeo pro for my submissions. The Bad Apples far out number the good. The level is of scandalous proportions. After accounting for the thousands of submissions the scam is easily in the millions. It will bust sooner or later. I think WAB and Freeway or a new submission platform should offer services that track the viewing habits of screeners. Which ever one does it first will get support of filmmakers. But don't expect much from Film Freeway. My film was invited to an Academy Eligible FF in NYC that was poorly run. After giving it the reviews it deserved, Freeway, still displays their reviews as five star. In short, WAB and Freeway are in the business of generating as many fees as possible. It's not in their interest to be anything other than complicit in this scam.

June 24, 2017 at 4:04PM

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Tim Naylor - DP
Director of Photography
169

This is disheartening news to read. I see the power of Vimeo analytics for tracking purposes, but who's to say that a film is still being viewed in its entirety ? That is, you provide a special password and Vimeo tracks it, but the viewer brings in a personal laptop to surf the net, takes a long break, takes a nap or works on their personal projects and still claim they watched your full length in its entirety. Unless there's a live-cam watching them I don't see how this can be proven.

All this has convinced me to become more involved as a volunteer at festivals. I worked a festival last year and found some of their "practices" down right misleading.

May 9, 2017 at 8:46PM

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Very nice trailer. It looks a promising movie. The movie released or not? Where can I watch the full version?

May 9, 2017 at 11:58PM

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Nachhatar Singh
Screen Writer/ Director/Actor
112

That was amazing! Thank you for this. I only have video plus but may upgrade if it will help. I'm not sure though, since we have the same link up on film freeway, how can we tell who is watching it? I can't change the link every single time we submit, or is that I should do ?? Thanks so much.

May 10, 2017 at 12:38AM

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Victoria Sampson
Writer/Director/Film and Sound Editor (really!)
16

I will name names!
Hotdocs guys. It's Hotdocs.

May 10, 2017 at 4:11AM, Edited May 10, 4:11AM

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Bil Hem
filmmaker
1

The trailer is crazy good!!

May 10, 2017 at 4:49AM, Edited May 10, 4:49AM

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Eva Gilbert
Writer
74

Is this available on-demand anywhere? After watching that trailer, I'm definitely keen to watch it.

May 10, 2017 at 10:23AM

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Mike Rowe
Writer
11

This is in keeping with a lot of what i have heard. Raindance are notorious for not watching peoples submissions.

May 12, 2017 at 11:47AM

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chris
274

Note to festival programmers: if you don't like the film, just keep it running and leave the room until it's over, or mute it in another window as you work :)

May 12, 2017 at 1:36PM

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I have a friend who does exactly this. Everytime he submits to a festival, he does so with a new unique password-protected vimeo link. He's definitely found that some festivals do NOT give your films the attention they claim they do.

May 12, 2017 at 7:12PM, Edited May 12, 7:12PM

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David West
Writer/Director/Cinematographer/Editor
745

Yep, seen it, been there, done that. I'm indie filmmaker with 8 features.
Past 2 years been 'spying' on viewing from festival I had PAID to see my film (via Vimeo, or Cinando).
About 20% never even opened the link, about 60% watched a few minutes of it, the rest actually saw it.
I wrote to each one of them to show for their scam, and some gave me my submission money back. Many didn't.
It's a modern day scam: too many films out there, too good an opportunity to make money from dreaming indie directors.
I've now completely given up on submitting to festivals - other than free ones, and ones that offer waivers. Again, it is a generalized scam.

Btw, I also sent a major US festival a film one year, that got rejected. Sent it again the next year with a different title and got chosen, and won 5th highest voted public vote in the festival.
Ivan Noel

May 13, 2017 at 1:34PM, Edited May 13, 1:36PM

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NFS should run a deeper investigative piece on FF's as whole. I've done a similar examination of my Vimeo analytics and concluded that the number of FF's that don't look at your film or partially is scandalous and fraud on huge scale. Considering the thousands of submissions, the amounts of fraud is quite possibly in the millions. Short films by virtue of their huge numbers provide the grist for the submission fee mills. This could make an interesting subject for a documentary.

June 24, 2017 at 3:56PM

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Tim Naylor - DP
Director of Photography
169