June 20, 2017

4 Ways to Get Your Film Accepted into Film Festivals

Mayfield
I did it, and so can you.

Entering your film into festivals can be a long and emotionally draining journey. As filmmakers, we pour our heart and soul into our films, and by submitting them into festivals we find ourselves in a very vulnerable place. 

Getting the Congratulations! email from a festival is an amazing feeling that can make your entire day if not your week. However, getting the Thanks for submitting but we had a lot of really good submissions this year email from a festival can be just as devastating.

“Festivals are looking to include films that make the programmers wonder, question, laugh, cry, or inspire.” 

I got plenty of both, so in honor of my short film Mayfield finally getting released online after a long year in the festival circuit, I'm going to share some of the things I've learned from being accepted into 20+ festivals and winning multiple awards. 

Before we get started, keep one thing in mind: getting accepted into film festivals doesn't make your film good and being rejected doesn't mean your film is bad. Whether you have finished your film already or are getting ready to shoot one with film festivals in mind, just remember there is an art to submitting to film festivals.

Mayfield

1. Have something to say

Film festivals aren't a place for mindless entertainment or (for the most part) a showcase of production value. Festivals are looking to include films that make the programmers wonder, question, laugh, cry, or inspire. Therefore, find your voice and have something important to say. It doesn’t have to be important to everyone, but it does have to be important to you.

If you're not evoking some sort of emotional response from the audience, your film probably isn't personal enough. The last thing you want is for your film to be forgettable and lukewarm. Even if a festival judge hates your film, that's ok because you evoked an emotional response. Sometimes it can be hard to read judges notes like this:

"...the constant repetitive tone of discouragement made it slow and lacking in dramatic development or reversals."

"There are passages that are repetitive and slow with lengthy visual pauses punctuated by a somber music score. Although, painful to watch at times, the sparse, dreamlike dynamic somehow works." 

No matter how harsh these criticisms might feel, nothing can top the feeling of someone actually connecting with your film on a deeper level and feeling that energy during a screening. Or another filmmaker coming up to you at a festival to tell you how you've moved them, inspired them, and made them reflect on their own life through your film. 

Saying something personal with your film puts you in a vulnerable position and opens you up to heartache, but comes with greater rewards.

Mayfield

2. Keep it short

This is a very bold and hypocritical statement coming from someone who made a 20-minute short film, but that doesn't mean I'm wrong! I'm going to dance a fine line here so let me put it as simply as I can. Make your film as long as it needs to be, but as short as possible.

Over and over again, I kept getting advice from people who hadn't even seen it yet to cut my film down to 8-12 minutes, because that's the sweet spot for festivals. While that might be the ideal length for a film festival, is it the right length for your film?

Film festivals program long shorts all the time, but they have to be really good because you're taking up slots they could fill with multiple works. If your 20-minute film takes up four 5 minute slots, the festival is potentially losing more filmmakers that could be promoting their festival. Multiple festivals reached out to me and let me know that they liked my film and wanted to program it, but they just couldn't find a slot for it because of its length.

If you haven't shot your film yet and are planning to enter festivals, make sure your script is dense and everything on the page is important. If you have shot your film already, don't sacrifice its quality in the edit just so you can try to get into festivals. Make sure you are self-aware and get second opinions from filmmakers you trust. My film was originally 26 minutes long; I cut it down as much as I felt comfortable with in the edit without sacrificing what I wanted to say.

“Smaller festivals give you a better chance of winning awards and sometimes cash prizes.”

3. Enter a lot of festivals early

Like most filmmakers, I wanted to get into the Holy Grail of film festivals—Sundance. Guess what? I didn't. You're most likely not going to get accepted into Sundance either and that's perfectly OK because their acceptance rate is less than 1% of submissions. Even 2016's Academy Award-winning short film Stutterer wasn't accepted into Sundance when it was submitted.

This is why you need to enter a lot of different festivals of all sizes. Big festivals can get thousands of quality short film submissions, but some of the small to mid-level festivals don't have such stiff competition and are still great to be a part of. Smaller festivals also give you a better chance of winning awards and sometimes cash prizes.

Entering festivals can get pretty expensive, usually running anywhere from $20-$60 per festival, so that's why you need to hit the Earlybird Deadline anytime you can. Not only are you going to pay less on your entry fee, but you have a better chance of getting accepted into the festival because it's much easier to build a schedule around your film than it is to squeeze your film into an existing lineup.

You also need to make sure your film is the right fit for the festival. You might be under the assumption that to get your film into a festival, it has to be pretentious and depressing, but that simply isn't true. No matter what your film is about or what genre it is, there is a film festival out there for you, so don't get caught up in only entering the big ones. Seek out festivals that would be a good fit for your film.

Mayfield

4. Find an interesting hook

Made your short film on a micro budget with limited to no crew? Yep, so did almost every other filmmaker submitting into that festival. Film festival programmers like to be wowed or at least intrigued. For my short film, we built two of our sets inside the garage of our lead actor's house, and we wrote about it here.

Not only does a good hook get the programmer excited to see your film, but they also have something to promote your film with—and therefore to promote the festival—on their social media platforms. It never hurts to supply the festival with more things to share with their audiences (behind the scenes photos, poster art, trailers, articles, etc).

A few more quick tips

  • Avoid Clichés. Does your film start with an alarm clock going off? Was someone dead the entire time? Is it the apocalypse? In the book How Not to Make a Short Film: Secrets from a Sundance Programmer, Roberta Marie Munroe gives a long list of clichés that festival programmers are tired of seeing.
  • Get good sound. People are more willing to forgive a film that is ugly over one they can't understand.
  • Don't give your actors material they can't handle. Find the weaknesses and strengths of your actors before filming, and give them material that will seem natural for them.
  • Use FilmFreeway. This is by far the easiest and best site to use when submitting films to festivals.

Most importantly, make the film you would want to see, and if people don't like it, so what? Festival programmers aren't the ultimate authority on the value of your film. So say something personal with heart, and say it loud.

Watch our entire film Mayfield below:

Your Comment

13 Comments

I entered 100 plus festivals with no success, and yes my film was thought provoking and dramatic, shot on less than $1000 with a crew of 2 including me, all at night, all in a car. Yes it was longer than 20 mins, not sure it mattered really. Not sure it was even watched...probably not.
I think it's the luck of the draw really when it comes down to Film Festivals.
If you have a named actor friend who is going to be in it for you then you already have half the battle won, if you don't then it's by chance.

June 20, 2017 at 12:22PM, Edited June 20, 12:22PM

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Paolo Mugnaini
Director/DP/Editor
114

I honestly think, of all the things a film festival selection is, it's not a 'luck of the draw' type of thing. It's not a lottery or a coin toss. They have a selection process in place for a reason.
If you entered 100+ festivals with no success maybe you shouldn't be blaming the festivals. Maybe the short is too long, too many slow parts, bad acting that can't be forgiven. I doubt over 100 festival programmers are all wrong. Just saying.

June 20, 2017 at 1:23PM

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Filmmagician
Writer/Director
62

Sorry to hear that! I know you decrease your chances of acceptance significantly by having a runtime over 20 min. Some festivals will actually give you notes on your film if you request them. Good way to identify what might not be working. I'd love to check out your film sometime!

June 20, 2017 at 1:31PM

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Zach Daulton
Director
91

My short has gotten into about 8 festivals so far this year, and even won some awards. we have no named actors and the short only cost about $500 for the production, and another $800 for the post. Maybe the issue isn't the festivals, but I guess it's easier to blame the world than to scrutinize your own project. Given your past body of work I do not doubt that your short was good at least on a technical level. Did you aim for the wrong types of festivals?

June 21, 2017 at 9:15AM, Edited June 21, 9:22AM

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Caleb E. Carrow
Director of Photography,
174

Lots of pointed fingers in your comment, we don't all work so hard on our creations for "luck of the draw". Better get some honest friends to tell you what they really think and you best open up them ears to hear the truth when it comes. The reason we're all paying for these entry fees is because a group of folks have to sift through thousands of entries and watch some of these awful films before finding the gems. Many contests will allow you to pay just to get feedback regardless if chosen or not, I suggest you pay to find out the disconnect that may be happening from someone who doesn't know you.

June 21, 2017 at 7:07PM

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drébaca
Writer- Director
8

And the most important: - #5 - Personally know a programmer or be representated by agency like WME or UTA and make sure your film is actually considered.

June 20, 2017 at 1:08PM

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Doesn't hurt! Especially for the bigger festivals. I actually didn't know any programmers or represented by an agency and was still able to get in some festivals. It's hard to know whether or not the bigger festivals actually watch all the submissions.

June 20, 2017 at 1:28PM

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Zach Daulton
Director
91

You wrote a thoughtful article, wasn't trying to diminish it. All good points. But definitely believe that biggest festivals need a referral. Way of life and understandable.

June 20, 2017 at 3:41PM

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Thank you for your thoughts and your beautiful film. Our projects are so entwined with our identities and our hopes, it's pretty crushing to receive all those rejections and hard to separate them from our feelings of self-worth. I'd like to add that if you believe in what you are doing, find other ways to get your work seen. Don't rely on the gatekeepers to invite you to the table (sorry for the mixed metaphor). I personally work with galleries, museums, art spaces and organizations, and have created my own events which drew bigger crowds than the festivals that I screened in. I haven't "made it" yet but I'm certainly not putting that in the hands of other people.

June 20, 2017 at 3:11PM, Edited June 20, 3:12PM

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David Scott Kessler
Director, DP, Editor
79

As much as I appreciate the article on festivals, I really just want to chime in and say very well done to everyone involved with the short film. I just watched it and cried. It's a beautiful piece.

June 20, 2017 at 7:44PM

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Samuel Neff
DP / Editor
688

Thank you so much! That means a lot to me.

June 20, 2017 at 9:48PM

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Zach Daulton
Director
91

interesting tips

June 21, 2017 at 6:30AM

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Jimmy Braun
Meow Essay writer
1

The short is great! Bravo!

June 22, 2017 at 10:51AM

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Abdel El Asri
Director
13