6 Do's and Don'ts for Submitting to Film Festivals, According to Programmers

Here's what to do — and what not to do — to improve your film festival chances, straight from the horse's mouth. 

A panel at SXSW 2016 hosted by Dan Brawley of North Carolina's Cucalorus Film Festival was zinging with useful information about the state of curation, festival secrets, and tips for filmmakers. Here are some essential pieces of advice from the people whose very job it is to curate your film. 

"In an oversaturated market, you have to be really specific."

1. DO: Be specific about your film's hook

Don't say things that apply to every independent film ever. Nobody has money, nobody has stars — these are not selling points. 

Instead, it's helpful to think about describing your film with three terms: First, only, and last. The example given in the room was by Film Festival Secrets author Christopher Holland: "If your film is the first film by a blind nun, that's what gets attention at first."

If your film has a unique hook, use it. If it is, for example, the only film made at a specific location, or the last film utilizing an actor before they passed away, the hook will help programmers remember your project.

2. DO: Tell the festival what's in it for them

If you can, send materials or information about how you think the film will be received, or what you would do at the premiere if it's programmed. Show them the work you've done in terms of audience engagement. The festivals want to know: Is there an audience for this film? Qualify the kind of attention your film could bring to the specific festival to which you're applying.

"A filmmaker's enthusiasm can have an impact on how we view their work. A lot of it depends on how you reach out."

3. DO: Reach out

Reaching out to festivals is important, and though most programmers will tell you it doesn't help or hurt your chances, it does impact your chances in some nebulous ways. If you can get a programmer to remember you, or pass your film to a programmer who will respond to your work, it's all part of the intangible process of how curation works.

BrawleyI love it when filmmakers reach out to us. Not that it will change our minds, but a filmmaker's enthusiasm can have an impact on how we view their work.

Roya Rastegar (LA Film Festival): I think it is important to reach out, but I don't think it affects your chances in any way. 

4. But DON'T: Tell your life story, or forget to ask for a waiver

Nobody wants to hear your life story in an email. And don't send an email to multiple people on one team. 

Brawley: A lot of it depends on how you reach out. If you send me a long, long email with a bio of your 2nd A.D. and everything you've ever done and awards you've won, I'm not gonna read it. If you send me something funny, a picture of a cat eating your dog's poop, I'll be like yeah, let's get this guy to the festival. That's just me.

Rastegar: [Send me] three to five bullet points only. Answer simple questions: is it a World Premiere? Make it personal, brief, and always ask for a waiver. If a filmmaker asks for a waiver, I'm [usually] like, "Here you go." Always ask — one time. 

"[Thinking your film is bad because it didn't get in] is like leaving a grocery store and saying everything you didn't buy in there is shit. That's crazy, right?"

5. DON'T: Not submit just because you're a minority filmmaker

On paper, it looks like there aren't that many women or people of color making films. Of course, in reality, that's not true — a lot of these people just aren't submitting to festivals. As more and more organizations make it a part of their mission to elevate under-represented voices, know that you have to put yourself in front of those festivals for the equation to work. Sure, everybody submits to Sundance — it's like a lottery — but there are plenty of other festivals, like the LA Film Festival, that are looking for you.

6: DON'T: Get discouraged if you're not accepted

There are so many films, but only so many festival screening slots. Brawley gave an apt picture of a flooded market.

Brawley[Thinking your film is bad because it didn't get in] is like leaving a grocery store and saying everything you didn't buy in there is shit. That's crazy, right? There's a lot of good stuff in there, but you can't buy it all, you can't eat it all. The worst thing that happens in my mind is when a filmmaker doesn't get accepted and they unleash a social media barrage saying it was the most important thing in their life and they can't believe they didn't get in. I'm thinking, "Why did you wait until now to tell us that?"

For more, see our complete coverage of the 2016 SXSW Film Festival. Listen to our podcasts from SXSW (or subscribe in iTunes):

No Film School's coverage of the 2016 SXSW Film Festival is sponsored by SongFreedom    

Main article photo credit: Kenneth Lu, Flickr Creative Commons

Your Comment


My biggest take from submitting my documentary film to festivals. Only submit to the large film festivals. There are the only ones that will allow you to make a deal and reach an audience. All the other film festival are just making money out of your film... Which is money you could be making for yourself. For example I had been accepted to the SF Docfest in San Francisco. They filled the room three times with my film. It was the most seen film at the festival. That's 750 tickets sold. About $12 each. You do the math... I showed my film on my own after that, abs managed 135 screenings, all sold out. It was a blast... No rewards from unknown full festivals... But it covered my cost for the film and a lot more.

March 22, 2016 at 1:03PM, Edited March 22, 1:03PM


The sad truth is, the real way to guarantee acceptance to a festival is A) to have recognizable actors in your cast, or B) to have a prior connection to the festival or programmers, whether it means having a film there before (such as a short), going through some festival-sponsored program (like the Sundance labs), or getting an intro/recommendation to a programmer through someone who has a connection to them. Not that I'm complaining - far from it. It just helps to recognize how the game works before trying to play it :) Plus, I'm sure none of these things mentioned above would hurt, either!

March 22, 2016 at 2:40PM

Oren Soffer
Director of Photography

Read "Behind the Screens." These programmers explain how they choose films -- and the mistakes many filmmakers make. http://www.amazon.com/Behind-Screens-Programmers-Reveal-Festivals/dp/147...

March 22, 2016 at 3:13PM


"If you send me something funny, a picture of a cat eating your dog's poop, I'll be like yeah, let's get this guy to the festival." Is he serious?! This is the kind of person that determines if your film deserves to be in a festival. It's important to remember that many festival programmers are no more qualified to judge the merit of your film than a middle schooler who watches youtube videos all day. To be honest, I don't know what "qualifies" someone to be a programmer, but apparently it doesn't take much.

March 22, 2016 at 3:24PM, Edited March 22, 3:27PM

Warren Bros.
Filmmaker | Cinephile

It's important to remember that most people in the Industry are just regular people at their heart. Are you telling me that if you were in his position, receiving hundreds if not thousands of solicitations, all roughly the same, that if someone sent you a picture of a cat eating dog's poop that wouldn't stand out and make you laugh? Personally, I'm on Google Images right now looking for a few to save on a USB for future use... ;)

March 23, 2016 at 1:25PM, Edited March 23, 1:26PM


It probably would make me laugh, but it wouldn't and shouldn't have any impact on my decision to select a film. Suppose, after all your hard work, you found out a programmer had chosen another film over yours based on something ridiculous like that. You're telling me that wouldn't bother you? His statement gives me the impression that programmers don't take their jobs seriously.

March 23, 2016 at 2:20PM

Warren Bros.
Filmmaker | Cinephile

I understand where you're coming from. I'm pretty sure Brawley is exaggerating and having a laugh. The way I read it is that it's something that would make him take a second look since it stands out. But even in your scenario, I'd be upset but it's not like human interaction, personality, and networking don't generally trump actual merit. How do you think Kevin James ever gets cast in anything? ;) ;)

March 23, 2016 at 4:32PM


Yeah I just never thought pictures of shit eating cats could qualify as networking...

March 23, 2016 at 6:06PM

Warren Bros.
Filmmaker | Cinephile

Re: point 4. What's a "waiver" in this context?

March 22, 2016 at 3:58PM

Minor Mogul

The entry fee for your film is waived.

March 22, 2016 at 5:28PM, Edited March 22, 5:29PM

Brad Carmichael

Great tips. I love 'first, only & last' - very good copywriting suggestions.

March 24, 2016 at 12:55AM

Caroline Bottomley
Company Director

Submit materials, getting specific about a hook...how and where exactly? In the old days you would mail them a press packet, and they would at least watch 10 minutes of your film.

Most of the online forms ask for 25 word synopsis and then a longer version and there isn't always a place to talk about audience engagement or whatever nonsense they're talking about. What they're admitting in a roundabout way, is that the worst way to get into a festival is to submit it to them using their process, on deadline, and pay their fee.

The industry standard for festival programmers is to work without ethics or regard for finding the best films available to them.

March 25, 2016 at 12:48PM, Edited March 25, 12:48PM


I'm a little disappointed in some of these comments. Filmmakers and Writers are Gold to these endeavors. Gold. Not silver and definitely not a waste of time to be giggled about. The purpose of the festival is to showcase it's lights to as many people as possible. One of my films was recently rejected by a festival with the excuse that they only select 100 films. That's bullshit, if you only take 100, you don't need to see 3,000 to make your cut. Stop jerking people around and tell them the truth, you're an asshole who is empowered by the power of rejecting people who are many cases light years ahead of your career. I created the Action On Film Festival and The MartialCon Film Festival to show work, not to turn it down. Let the audience decide. We give people a beautiful theater, in a beautiful city and over 20,000 guests for over a week. It's a showcase for film, dreams, hopes and desires. It isn't about stars, it isn't about connections and it isn't about a lot of the bullshit they tell you it's about. It's about connecting your film with an audience and over the course of your career building your brand. Make strong relationships and get to work. The rest will take care of itself.
Del Weston www.aoffest.com

March 26, 2016 at 7:24PM, Edited March 26, 7:24PM

Del AOF Weston
Writer / Producer / Director / Film Festival Producer

Make a great creative film. As a screener for our local festival I got so sick of documentaries. The only films we turned away were the really lousy ones. There are so many smaller festivals where a good creative story would shine. Make a fun movie and have a Youtube presence so people can find you. People know that the bigger festivals are gateways to Hollywood so if they want to see unfettered creativity they look elsewhere. I rarely go to the theater any more because there is so much unique content on Youtube that is a refreshing change from the narrow big-budget world. As far as I'm concerned a Sundance stamp is the same as a major studio logo.

April 10, 2016 at 10:05PM, Edited April 10, 10:11PM

Ryan Gudmunson
Recreational Filmmaker

Vielen Dank .... ich liebe es. Wir wissen alle, dass das frohe ostern am 21. April 2019 gefeiert wird und wir alle wissen um die Bedeutung und den Wert des Ostern in unserem Leben, aber für diejenigen, die nicht wissen was Ostern ist, wann ist Ostern

January 22, 2019 at 4:39AM