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.
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.
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.
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: