Do not become a victim of festival lust.
There are 6 stages in the life of a film. There is conception. There is pre-production. There is production. There is post-production. There is the festival run. There is “distribution.” If you wanted, these are the 6 stages that your film or any film could live through. If you wanted.
For my debut short film, The Guy—which premieres today here and on Bloody Disgusting’s World of Death—this process took 5 years from conception to distribution. And I’m left with the question: Why do we make movies? Check out the film below
The answer can almost be certainly found in asking another question: When you look at these 6 stages, which is the one that most excites you? If your answer features anything other than the first 3, you are bound to be disappointed.
If you make a movie to get into a festival, you are doing it wrong. Making a movie the way you want to make it—from ideation to creation—is the most rewarding experience a filmmaker could hope to have. That being said, I made it into a couple and would like to share with you what I’ve learned about the process:
1. Stick to 15 minutes or under.
There are a lot of myths about what programmers look for in a film, but even if you don’t think this one is true, following it will likely end up benefitting your film in the long run. The simple fact is that sometimes you will be submitting a film to a film festival that has already received 10 thousand other films.
Programmers eventually place the films into 2 hour-long screenings. That is their job. They want to show as many as they can. And that’s a good thing. It means ultimately, you may have more chances of being selected. A good rule of thumb: keep it short.
If a programmer has 20 minutes left in a program and they are forced to decide between one really good 20-minute film and two really good 10-minute films, they’ll take the 2 every time. If you need to keep it on the longer side, split the difference and do 15 max.
The other part of this is that artistic restrictions are great. Giving yourself a problem like that will force you to be that much more creative in figuring it out. That is especially true in the cutting stage. The first cut of our film was 25 minutes long and it wasn’t really working. It was too messy, there was too much going on. So we decided to break it down to the bare minimum. Moments that were instrumental in what we believed to be the plot. Trimming up the story so that only the most important themes laid bare.
2. Submit to the big festivals and a handful of small ones.
I know there is a really small chance of getting into one of the big film festivals and that they are really expensive. But if you have a project that you believe in, hit the early bird deadline and press the button.
The Guy didn’t get into Sundance, SXSW, Cannes, or any of those. It did, however, get into Palm Springs International ShortsFest. And the truth is, not only was it a fantastic festival, it really did help the film get out to a wider audience. After it screened PSIFF, multiple other smaller regional festivals reached out and ask to see the film so they could also potentially program it as well. Suddenly one acceptance became 3, 2 of them without having to pay any submission fee at all.
That certainly doesn’t mean you should overlook regional festivals, because there are some really great ones out there. But do not, for the love of god, go crazy. A laurel is a laurel. The most useful part of getting into a festival is going to the festival itself. I applied to way too many film festivals and was lucky to get into some, but I spent so much money on submissions that I had to skip most of them due to being a broke-ass filmmaker who now couldn’t afford to travel.
Pay for the ones you would really love to go to and then use whatever money you have leftover to start making the next one. MovieMaker Magazine’s lists and sticking to award-qualifying festivals on FilmFreeway are a great way to filter out the noise.
3. Know your audience.
My movie is weird. That's something I first learned pretty early on after rejections from many of the mainstream major international film festivals, and then again as I was looking for a place to premiere it online.
There is, however, an audience for it. I’d call it a midnight movie. For that reason, early on in the submission process, I pivoted strategy and focused on a lot of horror/genre festivals. MovieMaker Magazine had a list for that. Once again, do your research, take into account your financial situation, and then submit.
One of the genre festivals on that list that I ended up getting into, Nightmares Film Festival, ended up being really important in that it led to an opportunity for an online premiere with Bloody Disgusting. A site I know the audience well for, because well, I am that audience.
The important thing is don’t mold your film into something you think that a festival would find attractive. Tell your story the way that only you could tell it and then through a label on it after. Someone called this “taoist horror” one time and I thought that was cool.
If you're a woman, if you're queer, if you come from a diverse ethnic background, you have a unique story and it deserves to be told. So if the major festivals pass up your work, I guarantee there is still a market with festivals dedicated to getting your work seen. In the many short film programs I’ve attended now both as filmmaker and journalist, inauthenticity reads. Make a short that is relevant to your own experience that you feel can apply to the world at large, not one based on an issue you have no experience with the intention of it being socially relevant.
4. You don't have to spend 5 years making a film.
Don't get me wrong, I am incredibly happy with the entire journey my film took from concept to execution and learned a ton in the process. But to know if I hadn't been so precious with my work, I maybe could've gone through the process 3 or 4 times in that time span is sort of a brutal reality check.
You can submit a film to any festival, regardless of how good you or anyone else thinks it is. In the long run, it's such a crapshoot getting into these things that it doesn't even matter. But I firmly believe, that with each film you make, the better filmmaker you become. And the more times a programmer sees your name attached to a project, the more intrigued by your work they may become.
Go out there and make shit for the fun of it, everything else is just the icing on the cake. The benefits traveling the festival circuit actually brought me still remain to be seen, but I am a wholly more skilled artist and fulfilled person just for having made the moviie—not getting recognition for it.
Thank you to everyone who pledged to the Kickstarter so long ago. I hope you enjoy the product. Without you and No Film School, this whole process would've been remarkably more difficult. Check out the film as part of this month's World Of Death on Bloody Disgusting and please let me know what you think!