November 16, 2015 at 6:58AM
Short Film Festival Programmers
I attended an event run by festival shorts programmers over the weekend. I figured a lot of people here are short filmmakers or are interested in shorts, so you might find some of this info useful.
The panel consisted of programmers from British festivals. They noted that European festivals tend to be the cheapest to submit to with some EU festivals not charging for short submissions. Somebody in the audience complained about short submission fees being a money-spinner for the festivals; the panel argued that in the case of their festivals all the fees went into running the festivals and that they do everything they can to keep the fees low. But they also pointed out that it was up to you as a filmmaker to decide if it was worth paying the fee, which takes me into...
1. Do your research: all the panellists stated that they get hundreds of submissions that just don’t fit the festival, and that the filmmakers could have saved their £20 if they’d just done a tiny amount of research. This isn’t just dumb things like submitting a live-action drama to an animation festival, but submitting straight drama to an avant garde experimental festival. It’s easier than ever to find stuff out, so there’s no excuse.
2. Very few festivals insist on premiere status: even big festivals like London don’t insist on this any more, so you can get a short in that’s previously been online. More interestingly, they all said that it wasn’t unusual for them to be recommended a short online, watch it, then proactively contact the director to get it screened at their festival.
3. Be easy to contact: with that in mind, make sure you can be found. If you put stuff online make sure you have an easy means by which festival programmers can find you. If you have an email/Twitter etc just for the film make sure you check it frequently.
4. You can approach programmers ‘off the record’: all the panellists agreed that they were happy with people approaching them throughout the year just to informally show them work. Just be cool - don’t stalk, don’t get pissy if they ignore you or say ‘That’s cool’ in a way that makes it clear they think you suck. BUT - if they do like your work and invite you to enter their festivals make sure you go through the formal channels - don’t assume they’ll remember you in ten months time when they’re sifting through 1000 entries.
5. Don’t be pissy if you get rejected. They have to programme films that work together, so they have to judge a hundred factors - length, subject, style, tone. Just because you get rejected it doesn’t always mean your film sucks, or that your film won’t get into other festivals. Equally if you get into festival A but not B, don’t contact the programmer from B to tell them. They don’t care; furthermore if every festival just showed the same shorts, they’d all be boring.
6. Most don’t care about budget, format, 4K etc. In fact someone specifically asked about 4K and frankly the panel just glazed over. They want to watch the film. One panellist did say that he cared more about aesthetics than story, but that was his personal taste. And to be fair he said that aesthetics didn’t mean beautiful 35mm footage; more that he wanted films to work on a visual level first and foremost. But the others all said that as long as there was a base level of quality (i.e. not sea-sick handheld, decent audio etc) then that was fine. One pointed to a short that won their Best Film which consisted of a locked off shot from inside a car, shot on standard def. They did however all agree that bad acting was a deal-breaker, with really bad sound coming a close second.
7. Make sure you have at least one really good image to sell the film. As well as programming shorts they often have to do the catalogue and it’s a nightmare when every still looks the same - a head-and-shoulders shot of an actor from a random scene in the film. Take time to get at least one still that actually says something about the film, that looks good visually, that will make tired festival goers think ‘Ooooh, that looks good...’ Ditto your synopsis/logline. Make an effort to sell your film, so that they can sell it on your behalf.
8. Someone asked about rights, issues with music etc. This was interesting, and I suspect meant to be off the record, but... All agreed that they don’t care. They all have a standard form that you tick to say yes, I own all the rights etc; however they don’t then follow up or check. I don’t think this is carte blanche to stick the new Adele song in your short, but equally it’s probably not worth panicking that the McDonalds logo is visible in the background of a scene.
9. They pleaded that shorts be as short as possible. I know everyone says this and then you get festivals showing 38min shorts and you think WTF, but they all said that it’s so much easier to fit you in somewhere if your short is under 10mins. Basically you should only submit when you know that every minute of screen time is deserved. (For what it’s worth, an earlier session re: making shorts featured a short that was about 25mins, and although it’s won tonnes of awards and been to a million festivals I just sat there praying for it to end...)
10. Finally, they encouraged everyone to watch shorts, go to festivals and generally be a bit more active in terms of ‘being a short filmmaker.’ They pointed to several instances where local groups set up their own screenings of stuff they were making, just pop-up events at bars, arts centres and the like. Although they want people to submit to festivals (obviously!) they said it shouldn’t become your only goal/obsession - that ultimately you want people to watch your films, build an audience, and festivals are just one way of doing that.
So there you go. Feel free to discuss but don’t yell at me if you disagree with anything - I’m just the messenger!