I’m a Festival Programmer. Here are 5 Lessons I've Learned From Being on the Inside
These are the 5 most important lessons a festival programmer can teach you.
We all know it: The festival world is a depressing grind. You spend thousands of dollars making a short, and hundreds more on submission fees. You pour your heart and soul into your work, and after all that, you face a tidal wave of rejection.
It’s totally demoralizing.
I’m a filmmaker and a programmer. After watching countless hours of shorts, I’ve gained some key insights into the selection process. These insights have altered my approach dramatically, and I hope they’ll help you too.
The competition is RIDICULOUSLY fierce.
Let’s just look at the 2020 Sundance competition: Out of 9,000 short film submissions, about 60 got accepted.
That’s a 0.6% acceptance rate! Take a minute to let that fully sink in.
I cannot overstate how difficult it is to stand out in today’s short film market.
So far, I’ve watched close to 200 films for Salute Your Shorts (and yes, I watch and thoroughly consider every single film that gets assigned to me). Even among this comparatively tiny group, I’ve seen many great films that I love and want to support, but that I may not be able to, for various reasons.
Your short is probably good. It may even be great. You MAY still get rejected, because many, many people are making great films right now. Rejections do not mean that you are a bad filmmaker!
Selecting films for a festival is like making a mix CD. Subjective and limited.
Millennials: think back to high school, when you’d make mix CDs for your friends. Remember the MB limit? Remember handpicking each song with care, because you could only fit 12 or 13 tracks on a disc?
Making a mix CD involves subjective curation: how do these tracks flow from one to the next? How do they complement each other? Are they diverse in terms of their tempo, mood, and genre?
Inevitably, many of your favorite tracks will not make the cut. And the playlist you choose is totally subjective—no two people are gonna make the same one.
Film festivals are exactly the same—the films that get selected, while excellent, are not the objective best-of-the-best. Rather, they were selected because programmers feel they will make a strong and compelling set.
Festival programmers are humans.
They have different tastes and backgrounds and biases and preconceptions, and they stream your movies in all the ways humans stream movies. On their laptops, with headphones, without headphones, on uncalibrated monitors, with terrible sound systems, while their kids are screaming in the next room, before lunch, after lunch, while drinking wine, with their spouse, and most importantly, in between watching hundreds of other films, many of which are about as good as yours.
As a filmmaker, I felt a lot of anxiety about this. I wanted proof of an objective system. I wanted reassurance that my film was being screened the right way, on a good screen with a good sound system and no distractions.
Unfortunately, this objective system does not exist. As in life, luck plays a major role. The best thing you can do for yourself is accept that these factors are out of your control, and make good work.
All of that said, there are a small handful of shorts that stand out.
It’s true. As I watch these hundreds of films, it’s clear that a teensy, tiny percentage are above and beyond the rest in terms of their ability to present a fresh, original take and grab my attention.
As a fellow filmmaker, I know that your burning question is “OK THANK YOU, so how do I make one of those?”
And I’m here to tell you that your first step is to stop asking that question.
I get it. You’re reading this article because you want a fast track to festival success.
But here’s the paradox: your obsession with that question is what’s holding you back.
This leads me to my most important point.
You must fall in love with the process.
Loving the process will not guarantee your acceptance to a top-tier festival. But it will make your life immeasurably better, and it will only help your chances.
You will face a ton of rejection, forever, until the end of your life. And a lot of it will be for reasons outside of your control. If you let that external validation (or lack thereof) define you, you will lose yourself.
Viktor Frankl wrote, “Don't aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it.”
Just strive every day to love yourself, the people you work with, and the work you’re making.
Strive every day to reconnect with that deep-down reason why you have chosen this insanely difficult life path… and make art recklessly from that place.
If you love your journey, that love will come through on the screen. I know that sounds totally bogus and intangible. But when I look at the films that make my mix-CD-top-10 list, they have one thing in common: When I watch them, I can sense that these filmmakers love their characters, their collaborators, and the story. They’re not just in it for political or personal or career gain.
As programmers, we can sense that love, and it’s contagious. We fall in love with these characters just as you do, and we want to support you in your quest to get them seen.