Most film festivals insist that each film is screened in its entirety and judged on its own merits. The truth is that the exact process varies widely depending on the festival.
Filmmakers are understandably skeptical about the festival screening process, especially because festivals tend to be a little bit secretive about it. One festival programmer acknowledged, “Our PR team doesn’t allow us to divulge too much about our programming process.”
Do first-time filmmakers really have a shot at breaking into the A-list festivals? Do programmers really watch your film all the way through? Are you wasting time and money with blind submissions?
No Film School recently reached out to a cross-section of film programmers to see if they could answer these questions and demystify the festival screening process:
Who watches your film when you submit it?
The first gatekeepers at most festivals are pre-screeners (sometimes just called “screeners” or “programming associates”) who wade through the first round of screening submissions. In most cases, pre-screeners are students or community volunteers who are “paid” in festival passes, tickets, festival swag or bragging rights.
One regional festival, for example, asks that each screener views and scores at least 15 films of various lengths and genres. Screeners receive tickets and/or passes based on the number of films they watch and score. Reviewers must watch each film from beginning to end and complete a review sheet for each film, including written comments explaining their decisions.
“Unfortunately, many pre-screeners are incentivized by the number of films they watch and not by the quality of the films they recommend, so this first filter is often where most submissions go to die,” said Brad Wilke, a film festival strategist and co-founder of Smarthouse Creative, who served as artistic director of the Portland Film Festival.
Pre-screeners generally rate the film on a scale (1-5, for example) and if a film gets a 1 or a 2, it generally doesn’t make it any further. But if it’s a 3 or above, it will move on to the next stage, where it’s screened by a programmer.
Image by Elliott SchofieldCredit: Portland Film FestivalThe bigger A-list festivals such as Tribeca and Sundance pay experienced screeners to provide coverage of each film. Sometimes they hire programming associates as contractors for 3-6 months (often the same programming associates screen for several festivals). Paid screeners at top North American festivals are generally tasked with watching and writing coverage for up to 25 submissions a week and/or 200 films total.
But whether they’re paid or not, screeners watch your film – and if they like it, they’ll pass it up the ladder.
“Programmers know the screeners and their tastes. For really trustworthy screeners, they know that if they give the film a very low score, they might be the only person screening it,” said Sudeep Sharma, who has worked in programming for the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles, AFI Fest, Sundance, Palm Springs International ShortFest, Tribeca, and others. “They’re told to be really conscientious and if there’s anything they think a programmer should know about, they should score it that way.”
Do festivals watch your film in its entirety?
“Each film is either watched by two members of our screening committee or by one of our lead programmers. Once films have at least two scores, our paid staff - typically our Head of Festival Programming, looks at scores and feedback from screeners,” said Todd Looby, director of BendFilm Festival. “Often, he will review those films once more before determining which go onto the next level of reviews.”
One international festival programmer confessed that not all submissions are screened in their entirety. “With some films, it is obvious within the first 5-10 minutes that they are not what you’re looking for – or else they are so bad, there is no point in watching anymore.”
A programmer at a respected North American festival said that they do their best to be sure that all films are screened from start to finish, but that are some notable exceptions. “We do have a policy that no member of the programming team or selection committee should have to endure explicit gore or pornographic content (which we do see on from time to time).”
If your film makes it past the pre-screener, it will then be shared with the programming staff for review. “This is where the next wave of submissions will be eliminated from the mix, but often only after a thorough discussion of the film’s merits,” said Wilke.
Why do some films get submission waivers and others don’t?
Festival submission fees can add up quickly, so it couldn’t hurt to ask for a waiver, right? In some cases, film festivals provide filmmakers with a full or partial fee waiver. Usually, that happens in a case where the festival invites a filmmaker to submit or the filmmaker already has a pre-existing relationship with a programmer. For films that already have a distributor, the distributor is often the one who will negotiate for a festival slot.
“We have a very strict rule when it comes to waiving submission fees,” said Whitney Haskin, Director of Programming, Napa Valley Film Festival. “Programmers can only provide a fee waiver if they have made the initial outreach to a filmmaker to request a formal submission. It is best to let us come to you, as we will not provide fee waivers on request.”
How much do connections matter?
Once again, it all depends on the festival. “For films in competition, it makes little to no difference whether the film has an advocate,” said Looby. “With that said, from my experience as a filmmaker, it never hurts.”
Though it’s not often acknowledged, the top festivals rarely discover new talent from blind submissions.
As Sundance’s Director of Programming, Kim Yutani, told Indiewire in advance of this year’s festival, Sundance tracks film projects so far in advance that “I feel like I hear about anything before it gets to us, but that’s just because we’re doing our job.” Often the films that land at Sundance have already gotten through one industry gatekeeper, such as IFP Labs, Sundance Institute or Film Independent.
Film festivals need to be financially sustainable, which means that festival organizers must keep marketability in mind. If a film has A-list talent attached, it’s likely to attract audiences and garner press interest. If a film distributor or studio partner wants to sponsor the opening night party, it’s that much more likely that their latest release with be selected for the festival. But there are no guarantees.
“Having a producer who has a relationship with the festival or a film with a name attached might help to get it screened by a programmer,” said Sharma. “But if it’s not good enough, it won’t make the cut.”