The film festival submission process can be a time of mixed emotions for filmmakers. On one hand, you are feeling elated and are eager to show your film to the world. On the other hand, you are becoming increasingly frustrated with the selection process and the rejection letters are piling up. Is your film worthy of marquee festivals like a SXSW or DOC NYC? Or, is it better suited to premiere at an up-and-coming festival like the Las Vegas Film Festival or the New York Latino Film Festival? I have reached out to some of the most respected film programmers in the country at each of these festivals to demystify the selection process and here’s what I learned.
PLAYING THE ODDS
Let’s start with a basic understanding of the festival screening process. At the top of the heap we have festivals like SXSW, where filmmakers from around the world dream of having their films premiered. Jarod Neece, Senior Film Programmer at SXSW says they receive around 8,000 submissions a year, and accept approximately 250 films. Another film festival titled DOC NYC, which focuses exclusively on documentary content, receives as many as 2,000 submissions annually and screens an additional 1,000 films by attending other festivals via their role as programmers, selecting around 200 films total.
Basil Tsiokos, Director of Programming at DOC NYC (and also an associate programmer for Sundance Film Festival) talks about the screening process. The first round of submissions go through “the screening committee, which uses a 1-5 scale: 1 being not good and 5 being excellent and will score…along those lines. Everything gets watched by one person and then goes through a second screening round before the highest scoring films get to an associate programmer to be screened.”
Scoring can be based on things like narrative strength, story structure, character and production quality. Then, those films that advance to the final rounds are screened by a small group of associate programmers who select films based on a simpler scale such as a “yes, no and maybe,” says Tsiokos.
On a smaller scale, a boutique festival like the Las Vegas Film Festival will receive around 600 submissions a year, selecting around 25-30 films total. Director of programming West McDowell keeps his audience in mind when programming “our audience is our community.” And a festival like the New York Latino Film Festival which aims to give a voice to the latino community will receive around 300 submissions a year and end up selecting about 60.
So, based on simple math alone your chances of getting into a festival like South are less than 5 percent, while your chances of getting into a smaller festival like NYLFF increase your odds of getting selected to 20 percent. When choosing a festival to submit to you should do your research. The goal of all the festival programmers I talked to is to have a balanced line-up, comprised of diverse filmmakers and content.
WHAT PROGRAMMERS LOOK FOR
Now that you have received a devastating dose of reality, and still desire to take the film festival route, you should probably know what programmers put the most emphasis on when making selections.
The answer is always “story: did it have something to say, were we affected by it… does it start a conversation?” says Neece. Both Neece and Tsiokos echo that a film doesn’t have to be “shiny and glossy,” and “production value is not necessarily the focus,” says Tsiokos. Things that are important are “something that is fresh and different… or a familiar story with a spin on it,” said Tsiokos. Even films that are shot exclusively on an iPhone can land a spot at marquee festivals, just look up the Sundance hit “Tangerine”, which premiered back in 2013 and was shot exclusively on an iPhone 5s.
On a local level, if your film has community appeal it may be worth submitting. In my own experience, our 2015 doc “Beats4Tanner” was selected to premiere at LVFF, partly because the story had a local appeal. The film centers around a 16-year-old electronic DJ who suffered from terminal brain cancer. His final wish was to play the Rehab pool party at the Hard Rock Hotel Las Vegas. This local appeal helped the film get selected. McDowell said “Knowing the audience is Las Vegas, there is a sense [of] inspiring everybody, what that means to everybody, would I show this to someone?” McDowell points out this may not be the same thought process a larger international festival may have when programming.
Regarding current trends in pop culture or the news cycle, a film festival like Doc NYC has specific sections that reflect the current happenings, including a “Fight the Power” section for activist docs. The sections can be an organic reflection of what comes through the submissions in a given year. Tsiokos says “last year, there was a trickle of films with Trump and fascism themes, so we created a section called ‘New World Order’ to respond to that.”
For Chinchilla at NYLFF he also saw an uptick of Trump-era themed films and how that affects latinos specifically. Yet, he is quick to note “It’s got to be original, I want to see balance. It’s easy to get caught in a thematic trap, we try to stay away from that.” He also noted that each year the festival submission process begins with a clean slate “If we see a good fighting film we will show it, we won’t get caught up in the fact if we showed something similar to it two years ago.”
EARLY VS LATE SUBMISSIONS
When submitting early, Neece says something interesting. “If it’s a really good film and you submit early, it will stand out.” In that regard it could potentially be a slight advantage, but he also goes onto say, “we always know there will be films after the deadline…” which Neece said they will consider under special circumstances. He advises to “wait as long as you can” until you have your picture ready.
McDowell also echoes Neece’s statement adding, “Don’t chase the deadline, your art is more important.” One of McDowell’s mentors, Mike Plant, may have put it best when talking about whether or not you should get your film submitted as soon as possible, he says: “No one is waiting for it.”
While most of the festivals will screen a submission after the final deadline if an extension is granted, Tsiokos advises this could actually hurt your chances of being selected. “A filmmaker should just submit by a deadline, don’t ask for extensions because we can’t guarantee we will watch it after deadline.” Another thing you have to ask yourself as a filmmaker is if you are up for someone else to watch it, because it will be judged. “If you feel uncomfortable you should not do it,” Tsiokos says.
“A filmmaker should just submit by a deadline, don’t ask for extensions because we can’t guarantee we will watch it after deadline.”
All the programmers add that if you submit a rough cut of your film to make a deadline, you should make a cue card at the beginning stating “work in progress” or note what other elements of the film that still need to be completed to finalize the film, such as “needs color correction or audio mixdown.”
ARTWORK, TRAILER AND SOCIAL MEDIA
One of the biggest questions I had as a filmmaker for these programmers was–how do things like the film’s key artwork, trailer and social media play into the submission process?
Chinchilla says “If you have a good film you should be marketing it; realize the power in that. I’m a guy who looks at social profiles a lot, I look at it from a creative perspective, it keeps my cultural intelligence intact, because it helps me market.” Chinchilla says, “If I am intrigued by a good trailer online I will keep my eye on that filmmaker. It all starts with what you put out.”
McDowell’s philosophy differs however. He says, “We are not even looking at it” when asked about the importance of a trailer and key art. Neece mirrors McDowell’s statement, saying “We only watch the film, we will read what they write online only if we are interested in the film.” Things like key art, trailer and social media following only come into play when deciding between two films that have made it into the final rounds of the selection process and one has to be chosen. “On that level, trailer, key images are important because that helps someone decide I want to see that versus something else.” Tsiokos says.
CAMPAIGNING FOR YOUR FILM
There is a thin line between campaigning for your film and bugging a programmer. Tsiokos from Doc NYC quickly shoots down the idea that campaigning can get you an advantage. He asks “Why? What do you hope to get out of that? There is a misconception you need to make a personal connection. If a filmmaker meets me at another festival in person, that’s one thing. If a filmmaker comes out of nowhere, one time that’s fine, but there’s not much I can say, besides ‘great, look forward to seeing the film’… It doesn’t do much for us, we still need to look at the film.”
Neece says “You should make some sort of a connection, just be cool about it. Email me that’s great, that’s perfect, but people that overextend that welcome can hurt themselves.” McDowell agrees with both Tsiokos and Neece that campaigning for your film could help and not. “There is no template for that. If you have a good movie, let it speak for itself. Why are you campaigning it? It’s not an efficient way for your art to be taken serious. It’s more of a red flag than a green flag.”
In my personal experience, I’d have to say campaigning can certainly help your odds of having your film selected. The key is to campaign in a tasteful way. When our film “Beats4Tanner” was submitted to LVFF in 2015, I had a mutual friend introduce me to West before the festival. I went to meet West in person and explained why I thought my film could be a good fit for LVFF, and it got selected. The local aspect of our film played a huge role in being selected, but it also aligned with McDowell’s philosophy of building a strong foundation for the festival through appealing to the community.
Also, in the case of our last doc “El Pantera”, campaigning paid off. I sent Calixto Chinchilla a direct message via Instagram with the film’s trailer, movie poster and a small note. I respectfully explained to him that I thought our film would be a great fit for NYLFF because it featured a Mexican MMA fighter who had a huge latino fanbase. Ultimately, the message paid off. The film was selected to premiere at NYLFF. It also took home an award for “Best Documentary Film” and went on to get distributed by Fox Latin America. Chinchilla says, “Just talk to people, you never know where that conversation can lead.”
DISPELLING A MYTH
A lot of times we see popular films play multiple film festivals. It leaves you wondering how much do politics play a role in the film festival circuit? When asked about the topic, Chinchilla says, “Not going to lie, it’s something we don’t talk about, sometimes it’s politics and who you know… for me I don’t get caught up in that.”
At a large International festival like South By, Neece says “We do play a lot of studio stuff, we are taking quality on a lot of different levels. If it’s a studio film it’s going to be a headliners slot, it won’t take from an indie filmmaker slot from Boise…” He goes on to talk about the importance of discovering a film from an indie filmmaker. “The whole point is finding those films… It’s much better for us to find a no name (filmmaker) from Boise. Way better for our brand to discover filmmakers.”
Tsiokos says,“If a film has gotten picked up for distro it’s an endorsement and stamp of approval it will work in the marketplace, that’s a good thing.” He goes onto say “A film doesn’t have to have representation; the film has to be good. If it’s not, our audience is going to let us know and they are not going to trust our taste.”
“It comes back to having an even balance of films that come from all over. Some that are available and some that already have distribution,” says Neece. Most important for indie filmmakers to know is that if a studio backed film or a film with an A list actor is shown in the festival it does not take the slot an indie film might occupy, that’s why there are different sections.
PREMIERE VERSUS NON-PREMIERE STATUS
“Premiere status we like, if your film’s been around the block we are not going to play it,” says Chinchilla. When it comes to a festival selecting a great film that has made the rounds on the festival circuit, versus a great film that will be making its world premiere, the programmers will almost always select a world or U.S. premiere. Neece says “Everybody wants to know what’s new, by getting a premiere you get press and the buyers. It’s a discovery, festivals are a premiere driven beast.”
These comments should be taken with a grain of salt however because sometimes film festivals like DOC NYC will program films that have played other major festivals. Doc NYC’s Artistic Director Thom Powers and programmer Tsiokos both play a role in other festival programming, Powers at Toronto International Film Festival and Tsiokos at Sundance. There is a certain amount of films, approximately 1500 out of the total 3500 submissions, that come from those festivals and after going through the selection process they are programmed for DOC NYC.
It is reassuring to know after talking to all these different programmers that no matter how you approach submitting a film festival that the most important thing is the film itself. If your story is a unique, authentic piece of work and it will surely rise to the top. Neece says “It’s not about famous people, or a sales agent, or who your publicist is.” What is important is that you “make the best film, make an authentic piece of work that is not a copy,” Tsiokos says. “Your film is the one that’s doing the heavy lifting, in fact it’s doing all the heavy lifting. Spend money on your film, not the programmers’ attention.
Landon Dyksterhouse aka The Mash-Up King is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and founder of the independent documentary film company D-House Entertainment. He has produced, directed and edited three feature documentary films including El Pantera (2018), “Beats4Tanner (2015) and The Proving Grounds (2013) that have all gone on to be distributed on various platforms. His latest film, El Pantera, was acquired by the Fox Network Group Latin America in 2018 and earned the title of “Best Documentary Film” at the 2017 New York Latino Film Festival.