This is How to Get Accepted Into Film Festivals

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all festival plan, so we’ll look at the different elements to consider when creating a festival strategy for your film.

Evaluating Your Film Festival Goals

Is there a story you just need to tell or share? Or a cause that you’re passionate about that would make a great documentary? Every filmmaker has their own muse; likewise, they have their own reason for submitting to film festivals. Perhaps you have a feature film you’re trying to sell? Or a short film that you’re trying to get funding for so you can turn it into a feature? Maybe you dream of winning an Oscar?

Film festival awards can look great in your video production office and help build client trust. When you have a film in festival, networking there with festival patrons can sometimes get you a wedding shoot or even a corporate gig. Each film festival is different in its scope and range, and it’s important to know which festivals are worth the entry and which ones will help you reach your specific goal.

Learning More About The Festivals

Every weekend, you can find a film festival going on somewhere. Most often, there’s multiple. The best way to learn about a specific festival is to attend. Not only can you see what films they are programming, but often times you can also have the opportunity to speak with festival organizers, programmers, or volunteers who can give you insight into the application and selection process. If you’re looking at film festivals with the intent on traveling, festival websites or film festival submission service sites can also be helpful. You can also find film festival reviews online.

Film festival submission services like FilmFreeway and Withoutabox help streamline the festival submission process.
Film festival submission services like FilmFreeway and Withoutabox help streamline the festival submission process.

Festival Submission Services

More than just a database of film festivals, submission services are designed to assist the filmmaker so they only have to fill out entry form information once. Film festival submission services not only save you time, but they can also help you track your submissions.

The best known submission service is Withoutabox. Their basic service is free for filmmakers and has listings for more than 5,000 festivals worldwide. One of the biggest advantages to Withoutabox is that with most festival entries, you automatically get an IMDB listing for your film. For those filmmakers who have been struggling to get their IMDB page, this is worth the entry fee alone. Other features include a press kit service, which is great for those lacking in this skill set.

Each film festival is different in its scope and range, and it’s important to know which festivals are worth the entry and which ones will help you reach your specific goal.

Film Freeway is a new service on the market. It has more than 800 festival listings and continues to add more daily. It is also free for filmmakers. If you’re looking for festivals with free entry fees, Film Freeway is the best source since they allow you to search for festivals based on the cost of the entry.

Many festivals will raise their entry fees as the festival date draws closer. You can use submission services to track these dates and budget accordingly.

Completion Dates and Other Fine Print

Many films require that your submission be within two years of its completion date. Some festivals want you to have releases for all your actors and locations as well as clearances for all your music. Read the fine print carefully because if you violate the rules, they will usually disqualify your film without refunding your fees.

Discs vs. Online Screeners

Mailing out DVDs is another added expense for film festival submissions. Each festival is different and may request anywhere from one to 10 discs for viewing by their judges. The average seems to be three. Blu-ray and dual layered DVDs are frowned upon despite the higher quality viewing. Some festivals allow you the choice of online secure viewing or mailing the DVD. “Secure” online services have been known to get hacked, but the real issue can be insuring a quality viewing experience. If you send a DVD you can be fairly certain it will play smoothly, where an online screener may or may not.

Burn-ins, like the ones on this screener copy of “Super 8,” protect your film from unauthorized distribution.

If you have a feature film, you want to make sure you put a uniquely numbered burn-in on all screener copies, so you won’t find your film being sold out of the back of a pickup truck or uploaded to Youtube. You may even want to consider including a watermark on short films. You can register your film online with the copyright office, but that alone will not protect you from infringement. A burn-in for your screener is your best bet to keep someone from sharing your hilarious short on Youtube.

Remember to test all screeners on multiple devices. Assume that the festival programmer will be watching your film on the cheapest DVD player and with a crummy set of speakers. If there’s a problem with the picture or the sound, they usually won’t ask you for a second DVD.

Use a sharpie to write your festival entry number, contact information and run-time on your disk. Adding copyright information and the symbol (©) is always a safe bet. Note: you don’t have to have your film registered with the US copyright office to hold a copyright on it; you just need to include the copyright information such © 2014 Your Film Company.

Some festivals want PAL instead of NTSC screeners particularly for fests outside the U.S. Check the festival’s deliverables before you submit your film. Some festivals want costly DCPs (Digital Cinema Package) or a 35mm film print particularly for feature films. Always send a Blu Ray with a DCP in case the festival has issues with the file.

The festival may also ask for a digital file with a specific codec and resolution. This is very popular for shorts so the festival can play the shorts back from a media player or computer hooked up to a projector. In many cases, you’ll have two weeks from notification of acceptance to get your deliverables to the festival. You want to make sure you have the time and money to meet a festivals deliverable requirements. Do not include burn-ins on your deliverables.

Short Film vs. Feature Film

The time length of a short film vs. a feature film varies from festival to festival. Short films usually have cheaper entry fees. Additionally, most film festivals do not expect the filmmakers of short films to travel to the festival. It’s important to remember that festival programmers want to include as many shorts as possible into a shorts block, so brevity is often rewarded with festival acceptance.

Feature filmmakers are expected to travel to the screening of their film and festivals sometimes make this a condition of acceptance. A festival can only program so many features, and the festival patrons look forward to the opportunity of meet-and-greets with the filmmakers. If you can’t afford to travel with your feature, you may want to look at festivals within driving distance.

Large international film festivals such as Austin’s South By Southwest offer stiff competition and big rewards.

Premiere Status

Premiere status is imperative for feature films (including documentaries) at high profile film festivals such as Sundance, Cannes, Berlin, Venice, Toronto, Tribeca and SXSW. There are varying types of premiere status including World, North American, and U.S. Larger film festivals will often want a U.S. Premiere for a feature. Even smaller festivals may want you to be a state or city premiere.
While a friend may offer to program you into a local film festival, you may want to wait if you have hopes of playing at one of the larger fests. Premiere status isn’t as stringent for short films unless you’re looking at some of the larger festivals. It’s critical to note that if you post your film online for public viewing, it will automatically be disqualified from almost every festival unless you’re competing in a “new media” category.

Festivals with Markets

If your goal is to go to festival and sell your feature film, then you will want to insure that you’re at a film festival that has a large number of buyers present or an active market. The big festivals with either buyers or a market are Sundance, Cannes, Berlin, Venice, Tribeca, Toronto and SXSW. Competition for these festivals is fierce with thousands of entries for both feature and short films.

Festivals with Academy Award Qualifiers

If you look carefully on Withoutabox, you’ll note that some festivals are Academy Award qualifiers. What this means is if you win that qualifying division at that festival (usually short films, either documentary or narrative), you won’t have to four wall your film (pay to play at theaters) for Oscar consideration.

Festival Acceptance

Film festivals take many factors into consideration when selecting submissions for their program. Each festival has its own base of patrons that they cater programming toward. Obviously, first hand knowledge of the film community as well as the films that have played before are a big plus. Many times, if you check a festival’s website months after the festival, the program as well as the winning films are still listed. Sometimes you can even view some of the films that played at the fest on their website.

If you’re planning on attending a festival, reach out to the programmer via e-mail if possible. Ask questions about the festival. Find a reason to make contact with that programmer. For many small to mid-size festivals, the programmers are very responsive as well as helpful via email. Obviously, festival programmers are more difficult to contact as submission deadlines loom so contact them early. Tell them about your film and why you’re so passionate about it. Often times if you do this, programmers will keep an eye out for your disc in the mail. Of course, if you are on a first name basis with a programmer, you’ve already solved the first major hurdle of having the programmer watch your entire film and not just the first few minutes.

While great story and characters are important, picture and sound will almost always be the deciding factor as to whether or not your film is accepted. While many festivals say they accept a work-in-progress, don’t waste your money sending rough cuts and early edits. Unless you know the festival programmer or director, you need to send a highly polished, color corrected edit complete with audio cleanup and sweetening.

Submit early to festivals. Besides saving money, you’re going to get more attention paid to your film. Festivals are always overwhelmed with last minute submissions, and programmers just don’t have as much time to consider films when it gets close to their programming deadlines.

Remember to submit to the correct category and make sure your film fits into the time limits. Programmers want to include as many films into their programs as possible, so make sure your edit is tight.

Be honest about your work. Get feedback from friends and family about your edit (of course feedback from strangers is even better). Local filmmakers have higher odds at getting programmed into local festivals. Major festivals are more competitive and have higher standards. Films in major festivals often feature famous actors making it much harder for smaller films to break through.

Once Accepted

In addition to sending off the deliverables for your film, most festivals will now want a press kit as well as promotional materials. Some festivals require you to send several one-sheet posters of your movie (approximately 41” X 27”) which can be quite costly; this is particularly expected for features. Postcards are also customary. Filmmakers will print out the time and locations of their screenings on a mailing label and affix it to the back of their film’s postcards.

Perks of Acceptance

Feature filmmakers typically get more perks than short filmmakers although this is not always the case. Larger festivals such as Sundance and Los Angeles Film Fest offer very nice retreats for their feature filmmakers which include mentoring sessions with notable actors, directors, and producers. Some festivals will offer airfare and/or hotel rooms to out of town filmmakers; again this is usually limited to feature films. Some festivals offer great educational programming as part of the festival such as the writer’s program at Austin Film Festival. Typically, all accepted filmmakers, short or feature film, get a full access pass to the festival which usually includes workshops, festival receptions and parties. These events offer a great opportunity to network with other filmmakers as well as film patrons who like to support the arts. Additionally, once your film is accepted, a film festival will allow you to use their laurels in conjunction with promoting your film.

Increasing Your Chances of Winning

If the festival has an audience choice award, the best way to win that award is to fill the auditorium with friends and family. Many festival directors will pay attention to your efforts in promoting not only your film but the festival itself on social media. Lots of posters, postcards, swag and even parties can go a long way to getting your film noticed by the judges. Finally, appearing at the festival events and doing a Q and A also helps. Of course, a great film with a topic that appeals to the judges will always help!

Conclusion: Is It Worth the Cost?

There is nothing quite like seeing your movie on a big screen with a packed audience in a theater. Getting there can be quite expensive, but the experience can be equally if not more rewarding. Being able to express yourself creatively is a nice respite from the day-to-day grind as a camera operator or editor. Acceptance or a win at a local festival can help build confidence with new clients in your media business. Of course, there’s always the pinnacle of the wild bidding of buyers for your feature film after screening at a major festival.

Do your homework, select the festivals that your film will resonate with. Produce a great film and submit it to festivals early. These are the best ways to insure a successful film festival run.


Making the Most of Your Festival Screenings

For many filmmakers, the festival screenings are the only theatrical exhibition their film will ever see. Even if you don’t get a film sale at Sundance, you can still try and recoup your film costs by selling DVDs and merchandise related to your film at your festival screenings. It’s perfectly acceptable to announce at the Q and A that you have discs or t-shirts available for sale in the lobby. You may also want to plug your DVDs for sale at your online store on your postcards. Some festivals even offer table space in the lobby for a filmmaker to display their wares after a screening. It’s hard to coordinate sales while also doing a Q and A so try and get someone to go with you and help you with this.

Wear a t-shirt with your film’s artwork so you are easily identifiable to festival attendees. Many filmmakers use film festivals as a way to develope e-mail lists to use for Kickstarter or Indiegogo campaigns for future film fundraising. Raffle off a t-shirt or a DVD or offer attendees a discount on merchandise if they sign up for email updates. Think about all the time and resources you dedicated to get to the festival. Now go make the most of it!

W. H. Bourne is an award-winning director; her most recent film screened at more than 40 film festivals including International Play.

W. H. Bourne
W. H. Bourne
W. H. Bourne is a screenwriter who is spending her pandemic time working on a screenplay that's an adaptation of a novel.

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