From entry fees to selling your film, we demystify the process of a year on the festival circuit by providing resources and strategies for finding film festivals worth your time and money.
There are more than 5,000 film festivals around the world listed on withoutabox.com alone. They range from top-tier festivals such as Cannes, Sundance, Toronto, SXSW, Slamdance and Tribeca to numerous regional and local festivals in cities large and small.
Once you’ve finished your film and are ready to start submitting to festivals, the first thing you’ll need to do is spend a bit of time working on strategy. Establish your festival goals. What do you want to get out out of it? Do you want to sell your film? Get exposure? Travel around the country or the world? Once you determine the answer to this, start creating a list of the festivals to which you plan on submitting.
For example, if the goal is to sell your film, top-tier festivals are going to be the most important as they are the ones that attract film buyers. However, the number of films submitted to these festivals is in the thousands each year, making it increasingly difficult to get accepted. If you want to travel with your film, look into festivals that take place in cities or countries you would like to visit. Perhaps your film fits a specific genre, like horror, in which case you may have success submitting to more focused festivals.
Do your research. While it can feel overwhelming to sort through 5,000+ festivals, you can narrow your search dramatically with a simple google search. I looked for “sci-fi film festival list” and came up with a page linking to 45 festivals focused, at least in part, on sci-fi films. Swap that out for the category or categories that fit your film and see what you find. Also be sure to look at other films that have something in common with yours and figure out where they have screened.
While big name international festivals may be the best-known, it certainly doesn’t mean they’re the only ones worth your time. One of the festivals my current feature film, “BFFs”, played was the Hell’s Half Mile Film Festival in Bay City, Michigan. Hell’s Half Mile is expertly run and attracts enthusiastic and intelligent audiences. The small town vibe and close-knit community instantly made me feel welcome, and I was able to meet and get to know several other filmmakers who attended with their films. The town knows how to throw a party, too.
The Twin Cities Film Fest was special because it takes place in Minnesota, where I grew up. I was invited to promote the film on local TV and had an excellent turnout, including dozens of friends and family living in the area. If you want to feel really good about your film, I suggest a hometown festival.
Washington West, in Reston, VA has a unique model in that they use the festival as a way to raise funds to support a different charity each year, and festival volunteers work directly with that charity by donating time and resources.
While Slamdance is listed among the top-tier, they have managed to maintain their independent focus by only screening films with low budgets. The Slamdance mantra is “By Filmmakers, For Filmmakers,” which is important, because the programming teams are made up entirely of Slamdance alumni. If your film screens at Slamdance, you’re part of the family and have the opportunity to help program subsequent years of the festival. If given the chance, everyone should help program a festival to see it from the other side, which provides excellent insight into how they operate.
One of the best ways to determine if a festival is right for you is to ask fellow filmmakers. We reached out to a few of my peers and asked their opinions.
Josh Mandel is a programmer at Slamdance and producer of “Uncertain Terms,” and “The White Orchid.” He broke down some of his favorite festivals for me:
(A) L.A. Film Fest is great for L.A. filmmakers and films about L.A. It offers strong competition, is run by Film Independent, and is also one of the automatic qualifying festivals for the Independent Spirit Awards.
(B) Seattle is the longest festival in America, running roughly three weeks. They show tons of films.
(C) Hamptons, a New York festival with an affluent, sophisticated crowd, features big premieres of Oscar hopefuls.
(D) Woodstock is another New York festival with indie sensibility.
(E) Austin offers great panels with a huge emphasis on screenwriting and a big focus on Texas film.
(F) Dallas, a young but prominent festival in a major film city, may be the best festival in Texas after SXSW.
(G) Chicago is one of the oldest and biggest festivals in America and features lots of foreign films and support for LGBT and youth films.
(H) Denver is a huge festival in a major film market. The festival features great programming of films from the best festivals around the world.
(I) Mill Valley, an intimate Northern California festival with an sophisticated crowd, is the biggest festival in Northern California after San Francisco. Expect big premieres of Oscar hopefuls.
(J) Florida boasts what is arguably the coolest screening venue of all festivals — The Enzian Theater. Instead of rows of seats, they have couches and tables where people can eat and drink while watching films or listening to panels.
(K) Palm Springs is a great place to launch foreign language films vying for Oscar consideration among voters. The crowd is very affluent and the fest features lots of splashy premieres of Oscar hopefuls.
(L) Santa Barbara is a lot like Palm Springs, but more bohemian while still being upper class.
(M) Indie Memphis could be called the Slamdance of the South and offers a great music component to go alongside films.
(N) Cucalorous is a non-competitive, artist-driven festival with great curation.
(O) Fantastic Fest is considered the premiere genre festival in North America.
(P) Sidewalk is known as a cool, well-curated Southern festival with a big emphasis on Southern films.
Ian and Eshom Nelms have been to festivals with a number of films, most recently screening “Lost on Purpose” starring Jane Kaczmarek and James Lafferty. According to Ian, “We submit to the usual suspects, and also some wild card film festivals we think will just be a good fit or a good time. Here are two examples of how a small film festival can yield big results.
“We were running a kickstarter to help with our post and distribution when we submitted to the Los Angeles First Glance Film Festival. They’re a small but enthusiastic film festival and we came away from the festival with an award and a new Executive Producer on our film, who after watching the film and hearing us talk about why we made it, decided to purchase the largest tier on our kickstarter campaign. It was his donation that pushed the film over the 50 percent mark and spawned a lot of other donors to jump in and contribute.
“Another fest we hit up was the Trindie Film Festival in Trinidad, Colorado. We won a few awards, and one of the awards came with a free Query letter compliments of Venice Arts, a filmmaker friendly company in Venice, Ca., that helps writers with everything from story to submissions. They helped us form a query letter for our latest script, submitted to 1200 plus companies. It landed on the desk of an A-list actor, who read it, asked for the script, then brought us on to adapt a novel for him.”
I’ve known Michael Mohan since we attended Chapman University together. Michael’s previous festival films include “Save the Date,” “Ex-Sex” and “One Too Many Mornings.” He’s returning to Sundance this year with his current short, “Pink Grapefruit.”
Michael claims, “...the most important thing emerging filmmakers need out of a festival is a sense of community. Because that’s what will ultimately help make you a better filmmaker — deeper connections with like-minded people who are all after the same goal, who can provide informed creative and practical perspective on your next project. And the two festivals who cultivate this the most are the Maryland Film Festival in Baltimore, and the Cucalorus Film Festival in Wilmington, NC.
“At Maryland, there’s a mini-retreat of sorts in the middle where all the filmmakers get together and have a discussion about the issues we’re facing. It’s a safe environment where everyone is able to talk out loud about their distribution deals, festival fees and all of the things that are ever-changing and aren’t written about in books or articles.
“And at Cucalorus, they not only fly in all of the short filmmakers, there are just so many opportunities for conversation to spark. The entire festival is built around creativity, and you get a sense from the top down that they really want the artists to walk away feeling inspired.
At both of these festivals I’ve made connections with like-minded filmmakers who have inspired me to simply be a better filmmaker myself.”
I met Jeff Rosenberg in early 2014 in Santa Barbara where his feature, “OJ: The Musical” was screening. We actually shared an actress between our films, Larisa Oleynik, which was a pleasant coincidence. Jeff has been around the country with “OJ” and says: “Having made a comedy, a genre that traditionally doesn’t thrive at film festivals, I found it best to search out similar films that did find success on the festival circuit and see where they played. Researching where recent films like “It’s A Disaster” and “The History of Future Folk” screened formed a nice starting point to find places that might respond to a character-based comedy like “OJ: The Musical.” This method led us to many festivals that we hadn’t otherwise heard of, such as the Friars Club Comedy Film where we ended up not only screening but winning the Audience Award for Best Feature Film.
“I also tried to talk to as many of my filmmaking friends as possible, both to gauge what festivals were worth entering and, most important, to get a kind word sent on our behalf to programmers they had formed relationships with. This was crucial for getting into some of my favorite festivals including Woodstock, Nashville, Sun Valley and Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival, all of which ended up being great places to not only screen the film but make new friends who have been great sounding boards as we’re all at the same stage of the process and things change so fast with distribution.
“Lastly, I think it’s important to take advantage of any personal local ties you have to festivals as this helped us not only get into places like Santa Barbara and Cleveland, both very respected festivals with great programs, but local media is generally more excited to cover films with local ties. Plus, nothing makes you feel like more of a rock star that a sold out weekend screening in your hometown.”
Something to keep in mind is whether your film caters to a specific audience, like horror, LGBT, African-American, or Jewish. There are myriad festivals that are genre specific, and you may have an easier time submitting to festivals that have a built-in audience for your kind of film. Many of these festivals draw just as many people as more mainstream festivals, and can be a lot of fun to attend. “BFFs” is a film about two straight female best friends who pretend to be in a relationship so they can attend a couples retreat. The film began its festival run by doing mainstream festivals, and then started to attract attention from LGBT festivals. When we screened at Outfest, one of the largest LGBT festivals in the world, we were worried about how the audience would react to the plot, but the overwhelming response was entirely positive. This prompted us to reach out to other LGBT festivals around the world, many of whom requested a screener and subsequently programmed BFFs in their own festivals. Programmers also talk to one another, so a successful showing at one festival can easily lead to offers from several others. This has given us so much more exposure than we had imagined was possible. It also means that when we release the film through VOD, we can reach out to those festivals and ask for their support in promoting the film to their audiences.
I learned a few months into our festival run that some festivals are willing to pay screening fees to show your work. This typically happens when you have a film that has done well at its first few festivals, and has demonstrated that audiences will attend. “BFFs” screened to more than 1100 people in Santa Barbara over the course of four screenings, which helped us get word of mouth among festival programmers around the world. It makes sense when you think about it; you as the filmmaker have spent time and money making your film, and festivals are charging audiences to see your work. Why shouldn’t you be paid for that? It may not cover the cost of making your film, but it can help you cover expenses such as travel or distribution deliverables.
Ultimately the festival experience should be fun. As filmmakers, we get to do something pretty incredible with our lives, and screening our work for a receptive audience is a goal we all share. Seek to make the most of the time you spend sharing and promoting your film around the world and you won’t be disappointed.
SIDEBAR: Resources for finding and entering festivals:
Sites such as withoutabox.com and filmfreeway.com serve as gateways for festival submission. In fact, some festivals exclusively work with these sites and have no other means of entry. Other festivals, notably SXSW, only allow submissions through their own website (likely because withoutabox charges festivals a significant percentage of entry fees).
Be sure to read through the articles and blog entries at The Film Collaborative (thefilmcollaborative.org), which was founded as a resource for filmmakers to navigate festivals and distribution.
A few sites that focus on submitting to festivals:
Film Freeway: filmfreeway.com
Festival Focus: festivalfocus.org
Short Film Depot: shortfilmdepot.com
Andrew Putschoegl is a Los Angeles-based independent filmmaker. His latest feature, “BFFs” (bffsthemovie.com), played in more than 30 festivals throughout 2014 and will be released in 2015.