As readers of this blog know, I rarely (if ever) post outside content on this site. 99% of the material you will find here are articles completely based on my own personal experience as a filmmaker, but occasionally I come across some content that I feel is absolutely necessary to share through this platform.
Yesterday, I read an article written by Stephen Elliot, titled “The Great Film Festival Swindle”. As the name suggests, the article takes a look at some of the realities that independent filmmakers face when applying to film festivals. While there are countless articles online that will offer tips, advice, or criticism of various festivals – most of them are very subjective and don’t really offer any hard data. This one is different.
Stephen is an accomplished filmmaker and writer, whose directorial debut was the 2012 drama “About Cherry”, which starred James Franco, Dev Patel, and Heather Graham, amongst many other notable performers. Since then, Stephen has worked on numerous other projects including his last film “Happy Baby”, which was rejected from every one of the 15 festivals it was submitted to. As a director with substantial experience and exposure under his belt, Stephen was naturally upset by the results of his festival experience, which ultimately led him to interview over 100 filmmakers and festival programmers, in hopes of leaning more about the festival selection process.
For a detailed breakdown of Stephen’s findings, I definitely recommend that you read his article in full. That said, I wanted to summarize some of the key takeaways that I picked up from the article, many of which will certainly help to guide future festival submissions.
BLIND SUBMISSIONS CAN BE AT A DISADVANTAGE
There are numerous ways that your film can be programmed at a festival, and submitting it via withoutabox blindly is only one of those ways. Depending on the size, scope, and infrastructure of any given festival, they may opt to program their lineup in any number of ways. For instance a mid-level festival might approach successful filmmakers that have screened at top-tier festivals and invite them to have a place in the competition. Large festivals might turn to their alumni, sales agents, and other colleagues for programing recommendations.
The vast majority of film festivals program based on a mix of all of these different elements. Very few are curated without any blind submissions, but at the same time even fewer are programmed entirely by blind submissions… What does this mean though?
It means that if you are submitting your film blindly to most festivals, you have a much lower statistical chance of getting in than you might think.
To use some easy numbers – let’s pretend a festival is going to program 10 features and they get 100 submissions. You might assume you have a 1/10 chance of getting in based on those numbers, but that could be very far off. It’s very possible (and even likely) that a large number of those 10 films were curated or favored based on pre-existing relationships, star status, and other political factors. So in reality, while it might appear that you are fighting for 1 of 10 open slots, you might only be fighting for 1 of 3 open slots – or less.
Clearly this isn’t always going to be the case, but it something you need to be aware of when researching festivals to submit your project to.
WAIVERS CAN HELP DRAMATICALLY
Throughout the research that Stephen did, he analyzed dozens of film festivals and asked their filmmakers and programmers whether specific films were accepted blindly, or if they were granted waivers. A waiver of course is when a festival allows a filmmaker, sales agent, or representative to submit a film without paying a submission fee. In some cases, waivers will genuinely help independent filmmakers with little to no money, as they give them an opportunity to have their films considered without breaking the bank. In other cases though, waivers are granted with more preferential treatment to films that already have many advantages on their side – whether in the way of representation, star talent, or other factors.
We all know that there is no such thing as “fair” programming when it comes to film festivals, and filmmakers that have built strong relationships with festivals and have proven themselves in the industry, in many ways have earned the right to be at an advantage.
That said, as pointed out in Stephens article – applying for fee waivers is a very good idea, even if you are not an established filmmaker. If a festival does grant you a waiver, they likely see some real value in your work and it might help you stand out from the crowd and stay on their radar throughout the submission process. If they don’t grant you a waiver though, it might be a sign that your film isn’t a good fit for their festival, and at least knowing where you stand with them might help you save a hefty submission fee.
NOT ALL FESTIVALS ARE MADE ALIKE
As someone who has worked as a programmer for a local film festival here in LA, I know that it isn’t always bad news when it comes to festivals. Festival programmers do not want to hurt independent filmmakers or take advantage of them in any way. Their goal is to get the most relevant content on the screen, and fill the most seats possible. Even still, when you look at the hard numbers in Stephen’s article, it’s hard to dispute that some festivals offer a more level playing field than others.
Let’s look at the results from 2 different festivals that Stephen researched: Tribeca and Dances With Films. Stephen was able to contact 20 filmmakers that had their films programmed in either festival (10 from each), and got completely different responses from the two groups. Of the 10 filmmakers that screened at Tribeca, not a single one of them paid an entry fee. On the other hand, of the 10 that screened at Dances With Films, every single one of them was accepted via a blind submission.
This is pretty eye opening. It gives me a lot of respect for Dances With Films and other festivals like it (such as Cinequest or Slamdance) which mostly or entirely program based on blind submissions and/or don’t offer fee waivers. On the other hand, I don’t blame a festival like Tribeca for operating the way they do. It’s a free world and any film festival should have the right to program their lineup however they see fit – I just wish there was more transparency.
I hope that more people like Stephen continue to speak out about their festival experiences, and more festivals take a note from the pages of Slamdance, Dances With Films, and Cinequest, which I believe offer indie filmmakers a better shot at getting exposure for their work.
Film festivals today are very different from what they were just a few years ago. More films are created now than ever, and film festival programmers need to look for ways to curate their programs to the best of their ability with the resources they have. With that in mind, it’s important to understand that the odds will largely be stacked against you, even under the best circumstances.
Many filmmakers are tremendously discouraged when they aren’t accepted into festivals. I know several that have quit filmmaking entirely as a result of not getting in to their dream festival after multiple attempts. But in my opinion you should never let anyone or anything – especially a festival – dictate whether or not you have talent. You may already be making incredible films, or you may still have a long way to go in developing your craft. But regardless of where you are with your career, always try to put things in perspective when it comes to those dreaded festival rejection letters.
Some of the most successful filmmakers I know where rejected from dozens of festivals, yet still forged ahead and were able to secure distribution for those same films. Conversely, I’ve seen some very undeserving films get accepted prematurely into festivals, simply based on politics. This will never be a fair game, and there will never be a level playing field… But if you love what you do, keep doing it and let the work itself be your reward.