How To Avoid Wasting Money On Film Festival Submission Fees

I’ve grown tired of how film festivals shamelessly exploit filmmakers, a practice that has become particularly bad in the last few years.

I’m not just talking about the obvious scam film festivals either. There are issues on virtually every level of film festival programming.

On the bottom of the barrel are the bogus / online-only festivals that only exist to collect submission fees, and then sell filmmaker data to other festivals that are looking to do the same.

Then there are the in-person festivals that accept virtually any movie submitted, and subsequently charge filmmakers for screening fees, marketing assets or to buy an “award” that their film won.

But the issues with festival programming go all the way up the ladder.

At mid-tier festivals, films are often programmed by cherry picking movies from top-tier fests, and then doing a “local premiere” of an already popular film.

And then there of course the cream of the crop festivals (like Sundance, TIFF, Cannes, etc.), which every filmmaker is desperate to get into.

But most of their programming slots (especially for features) are spoken for before you even submit your movie. They are accepted through agency back channels and prioritized based on what already has buzz.

It often makes me wonder why these A-list festivals even accept blind submissions at all.

There are festivals still worth straight up submitting to, however.

Slamdance, SXSW, and Raindance are in my opinion 3 of the most fair, larger indie festivals out there. But unfortunately they are the exception to the rule.

I genuinely hope in the near future an organization emerges that imposes transparency on festivals. We should know how many movies get submitted each year and how many are programmed blind, at the very least.

If no one builds it, I may just have to do it myself one day.

But for now, we can at least navigate the existing festival landscape strategically, knowing what we’re up against.

On my latest feature film, I am using a new festival submission strategy, largely inspired by a discussion with Dan Mirvish – co-founder of Slamdance.

Dan has written about this topic extensively in his awesome filmmaking book, which is worth taking a read here.

The goal is to gauge interest in your film before ever paying for a submission fee to avoid wasted time, money and effort.

Here’s how it can work:

  1. Make a list of 25 – 50 festivals you want to submit to
  2. Look up the festival director or lead programmer for each festival
  3. Email the festivals directly and let them know you have a world premiere available

At this point, one of 3 things will happen:

  • A) You will get no response
  • B) You will get a response but no waiver code
  • C) You will get a response with a waiver code

In all 3 scenarios you are ahead.

Worst-case, if you  don’t so much as get a response back from the festival, you can save yourself the $100 submission fee and not waste your time.

But about 30% of the time you will hear back. And you will either get a waiver code (meaning you can submit for free) or you won’t be offered one, but at least your film is now on the festival’s radar.

My personal rule is this: So long as I at least hear back from a festival, I will submit. Paid or not.

But I generally won’t pay to subsidize a festival that can’t reply to an email after 2 weeks.

There are some rare cases where I will pay to submit to a festival I can’t get in touch with directly. But it’s often because I’ve researched the festival already, know the film is a good fit, and am certain that the blind submissions do get a fair shake.

The point isn’t to avoid all submission fees. It’s to make sure your festival budget goes as far as possible.

Hope this was helpful for those of you with festivals on the horizon!

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    About Author

    Noam Kroll is an award-winning Los Angeles based filmmaker, and the founder of the boutique production house, Creative Rebellion. His work can be seen at international film festivals, on network television, and in various publications across the globe. Follow Noam on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook for more content like this!


    • Daniel Blum

      Good article! Someone needs to create a doc about how to avoid certain screenplay contests and film festivals! Hopefully to shed light on the the shadowy side of the industry that brings in millions each year.

    • Henry Larry

      Great insights! It’s disheartening to see the exploitation in the film festival circuit. Your breakdown of the issues at different levels sheds light on a crucial aspect of the industry. Are there specific festivals you recommend for genuine opportunities despite these challenges?
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