One of the worst feelings for filmmakers is the disappointment that surrounds the opening of a dreaded rejection letter from a film festival. Many of us feel that festivals are the key to our success and growth as filmmakers, and naturally when we don’t get accepted it can be a tough pill to swallow. This year, I have been fortunate enough to have been brought on board as the short film programmer for an excellent festival here in Los Angeles (DFFLA), and after having to send out my share of rejection notices, it really put things in perspective for me. Below I’ll share my two cents on why getting rejected from a festival often has nothing to do with the quality of your work, and what you can do to improve your chances.
I’ve directed many short films and have been lucky enough to have had them screen at quite a number of festivals, and occasionally they have even been awarded. But I’ve also had many of those same films rejected from other film festivals as well, and I can certainly relate to the disappointment of not getting in. That said, it really wasn’t until this year when I started working as a festival programmer that I truly understood the submission process – Including the massive amount of films that come in, and the extremely hard decisions that need to be made in order to take hundreds (or thousands) of films and cherry pick a few dozen of them to fill out various programming blocks.
Why Films Get Rejected
Most filmmakers incorrectly assume that if their film was rejected, it was a direct result of their film itself not being strong enough. This could not be further from the truth. Yes, there are certainly films that get rejected because the production value is low, the script isn’t great, the acting is poor, etc. But generally these types of films are from filmmakers that are just starting out that haven’t yet honed their craft, and they simply need more time to develop it before their films are at the level that they will be accepted to film festivals. If you’re reading this site though, chances are you don’t fall into that category. You may very well be at the point where the quality and substance of your films is quite strong and you’ve spent enough time developing your craft to know that your work is festival worthy, which is why it is so frustrating when you don’t get in.
Festivals of all shapes and sizes receive a massive amount of submissions, and there are only a handful of slots open – meaning a very low percentage of films are accepted to any given festival. Many festivals can only take as little as 1% – 2% of the submitted films, which makes the decision making process extremely difficult. Also, most film festivals aim to have a well rounded program that consists of films of various genres, styles, and formats. This means that your odds of getting can be even further reduced (depending on the other submissions that come in), since your film likely only applies to one or two categories and those categories may have an abundance of submissions that year. For instance if you submit your short horror film to a festival that only has 6 slots available in their horror program, ultimately your odds of getting into that particular festival are pretty slim. This is especially relevant if that year the festival happens to get loads of horror submissions, which of course makes getting accepted that much more difficult. I’m not saying this to discourage anyone from submitting to festivals, as I truly believe that great films do rise to the top and have the potential to get programmed, but there are also many great films that just can’t get in. Your film might simply be too long to fit into a program, or it has already premiered (and the festival is looking for a world premiere status), or maybe another film already selected deals with a similar theme or subject matter.
Festivals will always send out a rejection letter telling you that “hard decisions were made” and that “so many amazing films couldn’t fit into the program this year”. Having now programmed for a festival, I know just how true these statements are. There were some incredibly powerful and moving films that I screened for this years festival that couldn’t make the cut for various reasons – none of which had anything to do with the overall quality of the work. So at the end of the day, applying to festivals really comes down to a numbers game. If you submit to enough relevant festivals, you will start to get in. Even award winning films don’t get into most festivals that they apply to, so don’t be discouraged if the majority of festivals reject your work – it’s just how it goes. But remember that all it takes is one great festival to give you an acceptance letter and it will make the journey worth it.
Beating The Odds
There are many ways to improve your odds of getting into a festival, but probably the most important thing that you can do involves targeting your submissions. If you have an experimental genre film, go after genre festivals. Or if you have a documentary, submit it to as many documentary-centric festivals as possible. Following this simple principle will mean your film has a much better shot of getting in, as there will be many more categories open for your film to potentially be programmed in. Also, make sure that if you are submitting through withoutabox (which most festivals will require), your film’s profile is engaging and complete, as it makes it much easier for festival programmers to organize and identify your film. Not to mention it’s a chance for you to write something original and really grab the committees attention right from the get go.
Something else that you can do (once your film has already screened at a few festivals) is attempt to have other festivals curate your film. In other words, rather than submitting blindly through withoutabox, e-mail festival programmers directly and let them know your film is having a successful festival run. Most film festivals are looking for at least a handful of popular films that they can curate, so once you’ve been accepted to at least a few festivals you can really use this to your advantage.
And lastly, for any of you short filmmakers out there – make sure that the runtime of your film is reasonable. If your short is over 15-20 minutes long, it is going to be quite difficult to program so try to keep your runtime to a minimum and find ways to tell your story economically. In my opinion 6 – 12 minutes for a short film is the optimal sweet spot, but there are certainly exceptions to this rule.
Festivals are no longer the only route to success for independent films. Today, having a Vimeo Staff Pick is considered by many filmmakers to be as prestigious or exciting as getting into a major film festival, and many careers have formed by distributing work online. That said, festivals are still very much a part of the equation, and should always be considered when formulating your film’s marketing strategy. If you can have a successful festival run, it will only fuel all of your other efforts (including an online push), and it will help immensely in getting it on the radar of more traditionally oriented industry professionals (like agents and managers), who will likely place a premium on those festival laurels.
In short – Get out there and make the absolute best film that you can make. When it’s just right, submit it to as many targeted festivals as you can (knowing that you will only get into a few, no matter how great your film is), and then leverage your success to appeal to more festivals as the year goes on.
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