My film professor gave me a couple good pieces of advice when I started applying to film festivals:
–Don’t use Without a Box, do use Film Freeway
-Write a cover letter with your submission
-Apply to niche festivals, stay away from the big ones
Armed with only that knowledge, I started submitting to festivals left and right (I also found some other good information along the way). Here are other things I wish I had known or followed from the beginning:
-Get the best festival you can for your film’s world premiere (oops…now I know…)
-Know the festival opening dates and earlybird deadlines, and always submit by that earlybird deadline. It saves money and increases the chances of acceptance, before festival programmers are too burned out to care
-Look professional: get a website together, social media, etc, even for a short film (or maybe especially for a short film, if you want to set yourself apart). An IMDB page isn’t a bad idea, either.
-Apply to festivals where you have a connection, like it being your hometown or the state in which you’re currently residing (I can partly attest to the efficacy of this one: the only state that’s been interested in my film is Colorado. Even Ohio festivals don’t want me…yet)
-Research the festivals before submitting, know what they play to see if yours is a good fit
I’m really not good at following that last one: too long, boring and I hate watching most of the films. My solution was to throw money at the problem (sort of the shotgun approach), and hope some would accept me. Now, this way does work, as I can attest, being accepted to a total of 6 film festivals as of this writing. However, that’s 6 acceptances out of nearly 150 submissions, so I don’t really consider that the best acceptance rate. And you will pay the price for that approach! I’ve spent $1700 of my own money submitting to film festivals; remember I made the film for $1000 (and $200 of that was dedicated to submission fees, so really I’ve paid $1900 in submissions). Hopefully I’ve learned something about which festivals to submit to in the future and will be able to not waste nearly as much money next time.
That said, with all the wondering about festivals that program mostly from films that did not pay submission fees, I can say with confidence that it is possible to get into film festivals from blind submissions. It’s happened to me several times, I’m happy to say, and hopefully will again sooner rather than later. But I do happen to know one co-programmer of a local festival, so nepotism has also worked to my advantage. I even submitted to one festival through their website where the payment was supposed to be sent in separately through Paypal, which I neglected to do. A month or so later, I got an email from the festival director inviting me to screen at their festival, if and only if I paid my submission fee. There are all kinds of festivals out there with many ways of doing business, and whatever the circumstances under which my film is accepted, I for one ain’t gonna look a gift horse in the mouth. I’ve contacted festivals about waivers, but usually only if they’re available to students or for local filmmakers. Usually they’re only applicable if you live in that particular state, but if an Ohio festival offers a waived fee for current residents, I’ll send out an email to see if I’m eligible for anything as a native Ohioan who lived his first 23 years there. Sometimes the festivals can be generous.
I still don’t know about the whole film festival process though. Maybe it will be a good stepping stone to making features later on down the road and hopefully learning the hard way with a short or two will make it easier in the future. Let me talk about Film Freeway for a second: it’s definitely a double-edged sword. Film Freeway makes things super easy on the filmmaker, as all one has to do is make a project, upload a screener to their server, find festivals that are currently taking submissions, load up the shopping cart, and connect to Paypal. Isn’t modern digital technology wonderful? But just like how DSLRs enable filmmakers to make a movie easily and cheaply, so it is with festival submissions. Now that everyone can do it, everyone and their dog is doing it, and flooding the market with shit mostly, making it that much harder to get noticed. On every rejection letter I’ve got (and there have been a lot of those), they always talk about receiving a record number of submissions. Maybe it wouldn’t make a difference in my case if 500 or 5000 films were submitted, but either way the competition is growing year by year, and from here it will just get harder to wedge your foot in the door. Any way you can set yourself apart (aside from making a really good film) will help, which is why writing a cover letter is so important. I’ve had one festival director mention my cover letter in accepting me to a festival, so I don’t know if I’d be there without it.
So does the cream still rise to the top? My professors seem to think so. I could wish for a few more (and more prestigious) festival acceptances. And I know I’m biased, but I know I made a good film; it’s the singular work I’m most proud of so far. So getting so many rejections really does bruise the ego (and maybe that’s another consequence of that shotgun approach I mentioned at the beginning).
After all that, I’m still doing pretty well, having played 6 festivals since May:
2016 UCCS Short Film Festival (won best experimental film)
2016 Blissfest333 (won best experimental film, nominated best documentary short)
2016 Southern Colorado Film Festival
2016 London International Documentary Festival
2017 Durango Independent Film Festival
2017 Wales International Documentary Festival
One of the things that might have hurt me slightly is that I didn’t get the best premiere. Of course I wasn’t thinking that when I submitted to my school’s festival but no one cares about your regional university’s student film festival, whether it’s in its 16th year or not (and according to my film professor school festivals are ineligible for premieres, which means that technically my world premiere was Blissfest). He thinks that with a better world premiere I would have got more acceptances, say if I had held off for LIDF, though I think for an international premiere, I did quite well (Prof says there’s no such thing as an international premiere, but I’d disagree based on the criteria of some of the different festivals to which I’ve submitted). So is premiering at a large, prestigious festival better than winning awards like I did at the smaller festivals? I can’t answer that. As it stands though, even if my film professor says it isn’t eligible, my world premiere was at the 16th Annual UCCS Short Film Festival.
Through all of that, the good side is that every festival I attend is better than the last. I’m finishing up writing this from the Durango Independent Film Festival which has been a great experience for me. After wondering whether it’s worth it sometimes (especially having spent $1700 of my own money), the counter argument is being able to attend a good festival, where people want to see your film, colleagues want to connect with each other, and everybody is there to have fun.