The Film Festival Rabbit Hole

Your film is in the can. You are finishing up on the last-minute edits and fine tuning your original sound track. You start to notice your actors are promoting some of the other films they’ve worked on, and perhaps see the latest announcements about their film showing in Cannes, Tribeca or the CAAM Fest. Your eyes tear as you see yourself walking those Red Carpets, lights flashing, and reporters clamor for your attention.

You begin to think life is passing too fast. You are missing out on the experience of riding the highs of filmmaking: the thrill of acceptance; the pampering at registration; the acceptance speech; and, the adoration that come with that. You think about how you will be discovered by west coast agents and wonder how you’ll accept the call from Netflix for your first short.

Then you make your first submission, and in less time than it takes to actually watch your 10-minute film, you check your email for the acceptance letter. You think, “Geez, that was easy. I’ve set up the profile page on the festival submission site. This submitting process is painfully simple.”

You start receiving emails from festivals saying they’ve heard about your film and offer you a discount to submit, not thinking that there is no way they could possibly know you or your work. Your ego has been successfully stroked, so you click on the link, drop $30 and begin the long wait.

“Hmmm… What other festivals have a ‘Shorts’ category? I’ve never been to Venice, but I hear it’s beautiful in the fall. It only costs $45 to submit. Stranger things have happened.” And “Click”, you throw your hat in the ring to one of the most competitive film festivals in the world. “That was easy, what else is coming up?”

Two hours later, you’ve submitted to 25 festivals. In two weeks, that number will be up to 50. It’s not until your wife asks, “Honey, what are all these charges?” Abracadabra, you’ve racked up over $1,350 in fees plus tax. (The average cost of submitting to film festivals is $27 for a short film, and $40 for a feature.)

Now here is the fun part, you’ll start getting your share of rejection letters. In fact, if you have submitted to the more competitive festivals, most of your emails will start off with “Thank you for your submission, unfortunately…” Not to despair, eventually you’ll get one, perhaps a few, that start with “Congratulations!” and all will be well with the world. You’ll get the dopamine rush and the hunt begins again for that other festival that sees the potential all those others missed.

Ego can be a powerful mistress. You forget the money, forget the commitments you’ve already made six months from now. You don’t think about the cost of winning. Yes, when you are accepted to a festival, you have made a commitment to participate in an event that may be taking place far from your home. Are you prepared to support your screening? Do you have a press kit, poster, trailer, DCP, and Blu-ray? If you are planning to attend, have you fully considered the expense? Are you prepared to market your film to the local community or are you okay flying across the country to sit in a theater with the two other filmmakers who are screening in your block, hoping the projectionist will take pity on you and share interesting insights during the Q&A?

The point is, have a strategy when you start the festival process. Set realistic expectations. Sure, swing for the fences on a couple of the Academy Award Qualifiers or festivals that receive 1,000s of submissions. Nothing wrong with that, but you’d be better off doing your homework. Carefully review each festival’s website and see if they are actually adding value to the filmmakers they have accepted. Talk to filmmakers who attended, you probably know a few on Facebook or Instagram. Ask them about their experience.

Try to find the films that have screened there in the previous two years and watch them if possible. Are those the types of films you want to be associated with? Does the festival offer live screenings? Do they involve the local community? Are there opportunities for filmmakers to meet and engage with each other? Bottom line, would you feel proud to display that festival’s Laurel on your film poster?

Look for festivals you know you can support, perhaps in your own state or region. Ones that are themed to the type of film you produced, so you can feel more confident that there will be an audience that will enjoy the experience you are providing with your work.

Submitting to festivals is a gamble, but you can manage your risk if you have a plan. Definitely enjoy the ride. Take the rejections in stride and don’t let them dissuade you from pursuing your passion. You will find the right festivals, but you have to look in the right places.

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