I’m not going to profess to be an expert in this matter, but I have worked as a festival screener for a few notable and well-respected New York-based film festivals over the last couple of years. I’ve picked up a few things along the way—some things perhaps obvious, others maybe not so much. I spend hours upon hours watching terrible films of all types, including features, shorts, narratives, documentaries, live action, animation, drama, comedy, and experimental. There are the occasional good films, which act as a welcome palate cleanser, but often even those films don’t make the cut. Seems unfair, but it’s the reality of festivals. There is no silver bullet—no road to take that will guarantee acceptance into a festival, but there are a few things worth considering—things that we screeners and programmers look for—that can only help your chances. But before I spill these pearls, let me give you a brief description of who we screeners are and what role we play.
First off, it’s worth noting that screeners are not programmers. We are volunteers with an intimate knowledge of film. Some work in the industry, some are press, some are filmmakers, and some are film buffs who have proven their knowledge and passion for the medium. We are responsible for watching the hundreds or thousands of films that are submitted by filmmakers—professional and amateur alike—acting as the first line of defense. We watch the entirety of each film (out of respect for the movie and its filmmaker—even though our skilled eyes can often tell in the first couple of minutes if the film will be bad), then review and rate each film in multiple categories. Based on our ratings, the films will either pass to another screener for a second look or go straight to a programmer (the paid experts who make all final decisions and shape the festival’s offerings), or, and this may hurt a little, the films are hurled into oblivion, never to be watched again. It sounds harsh, but it’s the truth. With this in mind, although screeners do not make any final decisions, we do bear some weight, helping to guide the programmers; if we plainly don’t like a film, then it will die before ever making it to a programmer.
So how do you get your film past the screeners and increase your chances of earning those prestigious laurels? These tips below will not guarantee anything, but knowing them won’t hurt. (Note that not all of these apply to every festival.)
Know the rules. Different festivals have different rules for the submitted films. Be sure to know them well. For example, some festivals will not accept a film that’s already gained distribution. Some will not allow films that have screened online (even on your personal YouTube page). Some festivals won’t allow films that were completed past a certain time period (e.g., a film completed in 2010 may not be eligible for a festival in 2012). And some festivals prefer films that would be making their premiere at that festival. I don’t know if that latter point would be found in the festival’s “rules,” but it doesn’t hurt to know (a contradiction to follow).
Name talent. This should be a no-brainer. Although it pains me to say it, films that star name actors will very rarely hurt you. Festivals, too, are a business (whether for-profit or not). They’re looking to raise their profiles and gain eyeballs and press. Talent does this. I’ve seen bad films with name talent that make the final cut. It makes me cry a little.
Relevance to the area in which the festival is based. If you’re submitting to a local or regional festival, it helps if your film was shot in or is set in the area in which the festival is based. It also helps if you, the filmmaker, are from the area. Festivals often like to celebrate their geographic areas. It attracts the local audience.
Previous success. On the contrary to what I previously stated, it does sometimes help if your film screened at another festival, won an award, or generated buzz. It shows that others have recognized your film, and that stamp of approval might be just what your film needs to skip the screener round and go straight to a programmer for consideration.
Focus on a quality film, not a quality DVD label. I was told early on that DVD screeners with a well-designed label are often bad—that a good label attempts to compensate for a piss-poor film. This isn’t always true, but more often than not it is. A plain DVD with the film’s title on it and any other required information is all that’s needed. Save your creativity for the film. No DVD label will save a bad film. Screeners and programmers are not stupid.
To close this out, you can hit every one of these marks and still receive a rejection letter. Don’t let that discourage you. Too many great films get rejected. Last year, I screened a terrific short film that I highly recommended to programmers, but it was still rejected. The filmmakers and I found validation months later when that film earned an Academy Award nomination. Rejection from a festival is not the end of the world. The truth is that there often aren’t enough open spots for every great film. Short films, in particular, most often screen in larger, themed programs. If the programmers are looking to build a shorts program focused on a particular theme, then a lackluster film that falls within that theme may have a better shot of being accepted than an amazing film that doesn’t.
Acceptance into a festival—particularly a top festival—can give you and your film the boost you’re looking for. But rejection doesn’t necessarily mean your film is bad, so keep on trying (as long as you can afford the submission fees). If you believe in your film, fight for it. That said, the vast majority of submitted films are crap. If you can’t tell if your film is bad, then you have bigger problems on your hands than a festival rejection. And that, my friends, is the plain truth.