Nine Tips for Entering Film Festivals

Mark (second from right) at the Seattle International Film Festival, 2016
I'm currently in the thick of submitting Words to Live by to American film festivals near and far. (I'm not pursuing foreign festivals this time, for reasons stated below.) A lot of websites offer dos and don'ts for the festival-bound filmmaker, but these are mine, based on my own experiences and observations. Before you start submitting your film – hell, before you start making your film – I hope you'll consider these pointers. And before you say "All film festivals are scams! They take your money, then only play films made by their cronies!" I am living proof that you don't have to be an insider to get into a renowned festival. Anyway:
  1. Ask yourself what you really hope to get out of this. If you plan to ride the festival circuit, be frank about your goals. Don't just say, "I want to find a buyer for my current film and/or funding for my next one," because a) everyone wants that, and b) it's extremely unlikely. So why spend all this money on entry fees? Do you seek validation from tastemakers? Awesome parties in beautiful locales? A local screening where someone else is footing the bill? Or just a bunch of random festival laurels for your movie poster? These are all valid desires, nothing to be ashamed of. But your personal priorities should inform which festivals you apply to.
  2. Factor festival submission fees into your film's budget. Too many indie filmmakers spend thousands on their films, then have nothing left over for submission fees. So they take a gamble on Sundance and/or SXSW with their scant remaining funds, don't get in, then dump their films onto YouTube. If you want a decent chance at getting into some decent festivals, budget $1,000-$2,000 for fees – the average fee for a short is $40; $50 for a feature – and you should submit to at least 25 festivals, 50 if you can swing it. In 2015-2016, I submitted 20 Matches to 32 American festivals. I got into 15 of them. That's a high acceptance ratio, but I wisely chose a mix of big, little, and genre festivals – and if you'll pardon my pride, 20 Matches was kind of a perfect film; it stood out. As Words to Live by is a more straightforward drama, I'm shooting for a 10% acceptance rate. So if I apply to 50 fests, I'll theoretically get into five of them. Not great odds, but that's still five potentially life-changing experiences.
  3. First timer? Don't ask for submission fee waivers. I get it: you want to save money. However, waivers are typically given only to festival alumni or students. Everyone says, "Well, it can't hurt to ask for one anyway," but I just think it's tacky. While some festivals may seem posh and well funded, I guarantee you that they're all hustling for money just like you and me. You don't want to be remembered as the entitled filmmaker who tried to score a freebie. Pay up front and hope for the best.
  4. If you're American, don't bother entering foreign festivals (unless your film is animated). There are thousands of film festivals outside the US. Many are free or cheap to enter, so it's tempting to try. But if you look at their previous years' lineups, you may detect an anti-American bias, even in Canada: US features usually play only if the director is notable or if the film was a hit at Sundance; US shorts almost never play unless they're animated. Still, if it's free, what harm can it do to enter? Trust me – I submitted 20 Matches to over 30 foreign festivals, most of which were free. I was accepted into just two of them. So basically, I wasted a lot of time and hope. And for those that had entry fees, from the nominal ($2 for Oberhausen) to the notable ($35 for Rotterdam), I spent enough to cover submissions to 3-4 additional US festivals that might have accepted my film.
  5. Do your homework: look at last year's lineups. It behooves you to take ten minutes to check out a festival's program from the previous year. (They often disappear after the fest is over, but do a little digging.) You will quickly ascertain things like whether they prefer narrative or experimental work, how they feel about genre films, if they play more than a handful of shorts, and if they mostly just screen films that were already hits at bigger festivals. If your film doesn't seem like a fit, you're probably right.
  6. Schedule your submission times. No matter when you finish your film, some fest you'd love to get into is approaching its final deadline, and a final deadline can cost $50 more than an early bird deadline, as programmers want to discourage last-minute entries. (They're also less likely to consider late entries when they've already semi-finalized their slates.) So what do you do? Spend big on the late deadline, knowing that the odds are against you? Or wait 6-8 long months before next year's early deadline rolls around? I say bite the bullet if it's a festival you really think you can get into. Otherwise, there are plenty of other great fests whose early deadlines you can always meet. Some folks warn against entering a festival too early, on the grounds that your film may be forgotten about once more submissions roll in. I can't speak to that.
  7. Write a cover letter, but keep it short. Only festival programmers can tell you how much a cover letter helps, but from what I've heard, none of them wants a long one. I write a couple of brief, courteous sentences, and I don't follow up unless I have to (like if I fixed a technical issue). I can't imagine any festival would enjoy you pestering them for updates. And don't bother kissing their butts. Some shady programmers might fall for fawning praise, but no legit festival will accept a bad film just because its filmmaker flattered them.
  8. Read the damn rules. This sounds like a no-brainer, but a lot of filmmakers gloss over the fine print – when the fine print often has important information like, "This festival is only open to residents of North Dakota." Will they refund your submission fee after you confess your mistake? Don't count on it!
  9. Be honest with yourself about the quality of your film. Don't tell me again how Tangerine was shot on an iPhone. Tangerine looks like a million bucks. Does your film look like a million bucks? Festivals exist to honor cinematic excellence, and hundreds of contenders meet their criteria every year. If your film doesn't measure up, you're just wasting your money on submission fees. I learned this the hard way when I submitted my 2013 short A Trophy to 18 well-regarded fests, getting into none of them. My script was strong and I'm proud of my editing, but my camerawork, using a friend's cheap Handycam, was utter crap. If I'd paid for an experienced cinematographer and a high-end camera and lenses, A Trophy would have fared better. If your film doesn't look professionally made, but you think it's well-written and well-acted and you think it could win over an audience, then focus on small, young festivals that are hungry for submissions. You could still have a great time, and that's what it's all about.