The Nine Types of Film Festivals

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Much of my time this year has been spent on film festivals: entering them, attending them, and just plain obsessing over them. This list, informed by my experiences and observations, is written with the American independent filmmaker in mind. My short 20 Matches has played in (almost) all of the following types of festivals; for a full list, go here. So if you've made a film and you're wondering where to submit it, I hope this will help.

  1. The Big Four. Sundance, Toronto, South By Southwest, Tribeca. To be blunt, these are the only North American festivals that can truly make or break an indie filmmaker's career. Other fests may boast of the occasional distribution deal, but nothing gets the press and industry attention that these four do. Which is why everyone with a film, from Oscar winners to rank amateurs, clamors to get in. Since competition is so fierce, your chances of being accepted are almost nil. You will, of course, try anyway.
  2. Oscar Qualifiers. As of this writing, 28 American festivals are officially "Oscar Qualifiers". Specifically, this means if your short film wins a prize at any of them, it becomes eligible for an Academy Award nomination. That's cool, but said short can also be eligible if you simply pay to screen it in a Los Angeles cinema for a week – and no matter what, only 15 shorts (5 live action, 5 documentaries, 5 animated) actually score an Oscar nod each year. More to the point, the "Oscar-Qualifying" modifier adds prestige to a festival, and thus makes it harder to get into. (Examples: Seattle, Atlanta, Slamdance, Ann Arbor.)
  3. Big City Festivals. Even if they're not all Oscar Qualifiers, there are many large film festivals throughout the country: civic boosters for their host cities (e.g., Dallas, Denver, Philadelphia, Boston). In fact, name any urban area with a population of over half a million, and it's likely got an "official" film festival. Your chances of getting accepted are not necessarily easier than at Oscar Qualifiers, as big city fests tend to pack their lineups with high-profile films to get butts in seats. If you're a local, your chances might improve.
  4. Resort Town Festivals. Look at what Sundance did for Park City – and in the middle of ski season, too! A lot of resort towns have followed Sundance's lead. These range from the ultra-elite Telluride Film Festival to the Oscar-qualifying Aspen ShortsFest to prestigious festivals in Ashland, OR, Woodstock, NY, and Wilmington, NC. My advice: Enter these festivals! They're usually well-funded, well-attended, and treat filmmakers like royalty.
  5. The Mom-and-Pops. These intimate affairs are highly variable in quality, as they are organized by just one or two people who can be awesome, in over their heads, or both. Upside: they're cheap to enter and you stand a good chance of being accepted, as they don't get a ton of submissions. Downside: screenings may be poorly attended and/or run. But every great film festival has to start somewhere, and there are many passionate little fests with a can-do attitude.
  6. Los Angeles-Based Festivals. With LA the center of the entertainment industry, filmmakers hope that screening their work in the proximity of so many industry bigwigs will lead to opportunities. And so dozens of festivals have popped up in and around Los Angeles, from the highfalutin AFI Fest to the solid Dances With Films to hordes of startups. In truth, those industry bigwigs rarely show up, but audiences are enthusiastic, as they're often filled with actors from the selected films.
  7. Genre Fests. This is a whole subculture. Typically focused on horror and/or science fiction, many have come to embrace fantasy, thrillers, dark comedies... really, anything geeky, strange, or over-the-top. From giants like Sitges and Fantastic Fest to up-and-comers like FilmQuest and HorrorHaus (both of which played the genre-ish 20 Matches), these are the least boring festivals around. Enter them if your film qualifies, and if you want to have fun.
  8. Foreign Affairs. Film festivals outside of the US and Canada run the gamut, from the all-powerful Cannes/Venice/Berlin trinity to hundreds of established, state-funded festivals (San Sebastian, Hong Kong, Melbourne, etc.) to scruffy labors of love in local cinemas. American filmmakers should know two things about foreign festivals: First, most are free to enter (except, quizzically, for those in English-speaking countries). Yay! Second, most have a strong bias against American films. Boo! In short, free submission policies are tempting – what have you got to lose? – but your chances of acceptance are slim to none.
  9. "Scams." I wrap this word in quotation marks because, despite what many disgruntled filmmakers believe, the vast majority of festivals are not out to rip you off. They sincerely hope to program some amazing films out of the cold submissions. In any event, the money they raise from submission fees is a drop in the bucket compared to what they spend on venue rental, staff salaries, advertising, etc. That said, there are situations where a filmmaker can feel scammed: for instance, two festivals "accepted" 20 Matches without playing it. (I did not list them on the film's page.) I've also heard of "Filmmaker Awards" – watch out for that term, it's a red flag –that just give every filmmaker a piece of paper so they can say their film won an award. Few of these "events" even hold screenings. They are the real scams. But by researching each festival you plan to enter, you can quickly tell how legit it is. But spend your submission money wisely – it goes fast, believe me.