The Nine Reasons Why a Film Festival Might Reject Your Film

You can’t come in.

As of this writing, I've submitted 20 Matches to 41 film festivals. Deciding where to submit can be tricky, as most festivals cost money to enter, and those fees add up fast. To make it worth the gamble, you have to consider which festivals you're willing and able to travel to; how much clout each festival has; whether it's the right venue for your film; if it has potential for distribution sales, industry connections, cash prizes, drunken orgies, etc. As I await my own acceptance letters and/or rejection slips, this list should help you decipher the rationales behind the latter.

  1. Your film stinks. Let's just get this one out of the way. A couple years ago, I spoke with the head programmer of a top-tier film festival. I asked him, out of the 4,000 submissions he received each year, how many were outright terrible. His answer: Half. That means 2,000 unwatchable films every year. 2,000 films with lousy audio, amateurish acting, rambling plots, and/or a general cluelessness about filmmaking. (The other 2,000 submissions ranged in quality from mediocre to excellent.) That's encouraging news for competent filmmakers. Problem is, bad filmmakers think they're competent too.
  2. Your film is great, but there's not enough room. This same programmer also told me that, each year, about 400 films – 10% of submissions – were perfect for his festival... yet he could only accept 200 of them, since the festival was only so big. Think about that: you have to reject half the films you love. Every programmer surely encounters this Sophie's Choice-like situation.
  3. Your film is too similar to another film. Let's say you submit a documentary about Bette Davis or a comedy about monkeys, but ten other filmmakers have also submitted Bette Davis docs or monkey comedies that year. How could you have known? Regardless, since festivals crave variety, you might be out of luck.
  4. Your film doesn't fit into any category or theme. Many festivals have annual "themes", based on their programmers' tastes or reactions to previous years. The Anytown Film Festival might say, "In 2016, we're focusing on family dramas"... but your film isn't a family drama. Or they might say, "Last year we tried a midnight movies section, and it flopped. So this year, nothing weird or cultish"... and your film is weird and cultish. You can try contacting staff before submitting to see what's up, although these categories and themes often take shape only after the submissions deadline.
  5. Your film doesn't fit into the festival's mission. Out of all 41 festivals that I submitted to, I only regret two: Sundance (for reasons I'll discuss below) and something called "Winnipeg Real to Reel". The latter rejected 20 Matches because their mission statement made it clear that they only wanted films with "positive values" – that is, Christian and/or family movies. 20 Matches certainly doesn't fit either bill, so sending it there was my mistake. Do your homework!
  6. Festival programmers' infighting. Programmers are only human, and humans don't always see eye to eye. But like jurors at your trial, you may never know whether they unanimously hated your film, or if they all loved it except for one pain-in-the-ass who harangued everyone into voting no.
  7. Pre-selected films took up the lion's share of slots. Along with their open call for submissions, most festivals also invite filmmakers who already have relationships with them, and/or who have already proved their mettle at earlier festivals – especially at Sundance. (If you look at multiple festival lineups each year, you will see the same titles pop up again and again. It's not a coincidence.) Can you blame them? They want good films from people they like. But those films can gobble up a lot of programming slots, making it even harder for you to get in, you newbie you.
  8. No one actually watched your film. Every rejected filmmaker suspects this at some point, while every film festival denies it. "We watch everything we get!" they say. "Twice!" they add. And I believe most of them really do. But I was hesitant to submit 20 Matches to Sundance because we finished it just days before their final deadline, when they had likely already accepted most if not all of the films they wanted for 2016. (See reason #7, above.) I submitted anyway, just to show my backers that I tried, but Vimeo statistics suggested that Sundance never watched my online screener, and common sense suggests same: with thousands of submissions coming in during the last couple of weeks, and with just two months after that to finalize programming, who has time to watch and consider every one of those last-minute entries? But it's impossible to prove. (One guy even sued Sundance over this, but his case was dismissed.)
  9. The festival's programmers have bad taste. Just tell yourself this every time you get a rejection letter. Art is subjective, of course, but in truth, some of the worst films I've ever seen were at festivals. As with most things, approach the festival circuit with a deflated ego and a zen attitude. If you get in, great. But if you don't, well, there are many parts of "NO" that you may not understand.