Absolute Submission: Top Programmers Share the Secrets to Getting Into the Festivals of Your Dreams
Dear moviemakers, I want you to know this: I love you. Or at least, I really want to love you.
I know that’s forward, but it’s why I spend months of my life locked in a room, watching hundreds of your films.
I just got back from Independent Filmmaker Project (IFP) Film Week in Brooklyn, where so many of you asked me the same question: “How can we get our film into a high-profile film festival?” It seems crazy to me that after you wrap a film, you have to face the intimidations of the festival circuit. Programmers are gatekeepers who decide which films get selected and which don’t—but it’s not us who have the real power. We’re just film geeks who want to fall in love—you have the power of creating worlds. You are the storytellers, and the power to get your story out there is more yours now than ever. I’m here waiting, always looking for that magic, knowing that it could come from the most unexpected corner. Each time I press play, I’m praying: This will be the one, the film that gives me life.
We should be so lucky as to have your film at our festival. So here’s my best advice about festival submissions, based on conversations with my fellow festival programmers, and from my experience working in programming for the past decade.
1. Decide why you want your film at a film festival. Are your priorities to: Connect with real audiences? Get distribution for the film? Be reviewed by press? Introduce yourself as a directorial talent? Win awards and acclaim? Here’s news: No one festival will do all this for you. Some higher-profile festivals will be able to do more than others, but sometimes the hundred soft blows of smaller festivals can get your film knocked out of the park. Consider whether you want to be in a festival that has a huge program of hundreds of films, or a smaller program. Bigger isn’t always better—smaller, industry-based festivals might be more strategic for getting distribution, representation, etc. than a larger festival that is audience-based or has lots of different components (concerts, conferences, et al).
2. “We are looking for films that are original, display passion, blah blah blah.” For real. When we watch film after film after film, what stands out to us is originality. No one has experienced the world the way you have. So don’t set out to make a “festival film” or a film you think we want to see.
“Sameness is your worst enemy,” says Cara Cusumano, the newly appointed director of programming at Tribeca Film Festival. “Own your point of view and lean into it.”
“Make the film you want to make,” Sundance’s senior manager of festival programming, Adam Montgomery, says. “Never compromise your vision for the sake of pleasing a festival, distributor or anyone else.”
3. Know the premiere requirements of your dream festival—and a loophole. World-premiere status is like your virginity. Once it’s lost, you can’t get it back. Most high-profile festivals that have a large industry presence have tight premiere requirements. When your film is noted as a world or international premiere in a festival program book, this signals to distributors, sales agents and press that the film is new and needs their attention.
When I reiterate that, at LA Film Festival, we require world premieres, filmmakers will often say, “…but I only premiered at this small festival, no one was even there, it barely counts.” It’s not for us to say which festivals are big or small enough to “count.”
Here’s a trick to get around this, though: Let’s say your film is about a small community in Springfield, U.S.A. and you want to screen the film for them as your first audience. Hold a private “works-in-progress” screening (with the permission of a festival if you’ve already been accepted). Don’t publicize the community works-in-progress screening as a “world premiere” and don’t have any press coverage of the event.
4. Send your film only when you are 100-percent happy with it. Programmers are only going to watch your film once. Different festivals will accept films in various stages of post-production. Before you submit, get lots of feedback from people who are not your friends. (Friends love you too much to deliver the tough criticism your film needs.) Send the very best cut you can by the deadline. Don’t be intimidated to reach out to festivals and ask for an extension. On your submission application and on the first frame of your film, be sure to note succinctly what stage of post-production you are in, if there are scenes missing, the status of color correction and sound mixing, etc.
5. Go see films by other independent directors. Go to local film festivals. Learn from them. Sarafina DiFelice, associate director of programming at HotDocs, suggests looking at the festival paths of other independent films, “not to copy them exactly, but to have an idea of where you’d like to go and how someone else got there.”
6. Build an audience for your film from the beginning. I get excited when a film has had a crowdfunding campaign that was successful not because of a few rich supporters, but by a large volume of supporters. This means something to us as programmers: While we might not immediately “get” your film, there is a huge audience with whom it has already resonated.
7. If you get a festival invitation but are holding out for another festival, get extra communicative. How exciting! You got your first acceptance from Festival A. But you still have your hopes on Festival B, which requires a world premiere. Festival B doesn’t notify filmmakers for another month. Festival A needs to know, pronto. What do you do? Thank Festival A and ask them for at least a week to confirm your acceptance. (Don’t worry that Festival A will rescind their invitation if you ask for more time.) Then reach out to Festival B, share the good news, and ask if they can offer an early decision. Sometimes festivals can do this.
A word of caution: Don’t pressure a festival to make a decision or try to pit festivals against each other. The programming process takes time, and if you accelerate it unnecessarily, it can backfire big time. Programmers talk to each other. The worst thing you can do is accept an invitation from Festival A, and then put Festival B in a position where to invite your film means they have to ask you to rescind your acceptance to Festival A. That’s not cool.
8. Make sure your film actually plays (!) and that we know how to get in touch with you. You won’t believe how many moviemakers submit copies or links that don’t work. Sometimes they change the password on their links, upload wrong files, or have a glitchy upload that stops midway through. Sometimes moviemakers will submit just a trailer. Maybe they think this is a placeholder they can swap out later—but this does not work, and jeopardizes your chances in a big way. Also, be sure to include an email you will actually check in your application form.
9. Trust that your film is getting a fair shake. Moviemakers often worry that their films don’t really get fully considered. At all the festivals I’ve worked with, film submissions are taken very, very seriously. At the LA Film Festival, every film gets seen in full by at least two people who write coverage. You don’t need to have a publicist and/or sales agent and/or talent agency reach out to us to get noticed. If you or someone from your team has a relationship with a programmer, and wants to reach out to flag your film, that is generally OK. Just be sure to be concise, not expect a response, not email multiple people at a festival, and email only once.
10. Be honest. Don’t tell programmers your film is picture-locked if you know it’s actually still rough. (It’s better that we know that you know that your film isn’t finished, rather than us thinking you think your film is done.) Be honest about your film’s premiere status and invitations to other festivals. If your film is rejected, be cordial. Even if your film doesn’t get selected, there might’ve been people on the programming team advocating for it. Thank the programmers for taking the time. We are all in the same community, and this won’t be your first rodeo. We mean it when we say we look forward to seeing your next project.
There are a few things you should know once you get accepted to a festival:
1. Read all the materials a festival sends you, and meet all the deadlines for delivering materials. Mic drop—that’s all. Meet deadlines.
2. Have a plan for communication. Identify one member of your team to correspond with your festival contact. Having multiple members of a film team reaching out will most definitely lead to misunderstandings. Conversely, when you are invited to the festival, you will also be introduced to a few key people who will be coordinating all your materials, requests, travel, etc. Pay attention to who these people are, and be sure to send them the correct information. If you don’t know who the best person is to reach out to, ask someone. Sending emails with many people carbon copied is confusing. At the end of the day, we’re here to help as best we can.
“Ask us questions; you will have a lot,” says Slamdance festival manager Clementine Leger. “We’re here to help.”
3. Be polite. Programming is a very emotional process that takes months of being in a dark room watching sometimes up to 14-16 hours of films a day straight without any break. When we invite your film, we are still recovering from programming. We don’t do this work for the money or the glory. We do this because we are film geeks who love you. Be kind and gracious to festival assistants, coordinators, interns and volunteers. We rely on their good will and they let us know if filmmakers are being rude. If you don’t like a publicity logline, screening day or time or theater size, reach out and let us know, politely, once. We truly do our best to make sure you are happy and have the best screening(s) possible. And for the record, while we never expect anything, little gestures—cute film swag, cupcakes, thank you cards—go a long way.
4. When we ask you to keep your invitation confidential, keep your invitation confidential. Do not post on social media; do not send an email to your supporters. This is because invitations roll out over the course of a few weeks, sometimes, and when you post your good news, others start to panic if they haven’t already gotten news.
5. Be an active agent in getting distribution. Research potential distributors you think would be interested in your film. Ask us if we have contacts with them. We often give recommendations to distributors, and we can try to plug your film if it makes sense. No one is more invested than you in your film’s success. This is your shot, work it!
6. Activate your own audience. “Be positive advocates and promoters of your film,” says Beth Barrett, director of programming at Seattle International Film Festival. Festivals will promote the film to all their networks and do their best to attract an audience, “but your help and positive attitude are the tipping points to make it great.”
7. Be chill when sound is checked. You will have a sound and color check before your film’s premiere. Sometimes, though, when adrenaline is pumping, your hearing dulls. I learned this early in my programming career. I was with a first-time feature film director as her film began in front of an audience for the first time. She thought the volume was too low, although it sounded fine to me. Still, she insisted, so we raised the volume—once, and then twice. People started to leave the theater complaining that the volume was too high! At the premiere of your film, have a friend come and check the film’s sound and picture with you to keep it real.