Dear Film Festivals: 10 Things I’d Like You to Stop Doing, Love an Indie Filmmaker

How can a film festival position itself better to attract great submissions and talent? One filmmaker weighs in.

For the last 12 years, I have been teaching producing, directing and film business at Confederation College, in a film program in Canada. My short films have been executive produced by top directors, such as David Cronenberg, Paul Haggis and Roger Corman. My work has selected by hundreds of film festivals over the years, and I have presented practical film festival workshops in England, Australia, Canada and the U.S. I’m currently nearing the end of a year-long festival run with my directorial feature debut, The Pineville Heist.

In short, I’ve seen a lot of film festivals in my time. And when MovieMaker gave me the chance to contribute this op-ed, I thought of 10 things I’d like to banish from the festival circuit forever. So:

1. Poor Communication

I get it. Thousands apply, and every programmer’s inbox is filled to the brim with eager filmmakers wanting to know where to send Blu-rays and schedules. But waiting forever to hear back from a festival is frustrating.

A simple solution is to ensure your website is up-to-date. Provide a Q&A section to answer questions. If your selection dates change, update your website and social media pages so filmmakers are aware. If you do this, we will email less often! If the festival seems unorganized and fails to respond or provide information, I may not invest the $1,000+ it could cost to show up.

2. Being Late to Select Films

I love going to festivals, meeting new people, seeing cool films and sharing my movie with new audiences. But when a festival selects my movie five days before its event, flights are inevitably more expensive to pay for. A minimum of six weeks notice on selections would probably allow more filmmakers to attend. Flights, hotels and car hire can make attendance out of reach, especially when the airfare costs can more than double when the journey is less than a month away.

3. Being Slow to Release Nominations and Award News

Who doesn’t want to walk away with a nomination or two—or better yet, an award? Sadly, some filmmakers can’t be there for the gala events, especially without notice. So please release the nomination list in advance.

One U.S. festival I submitted to went dark for three months. No social media posts, no web updates—nothing. Then suddenly I learned we’d won an award, months later. No email. No communication. Thanks for the award, but I had given up on the event. In today’s instant world of technology, a festival should have the award list update ready, so that the filmmakers can get the news with a simple click.

4. Holding Multiple Events at the Same Time

Holding multiple screenings may allow a festival to select more films, but it comes with a price. On numerous occasions, a local favorite with an entourage or a film with star power has drained away the festival crowd and left my screening, virtually empty. Or the cool new friends you just met can’t attend your screening, because they have to be at their own screenings at the same time. Sure, bigger festivals may need to take this route, but if you are a smaller, local or regional festival, consider promoting one movie at a time.

5. Not Having an IMDb Listing

Indie filmmakers don’t have massive promotion budgets, so winning awards and nominations are the gold we seek. It’s the confirmation that our shorts and features have value and, well, don’t suck. Adding the winning laurel to the poster makes a real difference in helping new audiences decide what to watch. Or attracting a distributor. So make sure your festival is listed on IMDb, so that we’re able to link your honors to our films.

6. Having An Uninformative Website

A festival asks for my synopsis and poster, and then doesn’t even use them on its website. There are tons of links that don’t work and mistakes that the staff won’t correct—even when I email about spelling the name of my film wrong. Also, I send in postcards and posters, at my expense, and they don’t get used. Why ask for them if you won’t use them?

7. Not Assigning a Festival Representative for Visiting Filmmakers

I’ve traveled all day to get here, but when I show up, there’s zero support and lots of confusion. Have someone friendly be on hand to answer questions and show some support for us coming all this way—sometimes from around the globe. Often this journey is paid for with our day jobs.

Have a filmmaker welcome room. Offer some freebies: coffee and muffins, dinner coupons, something that makes us feel special. Doesn’t have to be much. We appreciate the little things.

8. Not Providing Lanyards

I like mementos from a festival run. A lanyard with my name, title and movie is a nice touch. It makes the networking aspects smoother and easier and helps festival staff recognize who’s walking around, too.

9. Scamming Innocent Moviemakers

Seemed like a good festival: The website was nice. Good layout and information. It happily took my $50 and later I learned that it was a fundraiser for you, and I fell for it. Or that the festival already had its program set and just wanted to rake in a few more dollars via late entries with no intention of actually selecting my film. A slick website with some bogus reviews can trick even an astute filmmaker. Of course, rejection is part of the process; a real one is completely fair. Some festivals out there, though, are scams.

10. Not Doing Your Homework

You know the really great festivals on the circuit? Attend! Speak to the organizers. Find out what they are doing that’s working. Copy and emulate their formulas. My suggestion: Make it about the movies and the hardworking people that make them.

If you build that, we will come. MM

Lee Chambers‘ debut feature film The Pineville Heist opened in theaters April 2016, and is still playing at film festivals worldwide.

What is a “Film Festival Worth the Entry Fee” to you? Join the conversation by filling out this survey. 

7 Comments

  1. James

    June 7, 2017 at 5:55 pm

    Also, PLEASE stop forcing us to submit through that absolute hell hole of a site Withoutabox and use modern sites like FilmFreeway or literally any other site on the planet other than Withoutaclue. Thank you!

  2. ron ron

    June 4, 2017 at 7:58 pm

    okay, here a my top two – -and it’s shocking how frequently we’ve encountered this: 1) festivals that seem to care about everything but the main thing: movies! Finds expression in mostly empty seats, awful audio and/or video and venues not suitable for screenings. 2) festivals who don’t care about the filmmakers they “invite”. expressed in e.g. they simply don’t give a shit about them. zero hospitality, zero effort — as if we were just the annoying side effect of their party.

  3. Donald

    February 27, 2017 at 10:48 am

    My main frustration with film festivals is that they are programmed by people who know little about films. They “invite” Sundance and Tribeca films and throw in one or two “local” films to make them seem legit. They lack any understanding of film. My experience on the festival circuit, talking to most programmers is they really don’t know much and what they do know is very much based on personal taste.

    Basically, most festivals outside the top five are basically just their theatrical extensions. You can wait a couple months to see that Sundance film in Bend, Tacoma, Brooklyn, Boston, whatever.

  4. D726

    February 25, 2017 at 10:43 am

    Look for a festival that is a part o the Film Festival Alliance. That is the only not-for-profit association of film festivals and professionals.

  5. Sebastian

    February 24, 2017 at 9:57 pm

    Great article, I would say as someone who has a website dedicated to Asian Film Festivals [asianfilmfestivals(dot)com] that I share some of the frustrations here. The lack of communication, the fact that even when you are a media partner they don’t communicate news or changes in dates, the late update about the awards, no English translation, no information about movies, no information about duration, and other miscommunications that makes the whole process tiring. But I have say I also know the other side since I was a film festival organizer some years ago. Great article 🙂

  6. Cindy Maples

    February 24, 2017 at 6:55 am

    The only thing that I would add to this wonderful list, is if you have a bad experience at a festival please review them on FilmFreeWay so others learn from your experience.

  7. Darren

    February 22, 2017 at 5:33 pm

    My film got into one festival, it was announced that there would be awards at the end of the night. End of the night came and he just sort of left. I tracked him down and asked him, and despite having judges show up, he “Spaced on the awards” and said he guesses they will announce the winners in a week. 2 weeks later he announced the winners. Despite it being a festival showcasing Northern Ontario horror films, only one person from Northern Ontario won anything. It felt very unorganized. It just felt like they needed more help for the festival.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *