For a quarter-century now, MovieMaker has been the leading publication for working independent filmmakers. MM’s editorial coverage of the festival circuit recaps events around the globe, ranks top choices for submissions, and catalogues hundreds of fests annually that craft unforgettable experiences for attendees. And yet, just how all these festivals make their selections and curate their programs remains a mystery to most moviemakers trying to get their project into the circuit.
Most reputable festivals have a rigorous process for how they judge films coming in via submissions, and the first line of defense are the staff members known as the “submissions screeners.” These are people who watch lots of films in a short period of time and judge them based on a criteria specific to that festival’s mission. Festival programmers choose their screening team using a variety of methods, often recruiting former interns or gathering recommendations from trusted industry friends and colleagues.
The more you understand how this all works and what these programmers and screeners are prioritizing in their work, the better served you’ll be able to put together a smart, cost-effective submissions strategy. To demystify this process, we’ve invited some insiders to participate in an extensive survey, on condition of anonymity and total honesty. The insights from experts—a range of festival directors (many with 10-plus years of experience), programmers, and of course, screeners—are sure to give you a leg up before your next submissions drive.
Every Minute Counts
How far into screening a film do our survey participants know whether or not they’re going to recommend that it graduate to the next level of grading? Most say that 10-15 minutes is all that’s needed for features, and the first few are all that’s needed for shorts. There may be a rare case where a film sticks its landing in the third act, leading to a recommendation, but for the most part, the screeners we polled can pinpoint worthwhile projects early in the runtime. More interesting is that while a large number of screeners said they knew within this short timeframe what their final grade would likely be, 44 percent of screeners also made clear that they still watch every submission to completion. Thirty-seven percent said they occasionally fail to finish viewing a submission and only 19 percent said they frequently stop a film submission early. So, while their instincts are often correct, they still ensure that each submission is given its fair shake.
In David Mamet on Dramatic Construction, the renowned playwright, screenwriter, and director says bluntly, “When the lights go down, you’ve got the audience’s attention. It’s yours to lose. Can you keep their attention moment to moment? Because if not, the play’s over. Anybody who ever says, ‘Oh, you should have stayed, the movie gets better in the second half’…I always say, ‘Then they should have put the second half first.’” In a festival submission screening context, this is even more important, because your audience is not seated in a theater with their phones turned to silent. Whether they admit it or not, they’re likely at home and at their computers, primed for distraction. Grabbing a screener’s attention doesn’t necessarily require “action,” but establishing a unique visual language from the outset is key. If the screener is able to tell that you carefully constructed your film’s composition, they’re much more likely to devote their full attention. Here are some screeners’ thoughts:
“I watch all films in their entirety to give them a fair chance, but have most likely made up my mind in the first two minutes of watching for shorts and in the first 10 minutes for features.” — Festival Programmer
“After watching thousands of features over the years, it’s usually obvious within the first five minutes if a film has a strong vision or is mediocre. But all films are watched throughout because films often have surprise turns in quality deep into their running time, for better or worse.” — Senior Producer
“Recently, I was about to call my festival director and tell her I found the next great film we were looking for. I was one third of the way in, it was absolutely rocking… and then it fell apart. It no longer followed the path it had established. It was still interesting and well done, but my call with great news turned into a two-star review.” — Assistant Festival Director
“I try to watch them all the way through unless they are absolutely terrible. You usually know the great ones within the first 10 minutes, but sometimes a fast start doesn’t always sustain.” — Programming Director
By the time you reach the editing process you might be worn out, low on cash, and even growing slightly sick of the film you’ve spent so much time getting off the ground. But you shouldn’t rush through this stage—especially to meet a festival submission deadline. Edit the film down, screen it for friends, and then cut it some more. Festivals only have a select number of slots available, so programming three great 10-minute shorts in a single slot is preferable to giving that space to one great 30-minute short. When it comes to features, a screener who’s powering through a film batch late at night will most likely not be excited to dive into your two-and-a-half-hour indie epic after already staring at their MacBook screen for hours. For screeners, there’s a unique joy in noticing that the next film in your queue is a zippy 75 minutes.
“Edit, edit, edit! So many films benefit from being shorter. It’s a detriment to fall in love with your film so much that you don’t want to cut anything. A story that’s told tightly and leaves the audience wanting more is much more attractive than too many details.”
“Keep the story as efficient as possible. Cut anything that doesn’t work
perfectly for you.” — Program Director
“The shorter, the better. We want to program as many films as possible and we can’t do that if your short is 45 minutes.” — Shorts Programmer
Stay on Target
Our survey participants stress the need to really know the profile of every festival you consider submitting to. Though it seems obvious, some moviemakers make the mistake of applying to anything and everything, when a targeted strategy would save them both time and money. If, say, a prestigious European festival only accepts a small handful of American films each year and they all tend to be from prominent New York moviemakers, don’t assume you have a great shot at getting in as an unknown from the Pacific Northwest.
“Do your research. Don’t waste money submitting to festivals that don’t have the right audience for your film. See what they have programmed in the past and identify trends based on who programs where. Ask other filmmakers what their experience was like at a festival to evaluate that festival’s current status.” — Programmer
“Go to film festivals—that’s the only way to see what’s getting accepted and what your current competition is.” — Selection Committee Member
“Do your homework. Don’t just randomly send your films out to festivals you find on some list. If you truly care, research, reach out, and contact festival directors with real questions. If they care about you, they will pay attention and write back to you personally.” — Executive Director
A majority of our survey participants agree that seeing a star pop up in a film doesn’t factor much at all into whether that film moves ahead to the next stage of review. In some cases, they may actually grade that film more harshly, knowing that a certain budget level and the privilege of being able to lock down such an actor are both at play.
So, as long as your budget is ultra-thin, your cash will probably be best spent on the quality of your essentials: sound, production design, locations, and proper lighting.
If you can leverage connections to attach mid-to-high tier actors to your project, go for it—just don’t put all of your eggs into the specious basket of star-hunting.
Indeed, when polled regarding immediate tip-offs that a submission is not up to snuff, most participants pointed to bad sound design, bad acting, and bad visuals. Adds one surveyed programmer: “Bad title font is another giveaway. That points to bad aesthetics, which usually means the film isn’t going to stand up visually.”
“Bad sound tanks a film immediately.” — Submissions Judge
“I’ll accept a lot of other flaws outside of bad acting and bad sound.” — Programming Coordinator
“It’s a red flag if any character has to explain what they’re doing (show, don’t tell), or if the sound isn’t good. If you can only pay one person, pay your sound guy.” — Shorts Programmer
“Bad sound can sink your submission quickly.” — Programmer
“For fiction films, a tell-tale sign of poor quality is when the acting is awful. There aren’t many fiction films that are of much value if the acting is unconvincing.” — Artistic Director
“While it can be an advantage, casting a star ultimately cannot help a bad film.” — Program Director
“Don’t spend your budget on famous actors. Diversify your cast, but don’t tell someone else’s story. Keep it simple.” — Programming Associate
Make Your Own Tie-Breaks
When questioned about how diversity factors into the programming process, the response was more split, with some participants saying they prioritize the quality of material over a diverse cast and crew and others saying that diverse hiring absolutely factors into their decision-making process. Common among responses, though, was the idea that a project’s diversity is helpful in breaking ties between two films of similar merit.
“We are conscious of promoting diversity, but quality of submission is still the most important factor.” — Programmer
“Promoting diversity is significant for us. And yes, if it comes down to two equally good films, we will of ten pick the one that gives our festival more diversity.” — Festival Founder
“If two films close in quality are in consideration, we will always choose the film about/by the less well-represented group.” — Artistic Director
“I don’t let it impact the early screening process, but for tie breaking, diversity factors in.” — Executive Director
“If I had a final vote on a pair of equally deserving films, I would likely lean toward promoting diversity.” — Submissions Screener
“Diversity can help a good film, but not a mediocre film.” — Programmer
Alumni whose work has been previously programmed at a festival are certainly not a shoo-in with future projects, but their follow up might get a bump past the initial screener phase, going straight to a programmer. Many fests offer submission fee waivers (a nice perk for being “in the family”), so while festivals are very conscious of keeping track of what their alumni family is up to, the proverbial leg-up they’re starting with isn’t quite as strong as you might imagine. Some surveyees add that they’re more likely to take extensive notes on these submissions. That way if it is unfortunately a “pass” this time around, they’re equipped to reach out directly to the filmmaker and explain why they will not be programming their latest work. Ultimately, for the programming team it’s a tricky line in making alumni feel a part of the festival’s family while also maintaining strong ethical lines and ensuring only the best work gets programmed.
A Late Link is a Weak Link
Festival programmers can’t afford to wait until all submissions are in before they begin evaluating projects. You’re putting yourself at an inherent disadvantage by submitting later, so be sure to plan your post-production schedule far enough in advance that you make the initial submissions deadline.
Give your festival submission the same level of care that you would a college or job application. Vimeo is the go-to platform for submissions. That doesn’t mean that a programmer won’t consider a YouTube link, but they’re probably going to be suspicious of your industry know-how if you send one. Always follow the submission instructions closely. You can’t afford to give a screener any reason to feel uneasy about recommending your film up the chain of command.
“Submit early to get in the system for as little money as possible, then continue to update your Vimeo link as you refine the cut and add final color, sound, music, etc. Do not change your Vimeo password or link.” — Senior Producer
“I wouldn’t submit on the latest deadline. It’s expensive and many programs, though not set in stone, have been decided by then.” — Programmer
“Have an extensive press kit on your FilmFreeway page with links, an in-depth synopsis, and a director bio. Show that you are professional and have put time and effort into presenting your film in the best possible light.” — Festival Director
“When I’m in doubt about a film, I read everything that’s sent to me. I like to know more about the filmmakers and the process they went through. I also like to see production shots and posters. Keep descriptions short and succinct, but tell your story.” — Festival Director
“Do your research and read the rules for the festival. Nothing says ‘amateur’ like emailing us questions when the answers are clearly stated in the submission language. Fill out the additional information on the submission platform. It doesn’t hurt to have a log line, a director’s bio and a cover letter. The more personalized your submission, the better. Also, don’t forget to change the name of the festival when you’re mass emailing people and don’t assume the person you’re emailing is a dude. Nothing is worse than reading an email from someone who got your festival name wrong and misgendered you.” — Programmer
Trust the Process
We’ll leave you with some parting words on the attitude and fortitude you’ll need to keep your head up as you work on finding your film its most fitting festivals and ideal audience:
“Festival programmers are in a fairly small network. Most of us know each other and we talk, so don’t be a jerk. We like working with friendly people, just like you do.” —Programmer
“Not getting picked doesn’t mean your movie isn’t good; it just might not be a good fit for the festival. We have a limited number of slots and know what our audiences expect for the price of a pass to a weekend of movies, which is different than a one-off moviegoing experience. We are respectful when we reject a film. If you respond with anger, we will remember that and possibly mention that to colleagues at other festivals. That doesn’t improve your chances of acceptance going forward.” — Programmer
“The system isn’t stacked against you. Make a good film and it will get into the festival that’s right for it.” — Festival Director
“Don’t worry about genre, taboos, trends, or tropes. Whether your film is commercial, experimental, or anywhere in between, stay true to your idea and make the best film you can make with no excuses. Regardless of your genre or tone, a well-made film will almost always be appreciated and will increase your chances of being watched and programmed.” — Selection Committee Member
Although the goal of festival submissions is almost always to screen and distribute your movie, don’t forget that this process is one of trial and error, research and development. As a programmer we polled wisely advises, “Don’t be turned off by this report. There’s a festival for every film and a film for every festival. Submit to the ones whose vision you agree with and want to support, whether you’re accepted or not.”
All illustrations by Angela Huang.