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