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