How to Handle Rejection From a Film Festival

How to handle rejection from your favorite film festival? If you’ve ever made a movie and submitted it to film festivals, chances are, you’ve experienced some rejection. It can be demoralizing when a piece of art you’ve put so much love, care, time and energy into… is turned away.  But instead of looking at rejection as failure, Dr. Rebekah Louisa Smith encourages indie filmmakers to look at it as an opportunity.

She’s worked with countless filmmakers through her festival submission strategy business, The Film Festival Doctor, so named because of her PhD in Film & Audience Studies from Aberystwyth University in Wales. She’s also worked as a festival programmer since 2010, when she began co-producing the Abertoir Horror Festival in Wales. 

Dr. Smith helps indie filmmakers understand why festivals often say “no” to good films — and helps them look after their mental health through the long, often tough submission process.

Below, she shares her best tips for defining expectations, not taking a “no” personally, and finding positives in rejection.

Dr. Rebekah Louisa Smith, who offers tips on how to handle rejection from film festivals at The Film Festival Doctor. Photo by VClicks.

Margeaux Sippell: Once a filmmaker has submitted their movie to multiple festivals, what can they do to prepare themselves while they wait to hear back?

Dr. Rebekah Louise Smith: The key thing I tell them is that this is a marathon, not a sprint — it is a slow-burning process. It’s very important at this stage for them to detach emotionally from the film and see it as a product. So the process has happened — you’ve raised the money, you’ve written it, you’ve made it, you’ve now finished the edit. Now it’s important to detach. This product will be viewed in many different ways by festival programmers around the world. So remove the emotion from that and let it kind of do its own thing. You’ve made it. Not everybody is going to like it. Some will, some won’t.  

I also tell them to buy a book called The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz. It tells you how to not take things personally and how to take an objective view whenever you get some news you don’t want to hear. 

Remember that at this point, you cannot assume anything in terms of, “It’ll get into this festival, it’s a no brainer.” There could be other films like yours that are similar and they might be having to toss a coin, and yours might not get in. You can’t assume anything, because festivals work in different ways than how you might expect.

Margeaux Sippell: Okay, I’ve just gotten my first rejection email from a festival I really wanted to get into. What’s the first thing I should do?

Dr. Rebekah Louise Smith: Feel the emotion. Process it, and the disappointment, and the upset. Then, when you’ve processed it and you’ve got through it, remember to not give up — and to carry on. Keep doing more submissions, and there will be another festival coming in. I’ll also say to stick to the strategy, because sometimes what filmmakers can do is they start submitting to festivals that are the wrong ones, not to the right match for their film. Then more rejections come in, and they start getting more upset. 

Also Read: Santa Barbara International Film Festival Adds Two Extra Days to 40th Anniversary Fest in 2025

Stay hopeful, stay grounded, but do keep submitting to the right kinds of festivals with the strategy you have, and don’t go off-piece and do all the massive big ones. “Submit and see” is not the best approach when you’re new to this process, because it’s going to make your mental health worse.

How to Handle Rejection Through a ‘Rejection-Coping Toolbox’

Margeaux Sippell: Are there any therapeutic tools on how to handle rejection and the intense emotion it can bring?

Dr. Rebekah Louise Smith: I give filmmakers a “rejection-coping toolbox,” as I like to call it. I tell them the best thing to do when they get rejections, if they’re feeling the wrong kinds of responses to the rejection and they start getting upset, is to use Emotional Freedom Technique, or EFT, which is tapping. You tap parts of the body to release emotion like negativity and to stay grounded. That helps a lot to quickly process emotions that are negative and holding you back and can sink into depression.

Margeaux Sippell: What are some ways filmmakers can reframe the way they think about rejection as an opportunity instead of a failure?

Dr. Rebekah Louise Smith: Remember that rejection does not mean that you failed. It’s constructive feedback. There’s going to be another festival that will be much better for you and be the right fit. That’s all they have to remember. 

The door is not closed. We’ve got plenty more festivals to hear back from. This one wasn’t going to be right for you, for the goals you wanted to achieve. And it’s not going to be the end of the world. The door is now even wider open. 

Margeaux Sippell: I know you’re a big fan of vision boards. How do you make one, and why are they useful in learning how to handle rejection?

It’s like art therapy. It can get you motivated and stay on track with your goals. 

For each client we work with, we make a vision board with our goals and dreams for each movie. We put in the center of the vision board the name of the film or the poster of the film, and then we put images around it which are all the goals you want to achieve. So that would be, for example, red carpet and press — and also the names of festivals.

You look at all the images, and it just really helps train your mind to stay in alignment with your goals and stay positive.

They’re kind of a way to put on paper your dreams and your goals and look at them and keep motivated. So when the going gets tough — maybe one or two rejections come in on the same day or in a week  — you stay on track and remember that those goals will come together and it will happen.

Margeaux Sippell: Do all of these strategies — the vision boards, the EFT tapping, the mindset — work for other types of artistic pursuits as well, when it comes to how to handle rejection and grow from it?

Dr. Rebekah Louise Smith: Yes, I’m pretty much sure that they can. I’m really convinced they can. Everybody has to deal with rejection in any kind of workplace, not just film festivals. People don’t always get the promotion they want, or they do a presentation and it doesn’t quite get through to the next round, and you’ve got to cope mentally. I think especially with the vision board, you can do anything, and you can do EFT for any kind of emotional disruption or need to get balanced. 

Main image courtesy of Shutterstock.