Keep your synopsis short and to the point. More importantly, keep your film short and to the point. Get honest feedback from someone who isn’t in your family. And don’t try to write, produce, edit and direct your own movie.
That’s just some of the good advice from festival programmers who spoke at a Slamdance Film Festival panel on festival strategy. They broke down how to get into festivals and succeed in them.
Also: One part of your strategy should be avoiding film festival red flags that signal to programmers that you don’t know what you’re doing.
The panelists at the Jan. 28 event were:
- Beth Barrett, artistic director of the Seattle International Film Festival;
- Al Bailey, head of programming for the Manchester Film Festival;
- Thomas Mahoney, interim head of thesis production for the American Film Institute;
- Clementine Leger, film festival coordinator for the USC School of Cinematic Arts;
- and Sandra Lipski, founder and director of the Evolution Mallorca International Film Festival.
It was a rare opportunity for filmmakers to sit face-to-face with a few of the programmers who will decide whether their films will make the cut. It was a humanizing experience in many ways: One takeaway was that programmers really do want moviemakers to make the best impression possible. Leger, for example, said she won’t screen films if she’s in a bad mood, for fear it could impact her judgement.
If you plan to enter any film festivals in the near future — or to enter any kind of contest, ever — we strongly recommend listening to this entire episode of the Slamdance Polytechnics podcast:
But until you have time to listen to the whole thing, below are some of takeaways from the conversation. The panelists identified their film festival red flags, and gave some pointers on how to avoid them. Here’s their advice:
Keep Your Synopsis Tight
Remember that your synopsis — and all of your application materials — are examples of how well you can tell a story. The audition starts when the programmers look at your application, not when they watch your film.
Bailey said that when he reviews applicants for the Manchester International Film Festival, he is instantly turned off by seeing “the longest synopsis known to mankind… as much as they might be beautifully written.”
“You might have a small group of programmers who’ve got to get through these films. They literally don’t have the time to read a big synopsis,” he said.
Fill in the Blanks
Lipski, who goes through applications for the Evolution Mallorca International Film Festival, says festival organizers sometimes search for particular fields in application portals like FilmFreeway. But they can’t find the answers they’re looking for when applicants leave sections blank.
“Use the space. Put your information in there. Put your bio. Put your photo. Tell us about the director and the crew. Not forever — not three pages long — but give us a taste of who you are, where you come from, what your vision of life is,” Lipski said. “We have a minute or two when we scan this page where we want to get to know you and make a connection.”
She added: “If you don’t have a link to your trailer, maybe you have a video of yourself talking about your movie? Don’t make it longer than a minute though, or two minutes.”
“If your film starts with a 30-minute credit intro, that’s probably not a good move,” said Leger. “Start where you need to start.”
Know Your Festival
Leger recommends researching a festival, and the kinds of films it celebrates, to see if your film is a good fit.
“Know what festivals you’re submitting to, and why,” she said. “If you’re submitting to Slamdance, which is a more edgy festival, your super, super commercial film may not be the right fit. I think the key is to do your research. What I tell my students is watch films at the festivals you’re trying to get into and see if your work is tonally, or even visually, aesthetically, a match with what this festival’s been programming for years.”
Keep Your Shorts Short
Barrett, who helps choose films for the Seattle International Film Festival, says longer short films need to be especially good to justify their running time, since they’re taking up time that could go to several shorter films.
“When we see a lot of 23-minute, 24-minute, 27-minute films, they have got to be the best films of all,” she said. “They are knocking three other films out — that other people might love — that are only seven minutes, eight minutes.”
“Now that said, if you need 27 minutes and the pacing is good, the writing is good, you carry the audience through, that’s great, and that is the film you should make.”
But she added: “Ninety-five percent of the time, I think people do not need 27 minutes to tell their short film. I had a mentor who said if it’s over 15 minutes I put it to the bottom of the pile, and I’ll get to it.”
Don’t Wear Too Many Hats
“If we see that the director, the screenwriter, the producer and the editor are the same person — those are four different people with four different drives toward a film,” Barrett said.
She provided an example.
“You have this $20,000 crane shot, right? Which is amazing. The director’s like, ‘This is entirely my vision.’ The screenwriter’s like, ‘This is not even in my script.’ The producer’s like, ‘I paid $20,000 for that crane.’ And the editor’s like, ‘Yeah, that doesn’t belong.’ Now if all four of those people are four different people, you can have a conversation about that $20,000 crane shot.”
But if the same person wears all four hats, she said, the crane shot will likely stay in the film — whether it belongs there or not.
“Get honest feedback from people that are not related to you, that don’t know you, that were not in your class. Find a local film group. Because filmmakers will give you honest feedback about your film. … But also the general audience. Because you’re not making films just for other filmmakers,” Barrett said.
Don’t Submit a Rough Cut
The panelists said they have never received a rough cut so good that they couldn’t tell it was a rough cut. Never. Not once. And they said it’s better to wait to submit a finished film than to rush one that isn’t ready.
“It’s the first impression… you want it to be the best,” Lipski said. “So if you have to wait that one year and sit that year out from whatever festival you’re trying to get into, then do it. It’s worth it.”
You can listen to more Slamdance podcasts here. The panel was held at the Treasure Mountain Inn in Park City, Utah.