Why You Shouldn’t Submit Your Film to Leading Festivals

An honest post

This post/article is based on experience, but moreover — on knowledge.
I’ve been a film professional in various roles for 22 years, mainly as an editor, then producer, sometimes director and in some cases — as a sound recordist.
That period gave me the experience, but only as a guesswork: I was assuming what I saw represented some obscure pattern, unwritten rules and conventions about how film festivals are run. Sitting in the selector’s chair and helping programmers choose the films to their festivals and being a jury member from time to time didn’t promote my knowledge very much, as I was exposed to the decision making process from a very narrow angle. My advice was no more than a recommendation and at least in one case, I know for sure that the selection process was a show: No one related to our recommendations (the selection committee). The festival director decided on the program alone, at the last minute.

A Digital Distributor

Then I became a digital distributor, creating the VOD platform Movie Discovery. I started visiting in film markets and film festivals and was exposed to some inside information.

A Technologist

But the real breakthrough came when we created Movies Everywhere and then Screenable. The first, Movies Everywhere, helps film festivals create a hybrid festival, which I prefer calling “parallel festival”. That was my way into this world, as I got to work side by side with film festivals teams. Screenable, the latest product, allows filmmakers, distributors and producers to know exactly how much their screeners were watched on an individual level. That means, if you sent your screener to a festival, you can tell exactly if and how it was watched and by whom. If it wasn’t watched at all and you still got a negative answer for your submission, at least you know where you stand: they didn’t your film a chance.
Let’s now discuss the latter sentence:

Film Festivals Are Not Evil

From my work with film festivals, I learned that most people who work in that industry really love what they do. They love films, they adore filmmakers, they appreciate the hard work, they love art and they do their best to praise filmmakers.
At the same time, they are trapped.

An Impossible Trap

No film festival can limit the number of submissions. That means, in a digital world, where in a few clicks, a film can be submitted to several film festivals, that the number of submissions can become unrealistically high for any festival.
Here are the numbers: An average film festival, with 5 years of existence, receives 2500–3000 submissions. There’s a team of 3–5 people to watch all these and they have 2–3 months.
It’s impossible to watch all films.
In addition, the festival has a limited budget to pay to the programmers for the selection process. Or they rely on volunteers, who only dedicate their free time. The budget for programmers is always fixed in advance and is not dependent on the number of submissions, which are potentially unlimited.
The result: A large number of films are never watched.

What would you do if you had 3000 hats to choose from?

An Unfair Deal

As a filmmaker or producer, you might understand the logic and the math behind the process described above, but naturally, you revolt:

  • I paid the festival an entry fee. That should ensure and cover a fair selection process. If they can’t handle the number of submissions, they simply cheat. It’s a scam.
  • Even if the festival doesn’t have an entry fee (like many publicly funded film festivals in Europe), they still give the illusion that they conduct a fair process. All those publications about “carefully choosing the best films”… And that rejection letter that says that “competition was extremely high this year”…”So many good films…” — You scammers, what competition are you talking about?! What best films did you choose? You didn’t even give my film a chance!

Yes, festivals can’t get away by ignoring some films for reasons of limited budget or lack of time time and still claim that they conducted an honest selection process. Objective circumstances are not an excuse for lying.

If You Can’t Beat Them, Join Them

Filmmakers and producers cannot change the world, although they aspire-:) — Not with their films, nor with changing film festivals’ behavior. What I described is a reality. Film festivals will continue to cheat. No one festival will say in their rejection letter “sorry, we didn’t find the time to watch your film. Maybe it’s great, we don’t know”.
Exposing that lie and asking for a refund to your entry fee is fine, but won’t promote your career.

However, you can still optimize your film distribution (if you choose to do so through film festivals) by considering the following steps:

  • Send screeners to film critics or foster a relationship with them. Film critics are the the behind-the-scenes programmers of many festivals. Film festivals, overwhelmed with the number of submissions, secretly turn to film critics and ask them for recommendations (true and checked).
  • The same goes for film distributors. A powerful distributor can not only move your film up the submissions stack, but even insert your film to the program without it being watched by the programmer. In my eyes, it’s the worst manifestation of corruption, but this is how it works. Film festivals can always hide behind “artistic considerations”, which can never be refuted.
    However, practicing that method is much harder than with film critics. That is because many distributors wait until your film is accepted to a leading film festival. But it won’t be accepted if they haven’t pushed it first… A classic Catch 22 scenario.
  • Calculate your chances in a rational, merciless manner: For a film to be accepted to a leading festival, beyond its quality and after crossing fingers that its screener be watched, it has to comply with two conditions — (1) It looks very artistic (long long-shots, long silences, vague dialogues, non communicative in general) (2) Tells an ‘important’ story. By ‘important’ I mean to something that is not only politically correct (that’s a prerequisite), but also very trendy. If it is “just” a conventional film with a good story, it’s not enough, sorry.

If your film characteristics or PR abilities do not fit with the three conditions above, don’t waste your time on the most famous film festivals. Go for the more niche ones or connect with your audience directly, which I anyway consider to be the best way in today’s world.

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Online video entrepreneur. Founder of Movie Everywhere, which includes Movie Discovery, Screenable and QuickRights

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Yoram Schaffer

Online video entrepreneur. Founder of Movie Everywhere, which includes Movie Discovery, Screenable and QuickRights