Getting into your film festival is often a milestone for an independent film maker. Having your passion project resonate with a jury far away, and with audiences you have never met, is validating. Just like any endeavour, however, there will be many rejections for every successful attempt at making it into a film festival. As a filmmaker, and now a festival programmer for OCan, I have had the opportunity to be on both sides. Here are some tips.
- Establish your Goals
- Make a Festival budget
- Make a Plan
- Gather your Materials
- Execute your Plan
Establish your Goals
Not every filmmaker has the same goals, and not every film will satisfy the same goals, so it is important to sit down (with the other producers of the film, if applicable) and write down what you hope to achieve with a festival run.
Some popular goals to help you get started:
- Get exposure for the creatives and technical collaborators. Since many independent film projects are often created on shoe-string budgets, exposing the work of you cast and crew so that they book their next gig is a great way to reward them for their commitment.
- Secure distribution for the film. This is often a stretch, especially for short films, but is becoming more realistic now that there re many streaming platforms looking for content. It is a good way to recoup your monetary investment in the film and to make a contact that you can use for distribution of future projects.
- Expand your network. Festivals are a great way to connect with creatives with similar interests and goals and you may find future collaborators through the process.
- Build hype for another project. A film festival run is a great way to showcase what you and your team is capable of on a smaller scale as a pitch for a larger project.
Make a Festival budget
A festival run takes a significant investment of time and cash, and is best not left as an after-thought when it comes to your budget. There are many festivals that are free to enter and those should be part of your strategy, but they often result in many submissions so it may be difficult to stand out from the crowd. As a result, it is prudent to account for festival-related expenses in your budget right from the start.
Some items to consider including in your budget:
- Submission Fees
- Funds to create promotional materials to market your film
- Travel expenses to attend festivals your film where your film is screening
Make a Plan
There are many festivals out there and how you apply to them varies. Some prominent festivals have direct ways to interact with them and submit films. Others rely on platforms where you upload a film, information and materials and present filmmakers a consolidated way to apply to multiple festivals. The latter is easier, especially as an emerging filmmaker. FilmFreeway is a popular platform that gives filmmakers access to a variety of festivals around the world.
Do some research and create a list of potential festivals for your film. As a general rule, you’ll have more success if you take more time to read the specific requirements listed for each film festival. Target specific festivals. There are festivals that specialize in particular aspects, be it genre, length, demographics of the filmmaker, geography. You will have more success with your submission the more closely your film matches what the film festival is catered to feature.
- Set a schedule for submissions
- Take advantage of submission discounts, especially time-sensitive discounts
- Check the festivals you are targeting for rules that could bar you from applying to other festivals.
- Check that you can withdraw your submissions and/or last day to withdraw without penalty.
Gather your Materials
Festival programmers really appreciate filmmakers who have their materials ready and packaged. Once they select films, they are very much in the business of promoting the festival to ensure most of their target audience knows about the content they will see at the festival, and they rely heavily on material submitted by filmmakers to do that for the most part.
Consider creating an Electronic Press Kit (EPK) for your film.
Some items that should included:
- Social media. If your film or your production company has handles or accounts on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, include them in your package.
- A trailer or scene from your film
- A poster
- Headshots for cast and crew
- Bios for the cast and crew
- Stills from the film
- A list of media coverage on blogs, print media or television for your film or members of the creative team
- A list of festivals the film has been selected to screen in (if applicable)
Execute your Plan
Once you have your materials ready and you plan down, it’s time to start executing it. Here are some tips.
- Check for fee waivers. Some festivals offer waivers. This is not often explicitly stated in the call for submissions. Check by contacting a festival directly. Make your case. Try not to use a generic email. Festival programmers sometimes ignore form letters that don’t take any of the festival’s requirements into account. For example, if the festival you are targeting specifies that they only accept documentary films, don’t send a request for a waiver for a narrative film. It shows that you haven’t read the call for submissions carefully.
- Take advantage of early submission discounts. Many festivals offer discounts for early submissions. Take advantage of these when you schedule your festival submissions. Even moderate discounts will allow you to submit to more festivals on the same budget.
- Check to ensure you are receiving emails from the festival or the festival submission platform. For example, check that the confirmation of your submission arrives in your inbox and doesn’t disappear into your junk mail folder. If you are not able to monitor email yourself, consider creating a separate email account with credentials you can share with another producer or trusted crew member so that you don’t miss an important email or notification.
- Be prepared to make adjustments. There are some festivals that require all selected films be festival premieres. If your film is selected in one of these festivals, it is important that you withdraw it from other festivals in order to persevere that premiere status to avoid being disqualified.
- Monitor progress. Keep track of festivals you have submitted to and track progress from acceptance of the films, feedback on whether the film makes a short list and if the deadline for notifications has come and gone.
There are a few tips I’ve gathered through submitting films to festivals for over a decade, and being a festival programmer for the past 6 years. This is by no means an exhaustive list and it’s never one size fits all. You will get far more rejections than acceptances and that is part of the learning process. Try to attend festivals, even ones your film hasn’t made the cut. It will give you insight into the films you are competing with so that you can make adjustments to your films or the festivals you are targeting. What is important is that you are intentional and plan your festival submissions. It is also important to track submissions through the process so that you optimize your next attempts.
If a film festival in Ottawa is in your plans, the call for submissions for the OCan for 2023 is now open on FilmFreeway. There are early submission discounts until February 28th. We would love to see your film!
Web Designer, Editor, Film Reviewer
Jith Paul is an independent filmmaker based in Ottawa. While pursuing a career as a software engineer, he decided to take a detour to follow his passion for film and filmmaking, establishing Treepot Media in 2010.
He is a co-founder of the Ottawa Canadian Film Festival, and editor of the film613 blog.
When he is not busy fighting crime, he coordinates the efforts of an international team of software developers and service providers as the Team Lead for Digital Development at CPAC, the Cable Public Affairs Channel.