How to Get Your Film into Film Festivals

What do festival programmers look for?

“None of the world’s finest auteurs have made a career from being like everyone else.”

Here at Lights Film School, we’re always on the lookout for cool new indie film initiatives and opportunities, which is why we were thrilled to discover The Princeton Independent Film Festival.

In its third year, The Princeton Independent Film Festival (PRINDIE) is powered by a small but passionate team that’s committed to using film to take people out of their everyday lives and into new points of view. This year, PRINDIE’s kicking off their festival on November 9 with a screening of Most Beautiful Island, SXSW’s 2017 Grand Prize winner, to be followed by screenings of other films including several Academy Award and Cannes-nominated shorts.

Although we’ve yet to attend, PRINDIE sounds like a great time, and we were curious to learn more about its operations – and the operations of film festivals more generally! To this end, we connected with PRINDIE’s Chief Operating Officer, Ryan McDonald.

Hello, Ryan! Thanks for taking the time to chat with us! We’re eager to go behind the scenes of film festival operations and demystify the programming process for our students and readers. Why are some artists successful at getting into festivals, while others are not?

But I’m getting ahead of myself! Let’s begin with some context for film festivals more generally. What is a film festival? Why should a filmmaker consider submitting their work to one? How might it benefit them and their career?

While many of the larger international festivals primarily showcase features and shorts that are supported by substantial budgets, film festivals as a whole also offer the independent filmmaker and team the opportunity for exposure in an otherwise saturated industry. Aside from the exposure, filmmakers should certainly consider submitting to festivals, and if their budget allows for it, attend them! For no better reason than to develop relationships within the industry, and selected film-centric regions of the world. Even if a festival is held in an area that one doesn’t immediately associate with the industry, you never know who will show up! This could especially play to a filmmaker’s benefit if they are looking for financing for their next work. Social media, movie-minded websites, and blogs are great tools that will help expand your audience, but nothing beats face-time with the public.

As far as career is concerned, that is a tricky question. Filmmakers would have to determine their goals. If we are talking features (live action, documentary, animation), and the feature has no distributor, then the goal is finding festivals that attract distributors. I cannot speak for any one individual, but I’m going to assume that if a filmmaker puts their hard-earned money and time into crafting a feature, they eventually will want it to be seen by an audience, and what better way to do this for the independent artist than a film festival?

If you are concerned about the cost, explain your circumstances, and put a link to a trailer or teaser of the work you wish to submit. Hey, we are doing this because we all love film and filmmakers first and foremost! With how much work it takes to create a film festival, I can’t imagine anyone doing our work and not loving film. Some of the larger festivals might not get back to you, but that doesn’t mean the boutique ones won’t. What do you have to lose? If we are talking about submitting a short film to create the foundation of a career, what better way than a film festival to get your work in front of the eyes of the industry? Also remember that select film festivals give you the opportunity to become Oscar-qualified with short films.

A sidenote about online buzz: Vimeo Staff Picks and Short of the Week have become legendary platforms that weed through the multitude of short films being produced each year. Use these tools!

Well said! Like film festivals, both platforms act as curators. On a different note, why does it cost to submit to a film festival? Where does the money go?

It costs money to submit to a film festival because, well, time is money and putting together a festival takes time – a lot of time.

There are many moving parts involved in creating the best possible environment to showcase the selected artists. As the organizers, we have to find space to rent, market the event and pay for print and online advertising. Keep in mind that, submission fees aside, without a festival’s business sponsors, it would be impossible to put together a film festival. However, as I stated before, if you can’t afford to submit to a festival, you always have the option of emailing a programmer or officer with a trailer or teaser and explaining to them your circumstances. I always look at those emails, and have even programmed a couple of shorts this year because a filmmaker had the guts to reach out! I’m looking for the best, and if you meet my standard, it doesn’t matter to me or any of the officers how the work comes to us.

I can’t speak for other festivals, but as PRINDIE grows, so will the cash prize for the Grand Prize Winner. What better way to allocate some of the funds than to give more money back to the filmmakers?

When you submit, what sort of information do you need to provide in addition to the film itself?

We use FilmFreeway. They require that filmmakers provide their full name, address, category of submission (short, feature, etc.), an overview of the work, credits, runtime, completion date, production budget, country of origin, country of filming, film language, aspect ratio, film color, first-time filmmaker (yes or no), student project (yes or no), and finally any previous screenings and awards.

This may all seem very tedious, but it is important that the filmmaker know everything they can about their film, since if you are selected, you may be talking extensively about the film. Not to mention the specifications of a film directly correlates with the subtext of the story, its characters, and how we as an audience observe your art.

In other words, details matter! In your experience, Ryan, what happens on the festival side after a filmmaker has submitted? You receive their submission via FilmFreeway or Withoutabox or the like… And then what? Who processes the supporting application? How? Who watches the film, under what circumstances, and how many times?

Once an application is processed, we will catalog the work into a standard Excel sheet. Since we are a smaller festival, our officers are the ones who dig through the submissions. This year I took the lead on programming, but that doesn’t mean that Sara McDermott Jain (Founder/CEO) or Claire Elaine (Partner/Creative Officer) won’t review something that same night!

In larger festivals, a junior programmer will review a submission, and if it meets their standard, it is then passed up the chain to the senior programmer. This has a lot to do with finding the most efficient way of handling the volume of submissions.

Unfortunately, not everyone who submits to a festival has honed their skills as a filmmaker, so a great programmer can quickly deduce if a film is worthy of being passed on to the senior levels. You must think of a programmer like a film critic and a curator. We bridge together several shorts to create a visual flow, which when seen as a whole, offers the viewer the most compelling experience.

As for how many times a film is watched solely depends on the programmers and their interest in the work. Usually, it’s a once-and-done deal.

Do you watch every single film submission from beginning to end? Why or why not?

I don’t know why a programmer wouldn’t want to watch all that comes to them. Therefore, I can’t speak for every festival, but we review everything that comes to us out of respect for the filmmakers, regardless of the quality of the film.

To get more in-depth with your question I will say that what keeps me glued to the screen is a professionally-minded work from a unique perspective. That means writing, sound, acting, composition, editing, etc.

Rarely do I find this elusive unicorn. A lot of the time filmmakers will drop the ball on sound design first, and then if you can believe it, actors’ performances! Create the film, that if you don’t create it, you will fall into a pit of immobile depression. Okay, maybe that’s hyperbolic, but hopefully, you get my point. Programmers watch so much content that they can quickly decide whether or not the film will be moving forward. It’s one of the reasons why programmers develop relationships with distributors and artists they trust. It’s no wonder that year after year, you hear a lot of similar names getting into festivals. Unfortunately, just because a filmmaker completes a film doesn’t mean it’s worthy of showcasing that work in a theatre next to a filmmaker who has spent every waking moment meticulously crafting his or her film.

The devil is in the details. Never be shy of spending a lot of time on your work, because someone is burning the midnight oil right now!

Personally, I think about that a lot – if you’re not working hard, there’s someone out there who is. Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.

How does the jury “score” a film? What are they looking for? Also, how do they keep track of their impressions? Is there a rubric of sorts?

We highlight the ones we like in an Excel sheet, and we talk about the work in meetings.

Programming a block of shorts or a feature is subjective. This is art, so there are no rules, but I look for a daring and uncompromising vision.

To give you an idea of my meaning I’m going to highlight our festival’s closing short film, Michael Demetriou’s “Telephone Me”, because your students can view it on Vimeo:

It’s shot on film and totally punk! When I watched it, my jaw was on the ground. Finally, I thought, an artist who wants to smash through a wall, proclaiming their existence. This mentality goes for all of the artists that we programmed this year!

So for me, it’s about experimentation and not caring about how the industry thinks a filmmaker should make a film. I want to see bravery. I’m compelled by filmmakers crafting a unique perspective. It’s your life, the way you see the world, and your career, so do it your way. None of the world’s finest auteurs have made a career from being like everyone else.

Make the movie that you as the filmmaker want to see, right? The film aside, how seriously is the supporting application considered, and in what ways? What is the jury looking for, here?

In the early stages, the only thing that matters to me is the film.

Once the film is selected, the supporting work helps us best promote the filmmaker to the public.

In the end, the full package separates the amateurs from the professionals. Even if a filmmaker is a novice, they should still package their work in the best possible way. I would put together a downloadable press kit that can be accessed on your film’s website. I know this sounds like quite an investment, but it quadruples as a tool for film festivals, agents, distributors, and to future project investors. The first step to being a professional filmmaker is thinking like a professional.

Running a film festival requires some intense event planning! You’ve touched on this already, but I’m curious to hear more about what sort of programming considerations factor into the jury’s decision-making process. For example, is runtime a consideration? What are some other more logistical considerations when deciding whether or not to program a particular film?

Runtime certainly is a concern for programming a scheduled event. But, I would tell a filmmaker to make the film they want to make first. If the short or feature is great, its running time will be my last concern. If I can’t program a film I love, I will consider it for our monthly showcase of featured artists.

Every film festival is going to receive some disappointing submissions – not every film is good, after all! But you receive some really incredible films, too. Let’s imagine that you’ve received two fantastic films but only have space in the program for one of them. How do you pick?

What a great question, and something that I ran into twice this year!

First, let’s talk short films. If I have two short films that are brilliant, but I only have room for one of them, I will see if one of the shorts doesn’t “fit” alongside other shorts in a block of programming. We are talking more about the “philosophical relationship,” which is a subjective theory of the total programming in each block of short films. Does one short film strengthen the work of the other short films in that block, or is the short film saying something else? When the short film “works” with its partnered shorts, there is this “visual-music” that arrives. From there, the answer tends to be straightforward.

Now with features, the solution is easier. I do not deviate from a critical standard of filmmaking that I set for myself early on. It is purely based on my taste in filmmaking. My apologies for being cryptic, but I will not say what that is for fear of filmmakers second-guessing themselves and then not submitting. I will say that I am very shrewd and I analyze everything from characterization, to camera movement, to foley work, and everything in between.

At risk of over-simplifying, what does the “perfect” film festival submission look like? And on the other hand, what about an awful submission?

The “perfect” submissions are the films that we selected this year! Honestly, there is no perfect. If you can create a character that makes me laugh out loud or cry, you are doing something right. As a whole, if the film can’t move the viewer to care about the protagonist or antagonist then we won’t select the work.

But these three things always seem to surface when the argument of “good and bad” is discussed: the written word, the sound design, and the acting. Simply put, the weak films always lack these specific elements.

How can a filmmaker improve their chances of getting into a festival? What, if anything, can they do after they’ve submitted?

A lot of what I have already stated is, to me, the ideal filmmaker looking to be selected for a film festival. You are marketing your work, but also marketing yourself as a filmmaker. Get on Vimeo, social media, go to festivals to meet people, create a website with a press kit, be easily available to programmers if they email you with questions. This is a big pet-peeve of mine. My job is to give a filmmaker a platform to showcase their work. Please, don’t make me chase you around. There are a lot of hard-working filmmakers out there that will take your spot at a moment’s notice.

Getting to know programmers certainly can help your chances of being reviewed, but in the end, the work speaks for itself. Focus on your craft, and you will be good.

It’s often said that there are a lot of politics behind film festival programming. What’s your perspective? Are selections mostly merit-based, mostly political in nature, or is it somewhere in between?

It’s no secret that the industry is relationship-driven.

In the end, every film festival wants to showcase the best work available to them and would love nothing more than to find an unknown filmmaker that has composed an exciting new work. I always go back to craft. It’s one of the reasons why I am so excited to talk with you guys at Lights Film School. It’s important that filmmaking students experiment as often as possible. Through this, they can strengthen their creative voice with the hope of side-stepping any political nonsense.

Awesome, Ryan. Experimentation – and dare I say failure, too – are a necessary part of the filmmaking process! Even so, film festival rejections can be discouraging. Does a rejection necessarily mean your film is “bad”? Why or why not? Any words of encouragement for filmmakers who’ve not been accepted into festivals yet?

No, being rejected from a film festival doesn’t mean your film is bad.

I had films from several great, well-known, and unknown filmmakers this year that I loved. Unfortunately, we can only program so much, and when we block work, we are looking at the festival as a complete experience. Never look at being rejected as a failed opportunity. Remember, now the programmer is familiar with your work! Show up to the festival regardless of not being selected, and introduce yourself. Once you break into the industry, you will be doing this anyway! Why not start now?

Love it! Finally, any closing words of wisdom for filmmakers preparing their submissions? If you had to boil it down, what are the two or three most important things for them to keep in mind?

The most important words I can give your students are be organized, get on a schedule, and treat this like a job. This will certainly give you more confidence while hopefully reducing the universal fear of failing.

Please be daring with your work, and never quit if this is what you want to do. Half the battle is persistence, and the other half is organization! Don’t give up on your “dreams,” because a lot of people are making a living with those same “dreams!” This is your career and anyone who makes you doubt your potential can f**k off!

Finally, if any Lights Film School students have any questions for me, or want to send over some work, please don’t hesitate to reach out: ryan[at] – I’m here because I love film, end of story.

Beautiful. Thanks so much for sharing your time and perspective with our students and readers, Ryan, and all the best with PRINDIE this year!

It’s my pleasure!

 Michael Koehler, with

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