How to Enter a Film Festival

Preparing your film for a shot at those laurels.


Make your film, target the right festivals, submit, repeat.

After hours of research and careful consideration – which, I hope, included our primer on indie film distribution in the digital age as well as our introduction to the world of film festivals – you’ve identified the festivals you feel are a good fit for your film.

So what’s the best way to begin the submissions process? Must you fill out and mail everything by hand, or are there digital alternatives to help streamline your workflow?

Submissions Workflows

Well, there is one established digital alternative: Withoutabox, acquired by IMDb, a subsidiary of Amazon, in 2008. The service provides a hub for filmmakers to manage the festival submissions process from one place online.

More than 5000 festival listings can be browsed directly within the standardized Withoutabox interface. 900 of these festivals are set up to receive and manage filmmakers’ submissions electronically. Submitting to a festival pays its entry fee, if applicable; provides instructions on how to deliver a screener, either via mail or online; and facilitates tracking throughout the judging process. Simply put, Withoutabox is an incredible tool for filmmakers juggling multiple festival submissions. It even automates a lot of the form filling by pulling information from your film’s profile, which you complete one time.

It’s also a great resource for festival coordinators, providing exposure, search functionality, and a paperless workflow… At least, in theory. Not everyone is happy with Withoutabox. In 2013, writer, producer, and researcher Stephen Follows conducted a survey that revealed that festival directors rated Withoutabox “4.2 out of 10 for value for money”. It’s an expensive investment for festivals – in addition to charging for a listing, Withoutabox takes 18% of filmmakers’ entry fees – made all the more frustrating by its reportedly slow and buggy interface.

Withoutabox’s patent tends to prevent serious competition in the US and Canada, although FilmFreeway recently burst onto the scene, challenging its monopoly. I haven’t used FilmFreeway myself, but press is positive. The site looks and feels legit, with nearly 900 festival listings to date. “We created FilmFreeway to bring submissions into the modern age,” their FAQ reads. For festivals, a listing is free, and those with entry fees pay a flat commission of 8.5% – less than half of Withoutabox’s 18%. Fingers crossed for FilmFreeway to pick up steam.

In the meantime, Fellows’ survey reports that 45% of festivals use Withoutabox to receive and manage filmmakers’ submissions; 50% of festivals use hard copy forms; and 65% of festivals use their own websites. Less than one in five festivals uses all three (or more) of these workflows.

For we the filmmakers, this means that research is paramount. Especially if we’re applying to many festivals, we can’t assume that Withoutabox will be our one stop shop. Instead, we must prepare to use Withoutabox in conjunction with other workflows – if we want to use Withoutabox at all – which, of course, necessitates effective organization.

Different people will employ different methods of organization according to their needs; I’ve found that an integrated spreadsheet and calendar approach works for me. The spreadsheet centralizes information such as qualifying requirements and deadlines while also functioning as a master To Do List, and the calendar “pings” me with action steps in daily, weekly, and monthly views.

Submissions Materials

Regardless of how you choose to organize information, most festival submissions will require some basic information about you and your film. Expect to write a logline as well as synopses of varying lengths.

A logline is a one sentence summary of your film intended to pique interest. For example:

  • After moving into a suburban home, a couple becomes increasingly disturbed by a nightly demonic presence (Paranormal Activity, 2007).
  • A young Greek woman falls in love with a non-Greek and struggles to get her family to accept him while she comes to terms with her heritage and cultural identity (My Big Fat Greek Wedding, 2002).
  • Luke Skywalker joins forces with a Jedi Knight, a cocky pilot, a wookiee and two droids to save the universe from the Empire’s world-destroying battle-station, while also attempting to rescue Princess Leia from the evil Darth Vader (Star Wars, 1977).

Based on his research, academic and transmedia producer Joe Velikovsky suggests a couple of effective structures to jumpstart your thinking about how to write a logline:

  • [Someone] must [do something] to [achieve something].
  • [Character(s)] in [a situation] must [take action] to [solve the problem].

Of course, for the synopses, you will have to expand your logline, usually into short, medium, and long versions. This gives you space to elaborate.

You should also design your movie’s press kit, essentially a collection of materials that discusses its background, intended primarily for promotional purposes. According to Withoutabox, “most press kits are never looked at until a film is actually accepted for screening at [a] festival”, but they’re often required as a part of a submission in order to avoid having to track them down in the future.

Generally, a press kit includes the following components:

  • A Director’s Statement. Think of this as an opportunity to introduce yourself and provide context for your film. Suggest your personality, write from the heart, and highlight “the punctum” of your project.
  • Production stills and other photographs and artwork.
  • Your bio, as well as the bios of key cast and crew.
  • News and reviews of your film.
  • Interesting anecdotes related to your film.
  • Links to trailers and other promotional clips.
  • Some filmmakers choose to include the film’s screenplay.

Package your materials in a PDF, and you’re ready to distribute digital and print versions alike!

In fact, Withoutabox provides Online Press Kit functionality, which keeps costs down – no glossy photographs to run off, no unwieldy envelopes to mail – and enables you to tweak content after submission. It’s worth noting that more than 80% of paper press kits are thrown out by festival staff, so you’ll want to give serious consideration to a digital version.

As a part of your promotional efforts, you might launch a website for your film. This can be a platform to, in the words of BOND360 Founder and CEO Marc Schiller, “invite fans into the film’s release”. People can share the website through social media channels, generating exposure, as well as keep abreast of festival wins, selections, screening times, and other news. Also, you should host your film on a password-protected page to share with people who aren’t able to make a screening – if someone asks “How can I see your film?”, you want to have a simple solution ready.

Of course, a festival submission will require more mundane information as well, including a list of cast and crew, contact information where appropriate, and technical specifics such as runtime; date of completion; country of production and country of filming; production budget; shooting, preview, and exhibition formats… Just pour yourself a cup of coffee and push through the form filling.

The penultimate step of a festival submission is to actually deliver your screener to the festival, so that programmers can watch it and decide whether or not to include your film in the lineup. Delivery specifics vary; be sure to check a festival’s website for instructions. You’ll either mail a copy – consider USPS if the deadline isn’t looming, since FedEx, UPS, and DHL tend to charge an arm and a leg – hand-deliver a copy, or submit a digital version of your film. Indeed, some festivals accept online screeners hosted through Withoutabox on IMDB and/or (increasingly) on Vimeo and YouTube.

Ensure that your screener plays perfectly, or risk getting lost in the shuffle.

Ensure that your screener plays perfectly, or risk getting lost in the shuffle.

Regardless of how you deliver, be sure that your screener plays successfully from beginning to end. Festival programmers sort through hundreds of submissions; the last thing they need is a faulty DVD or upload. It reflects poorly on you and discourages programmers from watching your work.

Submissions Followup

After you’ve submitted and delivered your screener, consider going the extra mile and contact the festival staff. Let them know who you are, express your enthusiasm for the opportunity, and make yourself available to field questions and provide additional materials.

Of course, don’t be obnoxious about it! Just try to plug into the festival with an eye toward building relationships. If your film has already screened at a few festivals, let programmers know that you’re having a successful run and would love to be a part of their lineup as well. Many festivals like to program popular films, and who knows? They might even grant you an entry fee waiver!

If this smacks of networking, that’s because it is. Remember that networking is not necessarily a soulless activity; it’s about human connection as well as mutual benefit.

Businessman, Not Beggar

What, precisely, does a programmer gain from speaking with you, aside from the beginnings of a new relationship?

Well, a programmer is introduced directly to your film. Films are the wares of every festival; without them, festivals wouldn’t exist. Said differently, as a filmmaker, you are in possession of a product. It’s important to keep this in mind: you’re not a beggar after alms; you’re a businessman with goods on the market.

Some filmmakers assume that festivals are a racket that caters exclusively to friends, family, and established talent. While there is inevitably a degree of “who you know” influencing the selection and judging processes, festivals (generally) do not exist to scalp up-and-coming indie filmmakers.

In fact, Stephen Follows reports that one third of all festivals consider their funding situations to be “bad” or “awful”. Another 50% report that they have just enough money to run. Moreover, filmmakers’ entry fees comprise a mere 15% of festivals’ total incomes. This suggests that festivals hustle to make ends meet as surely as do the artists whose films they curate. The bottom line is that festivals are just as hungry for quality content as filmmakers are to play in their programs.

Rejections and Resilience

So why all of the rejections?

My first short film, a thirty minute fantasy opus, screened at a couple of venues and played in one festival. Only one, when we applied to a score! What happened? Well, producing the film was certainly a learning process. We made many mistakes along the way in writing, production, and post. Although the film was unique and ambitious, it wasn’t perfect; “student effort” was written all over it.

Still, I was proud of what we had created. Why wasn’t anyone else? When the rejections started pouring in, a programmer was kind enough to explain that it’s difficult to program a thirty minute film. “I can include three ten minute films or one thirty minute one,” she concluded. This really struck me. It opened my eyes to the reality that programmers must juggle a myriad of competing interests: quality, runtime, genre, format, venue, the geographical proximity of production to the festival, overall lineup “balance”… It’s simply impossible to program every good film that’s submitted to a festival.

All of this to say don’t take rejections personally. Make your film, do your research to target the right festivals, submit, repeat. You’ll improve with every film!

 Michael Koehler, with

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