What an Indie Filmmaker Needs to Know About Film Festivals

Why apply, where to submit, how to choose your film festivals.

 

It’s a Wrap. Now What?

You’ve done it.

After more sleepless nights than you care to count, you’ve completed your film.

The fact that you’ve come this far proves your passion and speaks to your ambition; you didn’t just talk about your awesome movie idea, you executed it! So pop open a bottle of champagne, throw a party for cast and crew, and take a day off to recharge. You know, go ahead and take a week – because when you come back you’re going to exhaust your energy reserves again!

“Getting the film made is the easy part,” a friend once told me. “Getting it seen is the challenge.”

Indeed, a film needs an audience. How will you find yours?

To help you approach this question, we recently published an overview of indie film distribution in the digital age. It’s intended as an orientation; a map of the terrain you must navigate if you want your film to do more than collect dust on a shelf in your basement. In the weeks ahead, we’ll discuss how to use this map, gathering and synthesizing additional information in companion articles and interviews for your reference as you devise your distribution strategy.

It is natural for filmmakers to think “Sundance” as soon as their baby’s in the can. While this is a noble aspiration – and while every submission has a shot at the glitz and glam of independent film’s premiere showcase – it’s important to recognize that Sundance is not the end-all-be-all. On the contrary, the festival scene is alive and well today, buzzing with venues large and small. Writer, producer, and researcher Stephen Follows recently reported that there are around 3,000 film festivals currently active, with more opening every year. That’s 3,000 platforms around the world that are available to you right now.

Of course, it’s not necessary to brave the festival circuit – especially in today’s age of digital distribution, when you have the option of working directly with services such as Distrify and Vimeo On Demand to share your film – but many give it a try, for a variety of reasons.

Why Bother with Film Festivals – Are They Worth Entering?

Riley over at Vimeo breaks down “the why” into five encompassing categories we’ll elaborate upon here. First, film festivals bring you EXPOSURE. As an Official Selection of a festival, your film will play in at least one theatre for at least one audience. Moreover, you can slap that festival’s laurels on your advertising materials, which grows your prestige.

Imagine you’re browsing the internet and have five minutes to watch a film during your lunch break. Are you more likely to click on the film with or without the laurels? Nine times out of ten, I’ll choose the film with the laurels, since they represent a vote of confidence from industry professionals. “Watch me,” the film says, “I made it through festival (x)’s curation process. I’m worth your time.”

The greater your prestige, the greater your popularity, the greater your profit. Not always – the film industry is, after all, a capricious lover – but there is often a direct correlation. Said differently, exposure begets exposure begets possibilities.

But as you know from having translated script to screen, possibilities do not actualize themselves. Like a movie idea, a possibility must be pursued if it is to do more than drift idly by. At a film festival, this means using your newfound exposure to NETWORK.

“The film industry is about who you know” is a mundanity that bears repeating. For a long time, I thought this meant I had to wear a big, white-toothed smile and shake hands while trying not to spill wine on my rental tux. I’ve come to realize – much to my relief – that networking is not necessarily a superficial ritual. For me, it means finding people I resonate with and making an effort to stay in touch with them.

Maybe you grab coffee before the festival’s over. Maybe you hop on a call a month later. Maybe you hit a bar or go rock climbing or do whatever it is you’re both passionate about. The point is that networking can be about genuine connections with genuine people; if you have trouble imagining it as anything more than a dirty word, I challenge you to re-frame your thinking. Call it “relationship building”. You don’t have to do it the corporate way to be effective; just accept your networking style and run with it. Meeting people is at the heart of every film festival experience, and who knows? You could find future collaborators, thought leaders, new friends. Not to mention sales agents and distributors!

Although big distribution deals are no longer the sole gatekeepers to an indie film’s reach and success, they remain enticing possibilities made all the more enticing by their relative rarity. Representatives of high-profile distribution companies like Fox Searchlight, Focus Features, and Magnolia Pictures attend film festivals – especially established ones like Sundance and Cannes – to shop for new content. They have many suitors, so while it doesn’t hurt to prepare, you shouldn’t resign your film to a life of loneliness on that basement shelf if your advances are rejected. As we discussed in our overview article, there are other fish in the sea.

If you’re repping a short film, you probably won’t be courting the likes of Fox Searchlight. Instead, you may catch the eye of a distributor like Shorts International, positioned to put your film on television and/or mainstream VOD platforms, including iTunes. If you’re an Oscar Nominated Short Film, you can look forward to theatrical release in North America, Europe, Africa, and Australia.

Either way, whether you’ve got a feature on your hands or a short, film festivals open the door to the world of TRADITIONAL DISTRIBUTION OPPORTUNITIES.

Many film festivals present AWARDS OPPORTUNITIES, as well. These vary from festival to festival, recognizing everything from outstanding performances and technical merit to “Best of Genre” and “Best of Fest” distinctions.

When you win an award, your “Official Selection” laurel evolves into a “Winner” laurel, feeding the fires of your film’s prestige. And you remember what we said about prestige? It can lead to popularity, not only with audiences but also with other festivals. For the same reason you might choose to watch a laureled film over a laurelless film while on your lunch break, a festival programmer might choose to include a film with a proven track record instead of one that has yet to play anywhere. Sometimes all it takes is one respectable laurel to open the festival floodgates.

It’s worth noting there are awards that bring money and services as well as prestige. The Abu Dhabi Film Festival’s Black Pearl Award, for instance, results in a cool hundred grand.

Finally, attending a film festival can be fun! It is also overwhelming and inspiring and exhausting and eye-opening and energizing and you get the idea. It is, in a nutshell, A WHOLLY UNIQUE EVENT. Where else can you get together with filmmakers, aficionados, and fans to discuss ideas and swap war stories and catch peers’ screenings between industry-specific events and swank parties?

If none of this piques your interest, well, then you’ll at least have the opportunity to watch your film with an audience, which is a pleasure unto itself. Of course, there’s the added benefit of gauging how your film plays. Do people laugh when they’re supposed to laugh? Is your film the tear jerker you thought it would be? You might be surprised, hopefully in positive ways. Regardless, note audience reactions – and, if possible, feedback – for analysis and application in future projects.

Okay, I Want to Try the Festival Circuit. Where Do I Start?

3,000 film festivals means 3,000 different opportunities, which is as overwhelming as it is inspiring. So how do you whittle down the list? How do you determine the best film festivals to which to apply?

First, consider your film’s total running time. Do you have a feature or a short on your hands? If short, you might apply to some of the short film festivals out there, such as The Clermont Ferrand Film Festival in France, Aspen Shortsfest in Colorado, and Palm Springs International ShortFest in California, to name only a few. One of the great things about shorts-only festivals is that selections tend to receive the attention they deserve; in other words, shorts aren’t treated as appetizers on a menu of feature entrées. The filmmakers, juries, and audiences are there to celebrate and reward the short film format.

If you’ve completed a nonfiction film, documentary festivals such as The Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in North Carolina, Hot Docs in Toronto, and The International Documentary Film Festival (IDFA) in Amsterdam should be on your radar.

Of course, there are festivals that program features as well as shorts, from narrative to documentary to experimental. These combination festivals often attract broad audiences, extensive coverage, and big names. Some even run film markets, essentially trade events that target sales agents and distributors.

The top-range includes The Sundance Film Festival in Utah, The International Film Festival Rotterdam in the Netherlands, The Berlin International Film Festival in Germany, Cannes Film Festival in France, The Venice Film Festival in Italy, and The Toronto International Film Festival in Canada.

Mid-range combination festivals include The Slamdance Film Festival in Utah, The Tribeca Film Festival in New York, SXSW Film in Texas, and The Raindance Festival in the UK. The Seattle International Film Festival in Washington, The Melbourne International Film Festival in Australia, and Austin Film Festival in Texas are examples of regional festivals in the mid-range. All of these merit serious consideration when developing your festival strategy, regardless of whether you’ve completed a feature or a short film.

Note the word “consideration” – just because a festival is prestigious doesn’t mean that you should apply automatically. Costs add up quickly; the average entry fee ranges from $20 – $100, so it can be important to pick your battles wisely.

Moreover, the hard truth is that your chances of getting into a top or even mid-range festival are not high. For instance, this year, Sundance received more than 12,000 submissions. It selected around 200. Your odds? Roughly 1.7%. Every one in sixty films made the cut.

Even so, you needn’t rule out Sundance & Co. altogether. Filmmaker and Premiumbeat contributor Noam Kroll suggests a useful point of reference for indie filmmakers figuring their festival budgets:

  • “Submit 30% to major festivals
  • Submit 50% to mid-range festivals
  • Submit 20% to niche festivals”

Remember, as Pirates of the Caribbean taught us, these aren’t rules; “they’re more what you call guidelines”, advising us to allocate 30% of our plunder to top-range festivals such as Sundance, 50% of our plunder to mid-range festivals such as Slamdance, and 20% of our plunder to “niche festivals”.

Niche festivals accept films that fall within the genres and causes to which they’re devoted. The Sitges Film Festival in Catalonia, for instance, is the world’s foremost international festival for fantasy and horror films. The Cartegana International Film Festival in Columbia, the oldest cinema event in Latin America, focuses on films from Ibero-America. There’s also a plethora of smaller festivals around the world, bumping our count to that staggering three thousand. You might consider The Philadelphia Film Festival in Pennsylvania, The Tallgrass Film Festival in Kansas, and The Starz Denver Film Festival in Colorado, all well-respected regional destinations. The good news is that it’s likely there’s a niche festival out there ideally suited to your film, whether it’s a tongue-in-cheek slasher or a coming-of-age drama set in Guatemala.

It’s true that most niche festivals do not attract the number and caliber of industry reps that the top and mid-range festivals do, but they have the potential to launch your career nonetheless. As the saying goes, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Your film may not open at Slamdance, but it could wind up there down the line. Remember our earlier point about prestige? One festival acceptance, niche or otherwise, can be all it takes to get the snowball rolling.

Regardless, what makes niche festivals so great – in addition to the laurels, of course! – is that they facilitate a match between your film and your audience. People at Sitges expect to see fantasy and horror films; people at Cartegana keep the pulse on Ibero-American cinema. As an Official Selection of a niche festival, there’s a strong possibility that your film will play well. It’s also worth noting that niche festivals tend to have lower entry fees and higher acceptance rates than their top and mid-range counterparts, making them more accessible than juggernauts like Sundance and its 1.7%.

Further Whittling Down Your List of Film Festivals

At this point, you should have a sense of why film festivals are, arguably, a worthwhile investment, and how you can begin to target festivals for submissions.

There are some additional factors to consider when making your selections, however. First, research festivals’ past years’ programming. This will give you a sense of a festival’s tastes, which can clue you into whether or not your film will be a good fit. If possible, connect with filmmakers who’ve attended the festivals on your list and ask them to share their impressions; they probably will be happy to talk about their experiences, and you’ll benefit from a bit of free recon.

If you have a short film you aim to take to The Oscars this year, be sure to check the appropriate “qualifying festival list” resource on the Academy’s site.

Of course, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences isn’t the only organization with qualifying requirements. Every festival has its own set of stipulations, from total running time to genre; check a festival’s website for specifics. This becomes very important when applying to multiple festivals – which, of course, you should do.

In particular, some festivals are sensitive to a film’s premiere status. Has it already screened at another festival and/or on another platform? If so, the film may be ineligible, regardless of its merits and how well it may fit that festival’s tastes. This primarily affects feature films; festivals are more lenient with shorts even if they prefer premieres.

Premiere status can extend to a film’s online availability. The good news is that many festivals today, including some of the top-range festivals, have done away with online restrictions. For details, check out Short of the Week’s “Essential List of Festivals and Online Eligibility”; the bottom line is that 68% of the festivals on SOTW’s list accept films that already have premiered online, a subtle but noteworthy concession to the changing times.

Hopefully this introduction has primed you to approach the world of film festivals. Good hunting! When you’ve rounded up your options, feel free to consult our primer on the submissions process.

 Michael Koehler, with


If you’ve yet to make a film but are eager to learn how, then we’d love to help! Check out our online filmmaking training – featuring classes that are more guided than a blog, more interactive than a textbook, and more flexible than traditional film school.

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