Finishing a film is always a great accomplishment. It is very rewarding to see an idea come to fruition through the coordinated effort of people working in team to achieve the representation of that idea. However, the last step to make that effort complete is to show the results of the hard work. And as if making the film wasn’t hard enough, showing it is likely almost as difficult, if not tougher. It is all very nice showing it to family and friends, but that won’t exactly yield any sort of professional recognition or prospects of career progression.
So, who should I show my film to and how? – you might be wondering. The answer is “festivals”.
What are film festivals?
Film festivals are events that provide the opportunity to showcase new talent and productions in the film industry. They are also great places to do business, network, stay head about new developments and even learn new things through Q&A sessions and workshops.
Simply put, a festival can be thought about as a film market. Filmmakers submit their films looking to catch the eye of people working in the industry. Executives, producers, directors, actors, distributors, press, critics, agents and many others attend to look for new productions, new deals in terms of rights, ideas or distribution agreements, opportunities to collaborate and uncover new talent.
Generally, it is possible to also attend festivals even if you don’t work in the industry or if your submission hasn’t been selected. You can buy tickets for most of them, however the more popular and prestigious, the more expensive and difficult it would be to get a pass. This can be nonetheless worth doing for big festivals, since these are a very interesting window to peak through to see how films are actually bought and sold. It is also a great experience and you never know who you can end up meeting.
Reasons to enter them
The main reason for filmmakers to enter festivals is therefore to get exposure. No one is going to come looking for you or your film, especially if they don’t even know you exist and make films. This is tied-in with trying to win awards, another reason to enter festivals. These are the main places to do so –even cash prizes- and this normally translates into recognition and press attention. Depending on the prestige and popularity of the festival, there can be high career development prospects – like getting on the radar for big productions or projects, or maybe having new opportunities for higher funding. Awards also look great on any personal filmography, and you might want to consider listing them on your CV since this could provide you with a boost that takes you to the next level.
Even if you don’t win any awards, most would consider getting accepted into any category of any respected festival, a great success. You can still get recognition and press attention just for being selected – and there could be as many prospects if your film appeals to the audience even though not so much to the jury.
The process for the festival run starts by planning it right at the pre-production stage. In my previous article “Starting Pre-Production” I mentioned providing an allocation for festivals when preparing the film’s budget. This budget would be for submission fees, as most festivals are not free to enter, and in most cases, for preparing a submission package.
In order to get an accurate figure about how much to spend in festival submissions, it is necessary to carry out research that determines which festivals you are going to submit your film to. Knowing exactly this will save you a lot of time, money, effort and disappointment in comparison to just winging it.
Bear in mind the time that it will take to complete your film, not to overlay it with any deadlines. If you are thinking of submitting a film that is already finished, you don’t need to worry about this –however, you will need to check festival’s guidelines to see that your film is not too old to be submitted. Normally festivals have several deadlines: early bird, regular, late and sometimes extended. It might be an understatement, but the later you submit, the more expensive the fees will be, therefore you would want to aim for the early bird deadline especially if you are concerned about saving some money.
The next thing to do, as I mentioned above, is create a package to present your film when submitting – a requirement in many festivals. This would normally include a synopsis that talks about the film and its meaning, as well as a Director’s statement (you can check out this article on how to write one: The Director’s Statement: What to Write). You would also need to talk about the team, their aspirations and motives and what they have done so far previous to your film, especially about key roles such as Director, Writer, Producer or DOP and the main cast. You would also want to consider spending some of the budget for this package in still photographs both from the film and production, a poster of the film (or a few) and even some marketing and promotion efforts and distribution plans.
The last thing is applying and forgetting about it. This is where blunt honesty comes into play: it is very difficult to win at festivals, but not impossible. It might sound very bleak, but the safest –and healthiest- tactic to follow is not to expect to win or to even be considered. However, if it does happen, the reward is immense.
It may seem like a lot of effort for nothing in most cases, but the only certain way not to win anything is never submitting. You’ve got nothing to lose – you should consider your festival budget allocation as a loss if you hadn’t done that yet.
What festivals should I submit to?
Yes, there is nothing to lose, but no one said you cannot play it smart and possibly stack more odds in your favour. The way to do this is to be truly honest with yourself about your film, especially in terms of the end result and its level. By doing so and researching festivals, you will find that there will be festivals of the same level of your film, where it will be most suited. This way, you will definitely increase your chances at winning.
So don’t be discouraged if your film isn’t at a professional level or the level you wanted it to be – there’s nothing wrong with this since there will still be festivals out for there for you.
Another tactic is to browse festivals by genre – some festivals are broad and others are specialised. If your film is a particular genre, like sci-fi or horror, you will find that there are many dedicated festivals where your chances of winning might be greater. This also includes student or independent festivals.
Opposite to that, there are broad, very prestigious and popular festivals like Cannes or Sundance where it is almost impossible to be considered – for starters you most likely need to know someone in there to even have your film looked at and have a shot at being within the 0.74% acceptance rate. My recommendation is not to bother entering very famous festivals at first, but best of luck if you decide to!
So, how to research for festivals?
There are great websites like FilmFreeway, Withoutabox, Reelport or Shortfilmdepot where you can browse for festivals and apply directly – some will in fact, only let you apply through these websites.
A word of warning to conclude, make sure to include as part of your research some time to verify the legitimacy of festivals. An accurate rule of thumb is to check the festival’s website – see if it doesn’t look weird – the number of editions the festival has run for – the higher, the better. It is especially questionable if it is running for the first time – that it is organised by a trusted and reputed organization and even the location. Believe it or not, scammers also target festivals aiming to get hold of enthusiastic filmmakers’ money by setting up “festivals” which end up taking place in their living room or in the middle of nowhere!
Juan Cruz is a cinematographer and editor based in London. He is about to graduate from the University of Greenwich in the MSc Film Production.
In his films, he likes exploring technology-related dystopias. He also loves comedy and playing drums.