Film Festival Advice (From a Recovering Wasteful Submitter)

Film Festival Advice (From a Recovering Wasteful Submitter)

I spent more than the full budget of my first web series on film festival submissions. Over the course of three years, that’s over $1,500 basically straight down the drain.

Do I have key art chock-full of laurels? Sure.

Do any of those laurels actually mean anything to anyone? Um … let’s move on.

Thankfully, around the end of that first submission flurry, I met Christina Raia, my podcast co-host and all-around reasonable, patient person. Below are some collected pieces of advice I’ve gleaned from her and my own more patient research attempting to emulate her so that you can save a bit of money mid- and post-COVID and actually get something out of your submissions.

Mid-COVID: Location, Location, Location

If you're preserving/tracking premiere status, double-check if the festivals you’re submitting to geoblock ticket holders/streaming, and also if having an online premiere (geoblocked or otherwise) will preclude you from inclusion from future fests you want to submit to. Given the strangeness of this entire year, fewer and fewer festivals (even the big ones) are holding online premieres against filmmakers, but it’s worth considering before sinking your budget. If you make web series and shorts like me, you probably don’t need to worry about this as much, because it’s really rare for short-form categories to bother with premiere status. But it’s not unheard of, so stay frosty, friends.

Even if you aren’t worried about premiere status, virtual festivals with geoblocking may be doing so to maintain some of the “local flavor” for their fest, drawing more of their non-filmmaker local attendees. If one of the goals of your festival is to connect with particular audiences, it may actually work in your favor to stick to fests that cater exclusively to the audiences they always have, even in the virtual space.

Post-COVID: Location, Location, Location

Can you feasibly attend the festivals you apply to, either because they’re local to you, within reasonable travel distance, or near a friend/family member you can stay with? Attendance is invaluable for networking, seeing your film play for an audience, panels/programming, and even potential industry connections. As someone who’s gotten into festivals across the ocean from where I'm based, I can tell you I got … exactly as much out of them as I got out of spending ten minutes on FilmFreeway designing a laurel. Because all I got out of them was that laurel.

It might be worth it to submit to festivals you aren’t sure you’ll be able to attend if, again, it’ll get your film in front of audiences you wouldn’t otherwise reach. You do want to make sure, however, through research and connecting with filmmakers from past programs, that the festival will actually be promoting your block/film, and it won’t just screen for an empty room if you aren’t there to represent it.

The only other reason to submit to a festival you can’t attend is if it’s a well-respected fest within the genre/audience you make work in/for, which you can use as a badge of honor or promotional fodder later on even if the audiences also aren’t in attendance at the fest itself. If you’re on the radar of tastemakers, sometimes you don’t need to be there personally to reap the benefits.

Mid-COVID: Filmmaker to filmmaker

How are the festivals you’re looking at connecting their filmmakers? Virtual networking happy hours? Facebook groups or Slack channels for official selections? Screening block live Q&As? What are the virtual networking opportunities available to you? Again, networking is a massively important aspect of film festivals, and while it’s certainly more complicated mid-COVID, it’s far from impossible.

Post-COVID: Filmmaker to audience

How are these festivals promoting both filmmakers and the individual films? Are they depending on you to market your own screening block, or advertising on their own? Ask filmmakers from previous years—did the audience tend to be fellow filmmakers, or a mix of filmmakers and local audiences?

Bonus mid-COVID tip: How are festivals both providing access and visibility to the audience you want to attract and providing you, the filmmaker, the data and demographics you would have otherwise gotten by being in the room? In the room you can pass around an email sign-up list or your business cards, so people can follow up to watch the rest of your body of work and become massive superfans. How is that being facilitated in the virtual realm?

Mid-COVID: Consider theme, demographic, and style

Are the festivals you’re applying to ones that feature projects in your particular genre (horror, sci-fi, comedy, etc), for your particular themes (mental health, environmentalism, etc.), or your team's demographics (female director, LGBT+ DP, Latino lead, etc.)? You’ll likely have more luck not just at getting accepted, but finding an audience for your film who’s already looking for content like yours. It’s far more likely you’ll find a majority-queer audience at a queer-specific festival versus at a more general one.

The other question you want to ask yourself: do the projects that screened at previous iterations look/feel like yours? Whether or not a film is good is a subjective opinion, but whether or not a film is a good fit for a particular festival is easier to pin down. Many festivals have a clear programming mandate you can pick out from checking out their past slates. Do they ever screen work in your genre/theme/style, and if they do, do the budgets seem comparable to yours? And who’s on the program team? We’d like to believe all festivals are a meritocracy, but if you’re a BIPOC female filmmaker, making work with exclusively female leads, it’s worth knowing if the programming team at Example Film Festival is entirely white men, which happens more often than you’d … actually no, you probably assumed that happened a lot. And you’re right!

Pre-, Mid-, and Post-COVID: What are your goals?

Are you prioritizing getting in front of new audiences, collecting laurels, networking, connecting to industry, or nabbing a particular prize? Apply to festivals that will support that goal by actually doing the research and don't waste money on others. If you want to connect with industry leaders, past Bri, don’t just apply to tiny first-year local festivals with no sponsorship page on their free WIX sites just because it only costs $5. That $5 adds up quick when you have zero impulse control and a laurel addiction.

It can be an overwhelming prospect, submitting to film festivals, but take heart: there’s a whole community of people doing it alongside you, so reach out, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Getting recommendations and keeping in touch with filmmakers from similar genres with similar goals can be a great starting point, and perhaps even help fill up your carpool when we’re allowed to gather again!

*Feature Image: Pexels

Bri Castellini is a screenwriter, director, adjunct professor, and, like any good millennial, a podcaster. She’s known for the short film Ace and Anxious and the podcast Breaking Out of Breaking In.
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