Festival Submission

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I’ve been meaning for some time, to write a blog about what I’ve learned about the festival system over the past two years since I began submitting Caroline of Virginia to the festival circuit. It’s been tough getting this movie screened, mainly because of its awkward running time, but also it was clearly shot and completed without a budget, on a completely volunteer basis.  The filmmaker of the independent film The Waterhole comments in his blog that “the festival submission process is the filmmaking equivalent to the lottery.  Worse actually, because at least all lottery ticket buyers are playing on the same level. “. With that said, I still wake up astonished that we managed to pick up an award for it, considering we were up against $20,000 micro-budget shorts shot on cameras such as the Alexa and the Red.  To beat out our peers with an HDV shot 37 minute NYC fairy tale with edgy political and human statements, well, it really gets me going in the morning.  In some ways its better than coffee.

One mistake I made that I will not do again is that I began submitting Caroline to festivals before the film was finished, as a work in progress. Not many, but a few who insisted that if your “WIP” is generally close to what the final will be, then they would take the submission seriously. We didn’t get into any of those.  You have to understand that Caroline is not my first film, but the first that I truly thought was worth investing in and the festival submission fees certainly added up to a substantial investment.  Moving on, I proceeded to submit the picture lock as a  “Lock with ‘WIP’ audio”, meaning that our sound design was still a work in progress but everything else is there. With the exception of NewFilmmakers New York, this didn’t fly and no one else would take it. One festival had a “same day rejection” and another within 48 hours.  I will likely never submit to those festivals again (and these were noteworthy events, one out of Chicago and the other in New Jersey).  The funny part is, the WIP audio wasn’t that bad.  NewFilmmakers even screened the film with work in progress audio and the audience loved it.  They were truly reacting to the story.  We didn’t finished the sound design until our third screening at the Tribeca Grand’s “After Set” series and believe it or not, there really wasn’t much of a difference, except that some of the more subtle sounds were better mixed.

This week the final sound mix for Lipstick Lies will be finished and I’m happy to say that I’ve resisted the urge to submit the “picture lock with ‘WIP’ audio” to festivals.  It clearly didn’t work out with COV and I feel as if my submission funds could have been better spent had I waited for the sound to actually have been completed. In addition I did very little research on the festivals I was submitting to. A few things I’ve learned is that you absolutely should, if money is an object for you, review the previous three years worth of programming that a festival has exhibited before submitting. Understand which films they selected to screen, which made the final rounds of selection but weren’t screened and which films won awards.  If possible, try to gauge why certain films picked up awards.  Another option is to go to the event first and then submit next year.  I did this with a couple festivals over the course of the summer.  Some of them I decided I would submit to next year, others were not what they seemed to be at all and their programming was clearly not on par with what I was looking for. This is important because their website and their press coverage conveyed the opposite of the truth. So yes, if you have the opportunity to attend a version of the event first, I would highly recommend it.

Another mistake I made was that I blindly submitted to the festivals from the WithoutABox suggestion list, which I believe they send by e-mail every week or so. These are usually top brand festivals like Sundance, Tribeca, Slamdance and so forth. These festivals are a pain in the ass to get into because they’re not just considering programming that’s submitted through paying filmmakers, but they’re also going out on their own and hunting for star studded Hollywood films. Nevermind that they’re on a WAB “hey submit to these” list which other fools, like me, are going to be like “okay!” but they have feelers already out there, making backroom deals to screen films with successful talent.  Look at Tribeca, for example, in that they screened “The Five Year Engagement” starring Jason Segel and a variety of other stars. This is a film that had distribution in place already and in my opinion had absolutely no reason to be in a film festival. Film festivals are meant to discover new films, new talent and new storytellers.  As a filmmaker, a programmer and a blogger of film, this is a FACT that I absolutely have to call festivals out on when they start to pull this kind of jive.  Evidently, Tribeca closed last year’s festival with a screening of “The Avengers” as one final insult to the people like me who were actually dumb enough to pay the submission fees for our truly independent films.  Let’s also not forget the fact that they have the 1985 hit film The Goonies on their 2012 program as well.

I did not keep silent about this either, in that I had sent e-mails to all of the programmers to let them know exactly how I felt about such a decision.  I also asked for my submission fee back but never received it.  Whilst I have no doubt I’ve burned my bridge with the event, I can only hope that my warning to new and emerging filmmakers about submitting to these organizations isn’t taken with a grain of salt.  Perhaps if we stopped taking them seriously, they’ll start taking us seriously.  It’s a true problem and can only be resolved when filmmakers stop participating in such silliness.  The only suggestion I recommend for filmmakers that don’t have star studded micro or medium budget films is to not submit to these festivals period. In fact, if your film does well enough, let them come to you. If your movie truly is what they want, they’ll often invite filmmakers to screen and this is just about the only way to get into one of these festivals apart from having a budget and names attached, or receiving a review in a notable publication with national reach.

For the upcoming Lipstick Lies submission process, my approach in finding events is going to be based on three vital, non-negotiable components:

1. Submission fee | all submission fees have to be below a certain amount for the festival’s “regular” deadline and I will make every effort to only submit to “early” deadlines when possible. At this time I will not disclose the maximum amount I am allocating to spend, since this could reveal my personal financial situation, which is no one’s business, however, I will say that if their early and regular deadlines are above this amount, there’s something sketchy going on.  Most legit festivals shouldn’t depend on their submission fees to finance the event.  In addition I’ve found that WithoutABox, the only online submission platform on the internet that festivals are willing to use (because it’s owned by IMDB/Amazon) charges festivals a hefty flat fee if they want to have “free to submit” categories.  I learned this when I tried including one of my screening series events on the the site and wanted to accept open submissions without charging fees to the filmmakers.  This is why you will likely never find a ‘free’ festival on their site – they actually punish festivals for this!  I find its easier to good “free to submit to festivals” and browse any lists that come up.  They exist, they just won’t be listed on IMDB or WithoutABox.

2. Location of festival |I find that many of my films are New York centric and while the stories can be enjoyed by audiences nationwide (and in some urbanized areas, globally), I’ve found that with a story that is so heavily intertwined with NYC culture, history and people, that festivals in cities like Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco, all cities that in some way or another compete with New York for business, art and culture, tend to turn down the film.  So far all of the festivals COV has screened in, have been in Manhattan. LL is a film that is both set in New York and Hawaii, so this opens up the playing field a tiny bit, but not by much. I’d be interested to see what happens and whether or not my filming and story locations truly makes a difference.

3. Previous three years selection list | You can’t learn a lot about the programmers from their biographies or the films they may have been involved with previously (many programmers are also filmmakers).  The bios you get online is a form of controlled output – sometimes misleading and they certainly don’t give you the whole picture. They are resumes, so to speak, and without an interview and follow up interview, you wouldn’t hire them, right? So why would you offer them $60 to watch your film based on such little information?  One sure way you can learn of their tastes is by reviewing the films that they previously awarded screenings to in the past, by going down the list of past programs.  This is time consuming and often stressful.  Sometimes its difficult when festivals roll over their programmers (which is often done by bigger festivals to keep their tastes unpredictable ‘fresh’).  At times you get depressed because you might find an enormous amount of good material that you’ll feel you will never compete with, or such horrible material that you are positive they’ll never see your film for the gem that it is.  Regardless, this is the single most important thing you can do to achieve higher chances of being selected for a screening.

So far I’ve only submitted LL to one festival as a work in progress, because the submission deadline was coming up and there was no submission fee.  All I had to lose was a USPS Priority Stamp, which I’ve got plenty of.  Beyond that I have not submitted it anywhere, regardless of how much I wanted to.  As far as that festival goes, I have not heard back yet, ‘nor have they announced their official selections so I shall keep my fingers crossed and hope at marsec level 1!

Our preview screening at Tribeca Grand and upcoming premiere at the Anthology Film Archives was by arrangement with the coordinators.  This is possible because I understand their programming, they understand my work and they are both rolling screening series which means there is plenty of room to work with in fitting films in.  This brings me to another point: Screening series.  Often people just starting out (and some experienced filmmakers) are unaware of the differences between a festival and a series.  A festival is an event held annually with a very select number of films chosen to represent the festival in that year’s program.  Often the films go along with a pre-decided theme that they have not disclosed to the filmmakers who are submitting.  A series is a rolling event, that happens either weekly, monthly or seasonally.  With an on-going series there is much more room to program and so your chances of getting screened increase dramatically.  Many film series’ have roll-over policies where if they cannot fit your submission into the next series, they’ll roll it over to the one after and so forth.  While some of them say they roll over, but don’t, many who say this actually honor the policy.  As a submitter, I’ve established a personal policy that I will not submit to a screening series that doesn’t have a “roll over” policy.  It doesn’t make sense not to have it, in my professional and personal opinion.  Most of the more notable screening series’ are in New York City, but others are emerging on the left coast as well.  I suggest you take a look at them.

-E