Getting Your Film into Festivals: Advice from SMU Meadows Alums
Four festival-savvy alumni from SMU Meadows Division of Film & Media Arts share advice on how to get films into festivals.
When the filming is done and the wrap party over, the producers and editors move on to months of editing, sound design, color correction, music selection and more. When the last frame is tweaked and the credits added, the jackpot question arises:
Will my film get an audience?
For the new filmmaker, film festivals are an excellent way to get your films in front of audiences. In addition, festivals are prime hunting grounds for making industry contacts and building your reputation, both important components to building your filmmaking career.
Below, four festival-savvy alumni from SMU Meadows Division of Film & Media Arts share advice on how to get films into festivals. The first step, all agree, is to do your festival homework.
Know thy festival
Whether you are submitting a short, a documentary or a feature film, it’s important to research the festival first, according to longtime artistic director of the Dallas International Film Festival (DIFF) James Faust (B.A. Communication Arts/Cinema ’97).
“Don’t assume all festivals are all-encompassing,” he says. “You need to know what kind of films that festival is likely to pick up. If you have a horror film, you don’t want to waste your time submitting to a family film festival.”
Sarah Harris (B.A. Cinema-Television ’05), echoes Faust and speaks from nearly 12 years of experience selecting films for festivals. She has been senior programmer for DIFF since its inception in 2006, and serves as programming associate for the Sundance Film Festival’s U.S. Documentaries Competition; shorts curator for the Denver Film Festival; programmer for the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF); and programmer for the EARTHxFilm Festival.
“You can detect patterns of what festivals select by learning about the festival, the programmers who work there, their specific taste in curating and the location and audience of the festival,” she says. “Audiences are diverse. What plays well in Dallas may not work in Seattle. Know what categories the festival typically programs and how your film fits into the festival’s artistic vision.”
Amanda Presmyk (B.A. Film and Media Arts and B.A. Journalism ’14), vice president of production at Cinestate and director of operations for the annual Oak Cliff Film Festival, says there are thousands of fests across the country, each with its own strengths, weaknesses and focus. “There are genre fests, LGBTQ fests, experimental fests, alternative content fests, female film fests, etc.,” says Presmyk. “And within every festival, there are film ‘blocks’ or programs that are similarly categorized. If your film can fit into any of these broad categories in some way, use that to your advantage.”
Presmyk warns against the “spray and pray” method of submitting. “Don’t just submit to whatever film festivals pop up on FilmFreeway or those with cheap submission rates,” she says. “The ‘spray and pray’ method is the wrong approach and will burn through your submissions budget quickly and ineffectively.”
Ryan Hawkins (B.A. Cinema-Television ’10), co-founder of Los Angeles-based Picture Movers Anonymous, says size up the festival first for fit. “Pick fests that give you the best opportunities to make a splash,” he advises, “and network with like-minded filmmakers who may be receptive to your demographic.”
Start small, or go for the mega-fests?
Don't bank on Sundance, says Hawkins, unless your film has A-list actors or the film is pre-sold to networks or theatres. The smaller fests have plenty of perks to help filmmakers build their careers.
Hawkins and his colleagues at Picture Movers Anonymous have won plenty of film festival awards and their films have been in some of the larger fests, but being in a festival is about more than winning awards, he says. “Ultimately, it's been the relationships that we built at the smaller, more niche-driven fests that have given us the longest-lasting relationships in the business,” he notes. “In most cases, unless you have presales in place and a tentpole fest like Sundance or Tribeca that offers mega-marketing opportunities, you are better off treating festivals as networking opportunities.”
Should you contact the festival directly to increase your chances?
The alums have varying opinions on the question of whether or not to reach out to a festival after you’ve submitted your materials.
Faust warns against contacting festival programmers about your entry, especially if the festival is a bigger fest such as DIFF, which reviews about 1,600 films a year.
“It’s one thing to send a letter introducing yourself, but if you don’t already know someone there, blind emails to programmers don’t always work and sometimes annoy,” he warns. “It’s hard to personalize something if you don’t already have a relationship with someone at the festival.”
Think twice before sending attention-getting goodies through the mail. They can backfire. In the past, DIFF has received “gifts” such as a kid’s Louisville Slugger bat spattered with blood; a film about birds, packed in a box of feathers; and a leotard worn by an actress who played a pop singer, which Faust says was received as “wildly inappropriate.” That said, he does admit to keeping the bat in his office as a conversation piece. (And no, the film that the bloody bat was supposed to promote was not selected for that year’s fest.)
While Faust warns against contacting the larger fests, Presmyk says all lights are green if the fest you are submitting to is a smaller fest.
“Reach out personally to the smaller festivals when you submit,” says Presmyk. “For the Oak Cliff Film Festival (OCFF), I receive these emails from time to time and, while a personal note is unlikely to change the fate of whether or not your film is programmed, it does make you stand out from the pack. Then, if your film is ultimately programmed, you are remembered throughout the process in a way that will help with networking and relationships once you arrive to the fest.”
Hawkins is comfortable in reaching out to a festival, big or small. “Don't hesitate to research festival coordinators and programmers and see if you can contact them directly,” he says. “It's very hard for larger fests to review thousands of flicks, especially in a day and age where someone with a couple of bucks can apply to 50 at a time on withoutabox.com. But do use your network, especially if you know someone, or know someone who knows someone, in the festival offices.”
Specs and the fine print
Submission specifications vary from fest to fest. You’ll be ahead of the game if you take the time to submit your materials in exactly the way each festival wants them submitted. A few tips:
- Mail-in or Online Submissions: Many festivals no longer accept mailed-in entries and have moved instead to online-only portals such as withoutabox.com, FilmFreeway.com and others.
- Film Lengths: While most accept feature-length films as well as shorts, duration requirements are likely not the same from fest to fest. For example, a short sent to the Dallas International Film Festival must not exceed 25 minutes; the Oak Cliff Film Festival allows shorts under 30 minutes; the Tribeca Film Festival and the Aspen Shortsfest allow shorts under 40 minutes; and the Sundance Film Festival shorts must be under 50 minutes. Check the specs.
- Prizes: Some festivals give prizes such as cash, free equipment rentals or showings at a local theater, but not all categories offer a prize. Some offer “best of category” recognition and bragging rights.
- Premiere-only? Look to see if the festival accepts films that have been shown in other markets, or if the film must not have been made available for public viewing in any form (including Vimeo, YouTube, etc.).
- Fee range: Check the submission fees, as they vary widely. Know that the longer you wait to submit your film, the higher the submission fee is likely to be as the festival event date looms. Bonus tip: If your budget is tight, Presmyk says it probably wouldn’t hurt to reach out and request a fee waiver or discounted submission rate. “It doesn’t always work,” she says, “but the worst they can say is no! It can be a good way to stretch your festival submission budget further.”
For all the effort of producing your film and then marketing it and submitting to various festivals, getting your film into festivals is a proven way of establishing yourself as a true filmmaker. Audiences will see your work. You have bragging rights that your film was selected among what may be hundreds or thousands of submissions; you might even win an award or two, all the better to help propel your film, career and reputation in the industry.
And if your film is not accepted? Attend anyway to see what the festival considered better material. Take notes, shake hands and network like crazy.
Read more about SMU Meadows Division of Film & Media Arts undergraduate and graduate programs and the Summer Film Production program, in which students produce feature-length films during a two-year cycle. Many go on to win festival awards in the U.S. and abroad.