For many filmmakers, the film festival selection process is a bit of a “black box.” You submit your film, you wait, and then you get an acceptance or a rejection. Whenever important information, such as why your film wasn’t selected, is absent, it tends to, at best, create a power differential; at worst, a prickly, and often unfounded, animosity toward the festival.
As someone who has experienced this process as both a filmmaker and a festival programmer, I’m here to shed some light on what actually takes place between the time you submit your film to, in this case, the Seattle International Film Festival, and when you receive that all-important decision via email.
Part 1: Deadlines
To be perfectly clear, do not rush your film to make a festival submission deadline. You’ve already invested at least a year of your life, if not more, into handcrafting this cinematic gem, so why give it short shrift on the back end? Take the time you need to ensure you’re able to tell the story you originally set out to tell.
I would discourage any filmmaker from submitting a true rough cut prior to locking picture. Film programmers are a forgiving lot. Temp score, temp sound, not color corrected, no credits: no problem. But, send us a film with an incoherent third act or a sub-plot that goes nowhere and your odds of making the cut begin to plummet. Wait until you’ve locked your picture, then feel free to submit. This applies to everyone except sci-fi/green screen epics. If you have missing vfx shots that will help tell your story, wait until they’re ready before submitting to a festival.
Part 2: Submissions
There are two primary ways you can submit a film to a festival. One is via Withoutabox.com, the other is through a film festival’s website, which often involves printing off an application, filling it out, and mailing it in to the festival. More and more festivals are opting to go paperless these days, and often offer additional submission fee discounts if submitting via Withoutabox. Either way, the festival is going to have a record of your submission. Regardless of how you initiate your submission, I highly recommend that you make your film available to festival programmers via a password protected online screener. DVDs break in the mail, get scratched when handled, and often skip (or fail to play entirely) when viewed by a programmer. Save yourself the postage (and the headache of physical media) and just upload a password-protected, high-res version of your film to Vimeo.
Next week: Building relationships with festival programmers, or what to do if you want to stay on our good side.