Congratulations. You made a movie. Now the hard part begins. Everyone dreams of getting their picture noticed at a film festival and starting a Hollywood career. But the film festival circuit is more overcrowded every year, and with the sheer number of fests out there it’s hard to muddle through and find the right festival for your film.
Let’s assume your movie’s all ready to go; tight edit, final sound mix, copyrights cleared, all that. Festival time. Now what?
(1) Count the money.
Assume that you’re going to apply to about forty fests at around $25 apiece. Forty seem like a big number? Just remember you’re not going to get into all of them. Get used to the concept of sunk costs here. With every check you write, tell yourself that nothing may come of it. It’s all part of the fun.
(2) Load up on supplies.
The basics are clear. Padded envelopes are your friend. The kind with bubble wrap inside, not fiber. No one wants to open a disgusting, crud-filled envelope. You’ll also need blank DVDs and nice cases to put them in, the convenient kind that snap shut, not the cheap jewel cases that break if you touch them too firmly. You don’t have to get the fanciest cover or label art around, but if you’ve got something nice, so much the better.
(3) Boy Scout motto: Be prepared.
There are a few things you may not need to apply to a festival, but you’ll need upon acceptance. Are you going to apply to festivals that will require a BetaSP tape-or an HD tape or film print-of your movie? Then you’d better be able to get one made! Do you have good production stills on hand? A press kit? How about a slick poster? Don’t be caught empty-handed!
Ideally, you budgeted for all this before production began; festivals aren’t cheap. You may want to start gearing towards fests with cash prizes.
(4) Figure out what your film is.
A feature-length comedy and a short drama are suited for two very different kinds of showcases. Some festivals like realistic, traditional subject matter, others lean more avant-garde. Moreover, there are special opportunities for films showcasing minority issues or specific subjects, or from first-time directors, or student projects… figure out how your film’s genre, length, history, target audience and all these other tangibles (and intangibles) help it fit (or not!) into a festival program.
(5) And at long last… find festivals.
The Internet has made it easier than ever to get confused by long lists of events you’ve never heard of. The hot site is Withoutabox, which keeps organized listings for you, processes credit card payments, sends out e-mails and in general serves as a hub for film festival news and trends. Signing up for a paid membership even gets you discounts on festival application fees. (And don’t miss out on their message board for friendly tips and support.)
But Withoutabox tends not to list the most prestigious or the most fledgling tiers, and even in their range they aren’t partnered with everyone, so keep snooping. FilmFestivals.com keeps their listings organized by month, and Chris Gore’s “Ultimate Film Festival Survival Guide” is worthy of its status as a must-have book for all interested in tackling the festival circuit, even if only as an audience member. Gore doesn’t just list fests, he tells you how to make the most of your festival experience, which goes somewhat outside the scope of this article but is nonetheless important.
(6) Judge film festivals before they judge your film.
Before you apply, look over each festival’s Web site. Does it look professional? Is it the kind of organization you’d like to be affiliated with? Then check out their previous schedules. What sorts of films have they taken in the past? Were they like your movie? Are you a good fit there? Looking for festivals for your film is like looking for colleges for your kid, there’s a lot of great options (and not-so-great), but ultimately you’re looking for the right individual fit.
(7) … and recognized when you’re judged in advance.
It’s nice to be proud of your movie, but let’s face it, if you’re a first-time filmmaker who shot something on a whim one weekend with your friends, you may not do well at a festival whose ‘independent shorts’ program features Hollywood celebrities. The film festival circuit is no longer quite the haven for revolutionary, independent work it used to be. Find your niche.
(8) The natural order of things.
Some festivals want your film to be a US premiere, or at least a premiere in that state. You’ll need to hit those up first. Similarly, you’ll want to hit the first tier of prestige in your festivals list before tackling the smaller, regional fests; Sundance needs your attention before something out in Maine.
(9) Talk to people, talk to yourself.
What are other filmmakers doing? What’s their thought process when submitting? What have their experiences been in going to festivals? Sometimes it’s good to just talk to people and hear what they think and recommend. Similarly, evaluate your own process. Are you submitting someplace for good reason, or just because it’s there?
(10) You will get rejected.
And rejected. And rejected again. It happens to everyone, including the people with awards on their wall. Rest assured, it does get easier (emotionally, not financially).
The more research you do and the more understanding you get of the process, the more streamlined your film festival submissions will be. Good luck; see you at the movies!