Before you comb withoutabox for your next group of festival submissions, print your hundredth promotional push-card, or stuff your next DVD screener into that padded envelope, consider some advice from guest blogger and New Orleans Film Festival (NOFF) Program Director Clint Bowie. And with NOFF submissions now open and NOVAC’s 40 second film festival gearing up for the fall, this may be just the extra nudge or advice you need.
People often ask what it takes to get a film accepted into the New Orleans Film Festival—and I wish I could simply answer, “make a really great film.” The problem with that answer is that we receive more “really great films” than we have room for. In 2011, for example, we received over 900 submissions, but we could only screen around 15% (which was around 140, and that was about 40 more than we accepted the year before). Even though the other 85% all received the same rejection notice, that’s not to say they were all bad. In fact, we probably could have screened more like 30% of all submitted films without compromising the quality of the festival. Alas, budgets, time, and space don’t allow us to show every good film that submits, so we have to make some very difficult decisions. (On the very day that notification emails went out last year, we had to cut 50 films that we really wanted to screen but simply didn’t have room for. It’s hard, but it has to be done.)
Know Your Film and What You Want
There are a number of things you can do to ensure that your film doesn’t end up being one of those that gets left out. For starters, make sure that your film is a good fit for the festival that you’re submitting to. Check out their previous line-ups. Would your film fit in nicely with their selections last year?
Before even submitting to festivals, it’s important to think about what you’d like to get out of your festival experience. Do you simply want your film to be seen? Do you want to connect with other filmmakers at the festival? Do you just want the “official selection” laurel to put on your website? Are you hoping your film will find distribution?
If the latter is what you’re interested in, I’ll be frank—it’s probably not going to happen. The myth of indie films being discovered and finding distribution at festivals is mostly just that: a myth. These days, festivals themselves serve as the main distribution method for most indie films. If they’re lucky, some features will end up at libraries and maybe on Netflix, but the life of a short film pretty much ends after the festival circuit.
So before choosing which festivals to submit to, it’s important to think about who you want to see your film. Does your film target a niche audience (environmental, social issue, women’s interest, LGBT, ethnic, etc.)? Are you looking to reach industry professionals? Or audiences in a certain region? Think about who you want to see your film, then research the festivals you’re interested in and find out who makes up their primary audience.
The Nitty Gritty: Clint’s Do’s and Don’ts
When you’re ready to submit, here are a few suggestions, based solely on my personal programming experiences (other festival programmers might disagree with me):
Something I would recommend sending is a cover letter. Many festivals request them, but even if they don’t, send one anyway and explain your reasons for submitting to that particular festival. (There’s also a place for this on your Withoutabox application.) Definitely mention any personal ties to the festival (i.e., are you from the area? did you shoot the film there? have you attended the festival before? have other filmmakers recommended it?). Sometimes, details like that can work in your favor if programmers are on the fence about your film.
Follow submissions instructions carefully. If a festival asks for two DVD screeners, send two DVD screeners. If they ask for the Withoutabox number to be written on the DVD, write it on the DVD. Nothing is more frustrating than having to follow up with filmmakers who’ve not followed instructions, and being branded as a difficult filmmaker doesn’t help your film at all. In fact, I know of a festival that has disinvited films because the filmmakers were so hard to deal with. In general, try to be as accommodating as possible.
Around a month before the scheduled notification date, it’s not a bad idea to send a follow-up email to the festival, mentioning any updates on the film (other festival acceptances or awards, newer cuts of the film, etc.) and making a last-minute case for your film. This is the time when decisions are being made and your email might just be what gets your film accepted. Don’t, however, call the festival office to ask about the status of your film or make a pitch over the phone. Calls can be annoying at this very busy time, whereas emails can be read when programmers are ready to read them. If it’s the case that the notification deadline has passed and you’ve not heard anything, you should then definitely call the office and demand some answers.
Connect with the festival via Facebook and Twitter and make regular posts. Learn about the other films playing in the festival. Connect with other accepted filmmakers via social networking and make friends before you get there.
If your film has a niche audience, try to find that audience in the festival city and connect with them. Ask them to help spread the word (if it’s an organization, ask them to send an e-blast to their members; if they have a Facebook/Twitter account, ask them to post about the event).
Make EVERY effort to attend the festival, whether or not the fest offers accommodations or a travel stipend. The more plugged in you are, the greater the connection you’ll have with the festival, with other filmmakers, and with your audience. The best way to make your presence felt is by being there. And don’t use the festival as an excuse to tour the city. Granted, New Orleans is a pretty incredible city and it’s easy for first-time visitors to get lost on Bourbon Street, but make an effort to attend as many screenings, panels, and parties as possible. Definitely meet the programmers (they’ll want to meet you) and the festival directors. Any good festival will have their staff primed to treat the filmmakers like stars. Enjoy it.
Meet the other filmmakers! Introduce yourself in the elevator, tell them about your film, ask them to come to your screening. Create your own buzz.
Don’t go in to the festival with unrealistic expectations. Many filmmakers feel very let down when their screening is not sold out (or when only a handful of attendees show up). Even if there are only five people in the theatre, engage them.offer yourself up for a Q+A. Sometimes, the smaller the crowd, the more willing people are to offer feedback.