Getting Your Film into Festivals


So you made a short film, and now you have no idea what to do with it. You probably want it to be seen in theatres, with an audience, otherwise you have a really expensive youtube link to send to grandma, who will like it no matter what.

If you do a quick search on Withoutabox and Fillmfreeway (the only two film submission websites), you will see thousands of film festivals, from the smallest film festival in the tiniest town, all the way up to the most famous, most recognized, huge film festival markets (Cannes, Sundance, SXSW, etc.). Where do you start? What festival is right for you? How much money am I going to spend on submitting, and is it worth it? Which festivals should I go to if I get in?

I have two films making their New York premieres at festivals this week. The first one is “Vacation Rental,” which is premiering at Newfest in New York City (top tier LGBT festival), and the second is “Sins of the Son,” which is premiering tomorrow at the Adirondack Film Festival in Glens Falls, New York (amazing smaller festival that is all about treating the filmmakers like royalty-hotels, breakfasts, swag bags, the whole deal).

For my first film “Hide/Seek,” I spent about $1000 on festival submissions, at around $50 average a pop (some festivals are $20 to submit a short film, some can be just around $100). I submitted only to festivals I had heard of without doing any research or knowing anything about what they program, what they focus on, and what they have shown in the past. I just thought “hey, I like my movie, so everyone else is gonna like it too” without any consideration for genre, running time, festival location, etc. Lesson learned. It got into some festivals, got nominated for some awards, and was a fun experience. But I went about it all wrong.

I’ve also been to film festivals where there are like four people in the audience, and those four people are the other directors of the shorts in your block. Good times!

Vacation Rental Laurels Square Space Horror 09_25_18.jpg

For “Vacation Rental,” the second film I wrote and directed, I wanted to learn from my mistakes and be smarter about how I approached marketing it. As I wrote it, I decided to reverse engineer it to the film festival market (everyone wants laurels, right?). I wrote the film to be under 15 minutes (other people’s advice), with a simple story, one location, made it genre specific (horror, lgbt), tossed in some nudity, I hired a consultant to draft a list of 10 film festivals it was right for, and I submitted only to those. I created a website and an instagram, and built followers. I focused on 2nd and 3rd tier festivals in the horror and lgbt genre (specifically “short film festivals”, focused only on ones close by that I would actually ATTEND for networking purposes) researched the film festivals before I submitted, looked at the kinds of films they scheduled the year before, and submitted to the ones I thought would be perfect. Some were accepted, some were not. For every “official selection” email, there are four or five “Unfortunately you weren’t accepted blah blah blah we love your film blah blah blah.” Rejection sucks. I wanted to write back “I hate your ass face,” but instead said “thank you,” as I will most likely be submitting another film to that festival in the future.

But you know what’s really cool? When you do get into a bigger film festival and you see the film you wrote and directed up on a huge screen in front of a lot of people. There is no better feeling of accomplishment. All the blood, sweat and tears, and now you get to sit back and watch it with other people.

Over the last four years, I have experienced all sides of film festivals, the good, the bad, the waste of time, the overhyped, and the excitement and rejection involved around getting in.

So here is my advice as you begin your journey to create your own work:

  • If you are writing a short, keep it under 15 minutes. If you go over 15, it’s harder for a festival to program it, as they would prefer to program a bunch of shorter films in a block as opposed to one long film

  • Add a line item in your budget for film festivals. Should be between $500 and $1000. The whole point of doing a short is to get it seen, right? Don’t skimp on this.

  • Target festivals that have programmed shorts like yours in the past. But be smart. There are tiny film festivals where your film will play in front of only 4 people, and bigger festivals that are all about filmmakers and audiences, that are great at promotion, will do q&a’s, meet and greets, parties, and even put up all filmmakers in a hotel. How do you know? Go on the submission websites, look at “100 best reviewed festivals” and things like that. You don’t have to shoot for Sundance.

  • Submit mostly to film festivals near you. This is important for networking. New York has dozens of festivals. Why submit to Chicago unless you are going to actually go (they don’t pay for airfare, although sometimes festivals pay for hotels, which is cool). You want to go and network, and invite people you know (agents, friends, other filmmakers), and keeping it local is the best for this.

  • What is your goal? Is it getting “Official selection” laurels, or is it to win awards? If you want to have a better shot at awards, target very small festivals, as they tend to give lots of those out. Sometimes they give money and prizes to the winner.

  • Create a website and social media handles for your film. When you submit, this makes a huge difference, as the festival programmers will look at these.

  • Design an amazing poster for your film.

  • Plan on spending a year and a half or more on this short film, from pre-production, to post, to doing a festival circuit. Your actors may work for two days, but you will be with this project for a long time, so make sure it is a project you love and want to do.

Here are some websites and books that I find useful:

“Film Festival Secrets” by Christopher Holland.

“No Film School” podcast

Good luck!!!!


How to Get an Agent

Here's the truth.  Getting an agent isn't easy.  It's like the Holy Grail for actors.  If it were easy, every actor would have one, and everyone would be auditioning for the next Aquaman.   There are over 120 talent agencies in New York, and over 40 TV shows filming, and thousands of actors who want to be represented and get in those rooms.   Not everyone is ready to compete at this professional, highly selective level.  So be honest with yourself.  Are you ready to get an agent?   Are you ready to be in front of major casting directors?   Do you know your type, have a kickass demo reel, and most importantly, are you GOOD?  I don't mean "My friends think I'm funny" good, I mean are you TALENTED?  

"If only I had an agent...."  I hear this all the time.  The truth is, even if you start freelancing with an agent, it might be a while before you start getting auditions, never mind work.   You have to put in the time, be patient, and remember that it's about talent, type, and marketability (also, luck).   Yes, there is a HUGE element of luck.  Some very talented actors never find an agent, and sometimes people get an agent without ever having taken an acting class.  It can be a weird business.

As I discuss in my book, the best way to get an agent is through an industry referral.  That is, a casting director you know (or have met) personally calls an agent on your behalf to say how great you are.  How do you meet these casting directors without an agent?  Well, some people go to those controversial pay-to-meet workshops at Actor's Connection, The Network, Actor's Green Room, and build relationships that way.  If a casting director really responds to your work, they can get the ball rolling.  I'm not saying go sign up for a bunch of these workshops right now and spend your hard earned money, because not everyone is ready to be in front of these casting directors.    But if you play your cards right, and are smart and educated about it, then that might be the way to go for you.   Check out for up to date info on who is cas

Or perhaps you are in a play or film, or a class, and one of the other actors is working with an agent, or a casting director is coming to see them in the show.  There's nothing wrong with you asking for a referral (IF it's clear that the person likes your work).  The important thing here is that they are seeing you do what you love, where you are in your element, and that is the best way for someone to respond to you.

Another way is through blind submissions, whether it's over email or from sending out hard copies.  This is what all actors do when they are first starting out (as I did), but it's kind of a shot in the dark, and very hard to get someone to respond to an email or hard copy that doesn't know you.   If your headshot and resume are amazing, and you have a great look (i.e. young and hot), this may work.  If you are going to do this, then come up with a targeted list of 10 agents who you think are right for you.  (Again, I'm assuming you are READY to have an agent.)  Buy "Henderson's List of NY Talent Agencies" for $10 at the Drama Book Shop, read "The New York Agent Book" by K Callan from cover to cover, look on IMDB-Pro to see who the agents represent (make sure they don't have a bunch of people just like you), and come up with an educated list of talent agents who may be right for you at this given time.   Do your research!  Maybe you send out headshots, resumes, and a link to your demo reel, along with a short cover letter of recent jobs you have booked.  Then send a postcard every time you book a job, simply to stay on their radar.  And on top of that, perhaps you pay a little to meet them in person, or engage with them on social media (in a not creepy way).    If you are going to send out, the best time is April-June, or December, as that tends to be a slower time for agents, and they are more likely to have the time to open submissions.  Remember, they are working their asses off to get their own clients work (who pay their rent!), so it's a lot for them to take on somebody new and develop them.   They have to be really, really excited about you.  And in turn, you have to be offering them something to really get excited about.

Let's say you have no credits, not much training, but have a great look.  Maybe you want to pursue a commercial agent.  My sister Becki Newton started working in commercials and then crossed over to TV and film.  For some actors, this is a great way in, as it gives them valuable experience on set, with "on the job training" that gives them credibility when approaching a TV or film agent (who is interested in your "look" just as much as your talent).    This could be a great way in, especially if you are making tons of money for a commercial agent, and they also have a theatrical division (film, TV, theatre) which you could cross over to.  Commercial agents are big on improv training, so be sure to check out classes at the Pit, the Groundlngs, or UCB.

The last way is through Pay to Meet workshops.  It means spending a bunch of money to get in front of a bunch of agents for the "in person submission."  You have to be beyond amazing to secure representation from this.  Many actors do this, and many simply aren't ready, and are throwing their money away.   It feels like a "get rich quick" scheme, where you can pay to meet an agent, and think that suddenly your life will change.  It's not like that.  Yes, some actors get signed from these, but that's not the norm.   You may have to meet an agent six or seven times before they really start to remember you.  That's a lot of money!   There are pros and cons to this route, and you need to make sure you are being smart about it.  If you are going to do it, DON'T do the 10 agent panels (too impersonal), and DON'T do it in February and March (which is pilot season, when agents are way less likely to take on someone new).   

Good luck!!!!

Want to learn more about getting an agent?  Check out my "10 Steps to Making Acting your Business" seminar with Brian O'Neil (author "Acting as a Business") on February 22nd.