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!
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