FILM FESTIVAL SURVIVAL GUIDE Pt 1: Understanding Your Festival

As I spoke about in my Film Festival Half-Life post, the world of film festivals is changing quickly and dramatically but filmmakers still want and need to enter them. Here’s some personal thoughts about how to potentially deal with the fest environment and how they work…

Festivals in all their shapes and sizes are still crucial launch pads and important proving ground for filmmakers to learn how to market their films, connect with audiences, circulate the conference/industry floor, meet other filmmakers, share experiences and build networks. These are hard things to do, the elements don’t come naturally and are acquired by doing – and that takes some hard and focussed work and practice. Navigating them takes some special care though from the moment you enter your film to the moment you get back on the plane after the triumphant screening.

Having been on the inside of many festivals including film selection for the Melbourne International Film Festival, the Australian International Documentary Conference and as Director of the Revelation Perth International Film Festival, having attended many festivals internationally and having regular dealings with fest programmers and directors, there’s an amazing commonality in experience – good and bad – for both the festival and the filmmaker.

So…here’s my experience – in no particular order but in two parts: the entry process and what to do when you’re in.  I hope there’s not too much 101 and that it contributes in some way to filmmaker’s understanding of the process and use it to their advantage…


1 film in every 10 films submitted gets programmed – or at the very least considered.
This stat is frighteningly consistent. So…as a filmmaker you’re competition is that 10% – not everything out there.

If a fest receives 1000 entries, 100 is your competition. That competition is not subject, budget or style but simply based on being able to exhibit an understanding of the language of cinema. While anyone prepared to pick up a camera and put their feelings and ideas on the line is to be respected, only 10% of people who call themselves filmmakers actually understand that language. If you do you’re already close to the 10% mark. Your way to get there is to watch, watch, watch and smash films apart with a hammer and get at them with a spanner to see how they work – or don’t. The film selector knows straight away if you don’t. It’s like trying to write a book if you’ve never read one.

My advice here and in terms of self-training is when you see a film you like cut your own personal trailer for it. Compress it and interpret it. It costs nothing and the software to do it is already on your computer. You don’t need to go to film school to do that.

Anyway if you know how many films a particular festival receives in their call for entries and apply the 1 in 10 rule you can get a fair idea of how many films are in that top zone.

Never ask for an entry fee waiver
I get angry now when I receive these requests and I get at least four a day. Running a festival costs money and entry fees is an important way festivals stay afloat. As a filmmaker don’t assume that a festival has any more liquidity than you. It’s a tough and competitive business for festivals and entry fees fill important cash-flow gaps in what can be very dry financial periods. On the other side some festivals do charge particularly high fees but this is where some hard choices need to be made and planning done well in advance.

I make exceptions for two things – alumni and countries where international banking systems prohibit funds transfers – like Iran. Processing entries takes time and people and that equals money. Filmmakers need to think about the end at the beginning and budget for it.

Either way I don’t know if there’s a website with a template that filmmakers who ask for waivers use but here’s some I’ve received since Revelation opened it’s call for entries in September:

  • I’m bankrupt…”
  • I self-financed the entire production and am now in substantial debt…
  • our budget does not allow us to pay the regular fee for all the films that we wish to submit…”
  • I’m living on savings at this point in order to see through this final leg of our four year journey. I can pick up work here and there, but things are rough after being out of the labor force for a few years while finishing the film. After bills, everything I do make goes right back into festivals, along with saving for our DCP and travel expenses. Nevertheless, it’s a scary moment when your checking account finally reaches $0.00.

Do your research and be strategic
It’s like choosing your film crew. Do your research on their program and see if you’ll fit in or you can waste an awful lot of money. I recently received an email from a potential entrant for the Revelation program asking me if his kind of film was the kind of film we’d be interested in. Tough question but we spent some time talking about the kind of works and spirit we like and in the end I suggested he send me a short scene clip which he did. That worked for him.

Most festivals archive their programs so it’s easy to establish their style but there are basically two levels in the program – the invited works (the films that are actively sought) and the rest (films that are sent to them). The invited works are the core box office and media titles and represent the bulk of programs in any given festival. They are often programmed quite early. The rest is from an open call for entries probably about 20-30% of the program overall and the bulk of short films, animations etc. They are programmed quite late or last. The invited works are generally chosen/headhunted by the festival programmers while the rest of the program comes from selections narrowed down by a number of specialised panels.

There are of course quite a number of very tailored festivals which may be better for your film than the big ones…animation, architecture, fantasy and horror, comedy, science, adventure, experimental, underground, music – they’re all there and are looked at by programmers looking for specific content internationally. Stiges, Annecy, Banff, Architecture & Design Film Festival, Slamdance, Chicago Underground and many more are a viable, well known and credible circuit.

Never argue with the selection decision
I usually get a number of emails annually telling me my taste is in my arse because this film has been accepted into this or that festival or stars this person or that so who am I to not program it and who cares about my festival anyway. What is often not understood is two things:

1. Not being accepted doesn’t necessarily mean your film is bad in the mind of the festival director. A festival is made up of a lot of films that are often selected to go together in a certain way with a certain flow, just like selecting the shots and arranging the scenes in your movie. If a shot or scene doesn’t bear a relationship to the story you want to tell you need to cut it even if it’s the best shot in your picture. For a festival that can often be a difficult decision and hard to swallow for the filmmaker but certainly if you enter a smaller festival it’s a harsh reality.

2. Festival directors also do a lot of other things like read funding applications or work mentoring filmmakers or talk to each other. It’s a bad idea to piss them off and very unprofessional. Resist the temptation and grow a thick skin.

Make sure you have at least four cracker-jack hi-res stills
Once selected, a great still or two will elevate your film to the top of the marketing and communications pile. You need to think also that audiences may have no knowledge of your film especially when it’s up against the others – the still and the title is the first thing the potential audience will respond to. Landscape and portrait format is the go. I can’t overstate the power and importance of this from the very beginning. This one made our 2016 cover (The Love Witch, Dir: Anna Biller).


Make the first 3 minutes of the film the best 3 minutes.
Selection panels watch literally hundreds of films and time on the preview screen is brutal so you need to buy it. In the the hurly burly of battle of selection a film may literally last three minutes on a screen. I’ll generally give a film 30% of its running time if I’m asking quality questions and I rarely fast forward to see if things get better – audiences don’t have that opportunity either.

So to buy time my formula is…if you have a feature length film/documentary really kick it in the first 5 minutes. Give it another kicker/flourish at the 15min mark, kick /flourish it again at the 30min mark, give it another kick/flourish 45mins in and by that stage the selector in committed to the end. That immediately and significantly pushes up your selection odds. Same applies to shorts by ratio.

Either way it seems like quite a good structural tool to keep things ticking along.

Short films…20mins+ is too long.
It’s very difficult to match 20mins+ to a feature. The programmer is often looking to build programs around the 70-100min mark so a long short starts to narrow your options to feature films around the 55min mark. A 20min+ short before anything more than 70min is also difficult for the audience – that’s two significant demands on attention and it is actually very tiring for them. A short is meant to prelude the feature not compete with it.

Secondly, the preview process also takes place in a compressed period often late at night. I’ll often put off watching a longer short at night because of the late-night mindset. The film may then lose the “impulse buy” opportunity to be crude…it gets put back on the virtual shelf until later. It is still viewed of course but you lose the moment and other things may go in front. Duration can be a liability so make ’em tight and short.

In all honesty for me 15mins is starting to push the endurance/programmable level.

Choose your time to send your film 
With hundreds of films to view in the preview process viewing can get very dense and demanding toward the end of the close of entries…and that’s when the open viewing process gets brutal. By the end of the call period many selections have already been made in the invited program so the core is already well formed and a film with a similar theme or style may have difficulty against one of a similar quality seen earlier.

Each festival does their viewing differently but for me early is good. I have time, I’m looking for tonal patterns that indicate the creative mood in any given year. For the filmmaker you can give yourself space – which is what you’re ultimately wanting to build in – the pushing away of competition and keeping eyes on your work.

Four months out from the close of entries seems to me to be a good time.

Make sure your preview file/drive/link works
Very important – and very obvious – but you’d be amazed at how often there’s issues. Same with DCPs a festival may receive once selected. Oh…and make sure that there’s subtitles if it’s a subtitled film! Back in the day of DVD and VHS you’d label everything with contact and production details also – do the same for links.

Have a website or something
When I preview films I never go to websites or research a title before I see it – even films I invite. I don’t read any entry information sent with the film or view any other materials until the film is selected or I’m wanting to be swayed. I let the film stand on its own without fear or favour.

I’ll spend time looking at film festivals and events internationally in my overall hunt and in that I’m first attracted to the film title and the image and I take it from there. Once received as a screener – and this applies to the call for entries also – I may often be unsure about the film and look toward it’s history or deeper information that may tip me into the “yes” edge. So, even as I’m watching a film I’m 50-50 on I’ll snoop around online and see what’s going on with it. If there’s a website I’ll obviously take a look and see what resources are there (stills, scene clips, trailer, media kit etc) and how the film is presented online. Make these resources as accessible as you possibly can and easy to get to. If you’ve got some form of website always include your contact email information. If you just have a Facebook page, check it and keep it updated. This is harder work than you may think and exists for a long time.


Festivals want your film
They’re looking for good work. They want to program your film so…

  • Make it as easy for them as possible to find it and research it
  • Make them feel that it can be a hassle-free love affair
  • Make them feel like you can deliver
  • Act like a professional even if you’re an idiot
  • Make them feel if selected you can support it, support them and better still drive an audience
  • A strategy from the outset is as important as your script
  • No question is a stupid question. Better to be clear than confused so don’t be afraid to ask it.
  • Remember if you do to to keep the question short and clear – but make sure you’ve tried to find the answer first.
  • Build a web history…start that at the very beginning of your project.


Next post: FILM FESTIVAL SURVIVAL GUIDE  Pt 2: Congratulations. You’re In!


4 thoughts on “FILM FESTIVAL SURVIVAL GUIDE Pt 1: Understanding Your Festival

  1. As a long time Revelation attendee, I can attest that your rules have worked to produce a consistently good experience for audiences year after year. Listen to this man, film makers! He knows what he’s talking about.


  2. Hey Richard,

    This is a very helpful and honest article. I am totally new to film festivals. While I was trying to submit my short, I came across many festivals, which during submission ask if I would like to consider the film for the ‘Festival Market’. I have a vague idea of what a market is. (Basically little counters where people sit with their film, as buyers come by.)
    But I would like to know if it is absolutely necessary to attend as a representative (in person) if the film is selected for the market. Most of the time for foreign festivals, travelling is too expensive, and out of question for me. If I do not attend a market, does it make any sense to register for it? Would the festival make any attempt to sell the film at the market? Can I bag a distribution deal or something sitting at home, or is that too much to ask for?


    1. Many thanks for the thanks.

      A market is basically what you’re thinking but beyond the counter is also the screening if you’re in the fest which is where you’ll need to drive audiences.

      My advice would be you don’t need to attend every festival you get selected in…just the ones where connections are to be made and that can be specific for your film. Sci-fi, horror, adventure etc. The big 5 – yes Berlin, Sundance, Toronto etc or the big ones in your territory. If you’ve never represented yourself at a festival it’s good to be there for the World Prem and get the experience.

      That’s what it’s about also – building the experience of have to hit the floor. If you have a sales agent don’t think that they’ll be out there selling your film either…they’ll also be selling a lot of others and unless yours is on the top of their $$ pile…well, it’s down near the bottom so you need to be active there.

      The festival won’t help you sell it BUT if you have some fantastic stills that they can put in the program and give to media that will go a long way in selling your film with no legwork. Very important tip that. Make sure you have landscape and portrait formats but they only need 4 or so good ones.

      Distribution from home is hard though – eyeballing people is important and it’s often hard to get agents/distribs on the phone or email. Much of it can be done by getting connected people to introduce you to other connected people. That happens a lot.

      I hope that helps!


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