This post was originally published on KitSplit’s Viewfinder Blog

Film Festivals can be a vital part of the life of a film’s life cycle. With thousands of festivals around the world, though, deciding which festivals to submit your film to and when to submit can be overwhelming. I am a filmmaker who has shown films at several festivals and submitted to many more. Recently, I also served as a director of a Brooklyn-centric film festival called The Art of Brooklyn and reviewed over 130 submissions. This gave me a new and helpful perspective on submitting to festivals. Together with the KitSplit team, I’ve drawn on research and experience to put together the following guide to help you navigate your film festival submission strategy. 

How Should I Start My Film Festival Strategy?

Ideally, you should start thinking about your strategy during the production of your film. That doesn’t necessarily mean you need a full list of festivals you plan to submit to before you’ve even finished your film, but you should have an idea of the approach you’ll be taking. Consider where your film fits in your career. Is your film a fun weekend project you made with a handful of friends and a shoestring budget or is this your crowdfunded calling card you’re hoping will bring you to the attention of the people who can take your career to the next level? The answer to that question will determine how you approach festivals. 

Once your film is complete and before you submit to any festivals, then you should start putting together your strategy. Your strategy starts with a realistic assessment of your film. Start with your niches: what genre is the film, is your film for a specialty audience, do you or the subject matter of your film fit in any category of marginalized groups, where does the film takes place, where did you shoot the film, and so on. Break down the potential audiences for your film. That will inform the festivals you should submit to. 

After you’ve assessed your film, start researching festivals. Research festivals that your friends and colleagues have had their films accepted to, the festivals you’ve heard of that sound like where you want your film to appear, and festivals that are appropriate for the assessment of your film and the niches it fits into. Your research should include what the cost of submission is, when the deadlines are, when the festival is, and what they’ve accepted in the past. Also, take some production stills and behind-the-scenes photos during production to include in your application! 

Preparing to Submit to Film Festivals

Does Premiere Status Matter?

Premiere Status is an important consideration for your film whether you’re submitting your first feature-length drama or your tenth documentary short. When, where, and how you’d like your film to premiere is an important consideration for you. This will be the first time the general public can experience your vision. You want to make a big deal of it and if it won’t be at a top-tier festival, you should make an effort to Premiere somewhere you have the greatest potential audience like the city you shot the film in or your own hometown festival. 

For festivals Premiere Status can make a difference in your selection. If your film has already screened in their area, it is likely the potential audience for the film in their area has diminished. Film festivals want to screen the best of their submissions, certainly, but they also need to consider turn out when programming the festival. If you already screened in their area, there’s a real danger that your screening at their festival will be empty, which is not good for the festival or for you.

Shorts vs. Features

This is a little different for shorts versus features because short are typically programmed in blocks and if one short has a small draw that’s not as much of a problem for the festivals as a feature with a small draw. The other factor many filmmakers are concerned about with Premiere Status for shorts is if the film is already online. Short of the Week did the research and found that 2/3rds of top film festivals will accept films that have already premiered online.  

Do Your Research

Do your research on the Premiere Status preferences of the film festivals you’re submitting to. If the festival prefers to have Premiere Status, they will say so. Sometimes they state they have no preference. Sometimes they prefer to have world, regional, or city Premieres. If it is a factor, they will include that in their submission guidelines. Then, you must decide how that impacts your submission to their festival based on your strategy. 

Should I Write a Cover Letter?

Don’t ignore the potential usefulness of the Cover Letter option. A Cover Letter is a brief letter a filmmaker writes to the Festival to introduce themselves and why they believe their film would be a good fit for the festival. Almost every submission platform for film festivals offers the option to add a Cover Letter. Take advantage of this. If they never read it, you probably won’t know. If they look for it when considering your film and maybe they’re on the fence, it’s worth the time if it secures your film a spot in the festival. 

Your Cover Letter should have four basic elements: 

  • Who you are
  • A description of your film
  • Why your film is a good fit for their festival
  • Be short

In one page you should be able to introduce yourself, your film, pitch your film, and thank the festival for considering your film. Keep it tight and polite with relevant information only. Most of this you can and should develop a template for. Introducing yourself and describing your film can be the exact same paragraphs for every Cover Letter. The only things you’ll really need to adapt for every letter are your initial greeting and why your film is right for their festival.

Make it Personal

You must personalize the Cover Letter as much as possible. Why should a film festival care about programming your film, if you can’t take an extra five minutes personalizing some text? Taking the time to personalize is going to help you get the attention you’re trying to get by writing a Cover Letter in the first place.

When personalizing start with the Greeting. Find a name–the Festival Director, the Programming Director, the Submissions Director, or any other appropriate name–for who may be reviewing the submissions and address the Cover Letter to that person directly. Then pitch your film as a good fit for that specific festival. Tell them why you want your film to be a part of their event. Tell them why their festival made it to your list whether that’s because they programmed a similar film, you’ve attended the festival, it was recommended to you by a fellow filmmaker, or you just really love what they do with their festival. Be honest and be brief. They have a lot of films to watch and there may be a lot of Cover Letters to look at.  

Outreach to Film Festivals

Just submitting your film to the festival isn’t all you can do. You should also consider reaching out to the festivals you’re submitting to. There are a few ways you can do this and lots of ways you definitely should not do this. 

Asking for Waivers

One thing that you should absolutely do is email the festivals and ask if you can get a submission waiver for your film. Talk up why you’re excited to be in their festival in particular, why your film would make a good fit for their audience, and don’t forget to tell them about the film itself while you’re doing that. You should not, however, do this if the festival explicitly states it doesn’t offer waivers. Some will ignore you and some will say they don’t offer waivers. Others will send you a discount code instead. A few will send you a waiver code. Politely accept their answer and proceed accordingly. 

Working Your Network

Another method for outreach is to find out if you have a connection to anyone on the selection committee for the festival and send them a message about your interest in submitting. You may be asking them if they can connect you with someone you can request a waiver code from. You may just ask them if they think your project would be a good fit. I can speak to this one personally from both sides of the process.

This year I served as the Guest Director for the Art of Brooklyn Film Festival. When I submitted for last year’s festival I’d reached out to that year’s Guest Director, Victoria Negri, who I had worked with in the past about a waiver code. That got me a discount code and we were ultimately accepted into the festival and won the festival’s Best Narrative Feature award. Not necessarily because I had inquired, but I suspect the festival selection committee paid more attention to the submission, because that’s what I did this year. 

When it was announced I was the Guest Director, I received a few inquiries from friends and even some people I didn’t know at all. Some knew Victoria and reached out to me through her. Not all of the films that reached out got in, but each one that had reached out stuck in my mind more because the filmmakers had made a point to reach out and make that connection. 

Film Marketing

Press Kit and Marketing Materials

Before you start submitting to festivals, you’re going to need to get your ducks in a row for Press and Marketing materials. When you’re accepted to your first festival you should be ready to start doing outreach and marketing to the potential audience as soon as the acceptance is public. 

What you should have ready to go for your film festival run are: 

  • A Synopsis of the Film
  • A Director’s Statement
  • A Director Biography
  • A Poster in multiple sizes and formats
  • Stills from the film
  • Key Cast and Crew List with Past Credits
  • Links to the official website and social media accounts
  • A Trailer

Not every festival or press outlet you reach out to will use all of these items, but all will need at least one and you don’t want to be stuck trying to put any of this together at the last minute. 

Synopsis

Write a brief synopsis of what happens in the film. Ideally, you should have multiple versions of the synopsis. One that is a page long, one that is a paragraph long, and one that is a sentence long. The sentence long synopsis is likely just your logline, but something tight that introduces the audience to the film will prove quite helpful. Your synopsis should be written in neutral language. Don’t tell us about how beautiful the film is, just tell us what happens.

A Director’s Statement and Biography

Whether you subscribe to Auteur Theory or not the Director remains a central figure to the film and where they are coming from in the production of the film is of interest to those who might want to watch the film. People want to understand the person behind the art. The director’s statement and biography help them to do just that.

The biography should be a brief introduction to where you come from, how you came to be a filmmaker, where you are now, and where you’re headed. Include anything specifically relevant to the film. For example if the film is about a particular region because you spent summers there as a child and that is not otherwise apparent from your biography, make sure to include that. 

Film Festival Circuit has some good advice on crafting your Director’s Statement. One of the first questions many filmmakers get asked in a Q&A session after a film is what inspired the film. That should be the center of your Director’s Statement. Why did you make the film you made? What inspired you about the topic? For what reason is your perspective important on this topic? Make a clear statement and show the passion you have your film in your statement. 

Your Poster

Even if you never plan to print it out put together a poster for your film. This is a way to catch people’s eye and help your film stand out. Don’t wait until someone asks for one to make it. Get one together as soon as you can because your poster is valuable not just for your Film Festival run but for enticing potential viewers for the entire life of your film. A digital poster can go a long way.

What to Include in the Poster

Your film’s poster should include the title in a large, easy to read font. It is very likely many people who see it for the first time will see the poster very small. Open the poster on your phone and then pinch the image so it’s half the size of the screen. If you can read the title still, that’s the right title size. 

Include a clear representative image for your film for the poster. It can be a production still, a graphic, or artwork. Try to avoid using a screengrab, but that is still better than nothing. You want the imagery to grab the attention of a person scrolling past and make them want to look closer while also giving them a sense of what the film is about. 

You can also include cast, crew, and production information on the poster but often this will be too small to read or even something you’re asked to remove on certain platforms. 

Technical Specifications for Your Poster

Beyond the content for the poster you need different formats. You should at minimum have it available in a printable 11”x17” size, a tall 9:16 aspect ratio, a wide 16:9 aspect ratio, and as a square. Some may ask for it in additional sizes base on their needs. You should have each format available in 72dpi for the web or 300dpi for print. You’ll also likely need it available as a jpeg or a photoshop PSD. There isn’t really a standard request for poster formats, but these are very common.

Production Stills

Take still photos during production. Yes, if you’re shooting 4K, 8K, 12K or whatever the latest resolution is you can take a frame from the image and have a printable still. It still might not look quite right. Use the photo function on the camera or grab a cheap DSLR and take some actual production stills. 

When it comes to putting together these materials make sure to get a lot of stills and then pick the stills you like the most and are going to be thrilled to see over and over again, because you’re going to. These stills will appear on film festival websites, catalogs, brochures, postcards, press coverage, and sometimes even projected on screens. So, choose the ones you’re going to be happy to see over and over again. 

Key Cast and Crew List

While the Director is often the focus, a cast and crew list that helps people identify other key members of your team is very helpful. In some cases the involvement of other team members and their past associations can even help you gain traction in festival submissions, or help attract an audience. Make the list and note what part work each has done people may have seen. Include your producers, director of photography, editor, principal cast, and then anyone else who has a credit someone may recognize. Did a supporting cast member have a brief role on a sitcom? Put that on the list. 

Official Site and Social Media

You should establish an official home for your film online and link to relevant social media. Not every film needs its own website or Twitter/Facebook/Instagram accounts, but you should have something or your production company should have something where people can find out more and be able to easily find out more about the film. Look to our Film Marketing 101 post for more about how to approach your Official Site and Social Media.

Your Film’s Trailer

Your film should have a trailer. Even a five minute short should have at least a 30 second video. You’re a filmmaker and you want people to come and see the film. There’s not really a better way to sell people on seeing the whole film than seeing a sample of it. That’s what your trailer does. It shows your potential audience what they may be in store for. This is a vital tool for marketing your film at festivals and beyond.

How Many Film Festivals Should I Apply to?

The most important question to ask when it comes to how many festivals to apply to is how much did you budget for film festivals? Submission fees can run from free to hundreds of dollars depending on the festival and the category you’re submitting to. Aside from submission fees you also have to consider travel costs if you plan to attend the festivals you’re screening at, which is something you should absolutely try to do. Once you know your budget you have a good starting point for how many festivals you can apply to. 

Budgeting for Festivals

You should also consider that the more festivals you apply to, the more you are likely to get into. This isn’t a guarantee and depending on your past track record, or lack thereof with festivals your results may vary. 

Take these things into consideration when you start to build your list of the festivals you’re applying to. Filmmaker Magazine found that many filmmakers end up spending an average of $1,537 submitting to an average of 65 festivals for an average 24 month festival run. If you add in travel, lodging, and marketing materials costs to that, you’re looking at a very expensive festival run. Outside of top-tier festivals that kind of run is unlikely to provide the kind of exposure to you want to justify the cost and the time. 

Set a reasonable budget that is reasonable for you for your festival run. Factor in not just submission fees, but also travel costs, lodging costs, and estimates for marketing materials you may need to bring like postcards. Then move on to making your list of the festivals you’d like to apply to factoring in these potential costs and prioritize your list. If you are unlikely to travel to attend a festival, then it should not be a high priority to submit to it. The strength of festivals is the opportunity to forge relationships through meeting fellow filmmakers face-to-face. So, budgeting to attend is very important.

What Film Festivals Should I Apply to?

Apply to the film festivals that are most appropriate for your film. Yes, you can stretch. You can submit to the Sundances and the SXSWs and the Tribecas. Reach for the stars. You can’t win if you don’t play the game and so on. Still, go in with your eyes open about the reality of your chances to get into those festivals and don’t necessarily put all your eggs in that basket. IndieWire has a great piece on dispelling the “Sundance Myth.”

So, once you’ve submitted to your dream festivals it’s time to look at the assessment you did of the niches your film fit into and find festivals in those niches. Don’t just submit to all the festivals in those niches, though. There’s still likely to be a lot. Go through the programs for the previous year or two of the festival and look at what else they screened. Is there anything similar to you film? If there is, they’re more likely to like your film. So, prioritize those films. 

One particular niche group you should prioritize are local and hometown festivals. Think about it this way: the festival wants to sell tickets to screenings. They want to recoup costs at least. So, think like their marketer might and find festivals that may be interested in your film local to you and your cast and crew, because that’s a network most likely to fill a theater. Also, do you or anyone in front of the camera in your film have a festival in your hometown? Then submit there. That can help pitch the screening, and the festival, to local press and bring more people out to the theater, as well as all those old hometown friends who want to see your amazing new project. 

How Do I Know Know Which Film Festivals are Legitimate?

There are thousands of festivals and one thing that comes up again and again in filmmaker conversations is, which of these is a real festival and which is a scam? It can be tough to identify and the first thing you should do is trust your gut. If you have a bad feeling about a festival, there are others out there in the world. Submit to the others and don’t worry about that one that set off a red flag for you.

A couple of things to be wary of that don’t necessarily mean a film festival is illegitimate, but warrant a bit more investigation when you see them:

  • Lots of awards, 
  • The word “Awards” in the name,
  • A festival that has existed for less than two years,
  • Higher submission fees than other festivals even for Earlybird submissions,
  • A very short turnaround time from the final submission deadline to the announcement,
  • Online festivals,
  • Monthly festivals, or
  • Festivals with rolling deadlines.

Again, none of these on their own are necessarily a reason to expect a festival isn’t legitimate, but when you see these, take a few extra minutes and look through the festival’s website, social media, and do a bit of Googling on the festival. See what people may have had to say about them before sending in your film. 

When Do I Apply to Film Festivals?

Apply to Film Festivals after your film is complete. Yes, there are festivals that accept works in progress, but unless that is an explicit category where they actually are eager to share works in progress, you may find yourself submitting an unfinished film that gets rejected, because it just didn’t measure up to other films that were complete. Most festivals are annual. If you really want to submit to that festival, wait until next year. If you wanted to premiere at that festival, well then you should make sure you’re finished first. 

Once you’re finished with the film and it’s as polished as you can make it, then start submitting to festivals for their earliest deadline. The earliest deadline is the cheapest deadline and the more early deadlines you hit the more budget you have to submit to more festivals. 

There is not necessarily one season to submit your film. Film Festivals are accepting submissions year round. That said, there is definitely a time period during which top festivals are open for submission and that is the fall and winter. Sundance, SXSW, Tribeca, and Cannes among others all happen in the early months of the year, which means they’re all taking submission in the last quarter of the year prior. So, if those are your target, get your film finished before September. 

What Not to Do When You’re Rejected

You’re probably going to get rejected from some festivals. I know your film is amazing and everyone loves it, but you’re still probably going to get rejected. Getting rejected is no fun. There’s no shame in feeling hurt or even mad about it. That’s a totally normal reaction. What you should not do, however, is vent those feelings publicly. 

Whatever reason you may think your film was rejected, don’t go on a rant in a public forum about it. Don’t send a nasty email back to the festival about it. Don’t send them Facebook messages or direct messages. If you need to vent, call up your best friend and go off on it and swear they don’t know what’s good. Then, get on with your life. There are more festivals. While you can submit to them it also bears mentioning that they may be watching. A bad reaction to a rejection can hurt your chances with them if you’re not careful. 

What to Do When You’re Accepted

Getting accepted to a festival is a great feeling. Celebrate the acceptance. Share with cast and crew. When you can share it publicly, do so with your social media networks. Remember that your work isn’t done, though. It’s not enough that you submitted. You’ve also got more work to do, because now you have to get people to your screening.

While it is the festival’s job to get people to your screening, it’s also their job to get people to all their screenings. You only have one screening to promote. So, promote it. Ask the festival how you can help promote your screening, if there are press opportunities you can be a part of, and what local press you can reach out to to pitch your film and screening. Get your marketing machine rolling for your film for the screening. If you need help with how to market your film, check out our Film Marketing 101 guide.

At the minimum you should be sharing your screening with your social media audience and whatever email list you have. Do at least that for every festival screening of your film. Remember that having a screening whether you can make it or not is a great marketing opportunity for you and your film. This gives you something you can celebrate and talk about for months to keep your film in the minds of your potential audience. 

Finally, if you can, attend the festival. If it’s feasible, don’t just go to your screening. Go to as many screenings as you can. Attend panels if you can. If there is a lounge or an afterparty, go and meet fellow filmmakers and use the festival as an opportunity to make friends and potentially meet future collaborators. 

Do I Have to?

As a filmmaker and from my recent experience working with a festival I’ve seen, and asked questions along the lines of “Do I really need to do [Insert Anything From Above]?” Some of these things may seem annoying, difficult, time-consuming, or just pointless. The answer is always: “No you don’t NEED to do any of these things.” You might be fine without them, but the flipside of the democratized filmmaking landscape we all live in today is there are a lot more filmmakers out there vying for the same limited film festival screening spots. While we shouldn’t view each other as competition necessarily, we should consider that its best not to give a festival a reason not to program our films in their limited slots available. Any one of these particular elements may give you the edge you need to rise above the rest of the submissions. Do yourself and your film the favor of being able to say you did everything you could to get it into the festivals you’ve submitted to.

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