Before I even dip a toe into this subject, a little background: If you had asked me two years ago what the hardest part of making our film ”THE WATERHOLE” was I would have answered something like “working with limited resources” or “time constraints.” If you were to ask me today I would answer simply and without hesitation: “getting into film festivals.” The film business is a freight train’s length of consecutive rejection. You get used to it. You have to. I really wanted to take the film to as many places we could, show it to audiences and get their reactions all while partying with other filmmakers and film fans. That didn’t happen. Getting rejected to as many film festivals as we did hurt but it’s a reflection of reality. There is a lot of competition and you take your chances just like anyone else.
For the most part, I still believe that film festivals are still great events and a vital part of the world of independent film. Film festivals have thousands of submissions to assess, and a lot of good films get passed over. The point of this post is not a criticism of film festivals, but rather to one aspect of them, the submission process.
The fact of the matter is that submitting to film festivals can be a tremendous waste of money. For our film we submitted to well over thirty film festivals with submission fees ranging anywhere from $25-$80. At the end of the day this adds up to a lot of money spent, especially to an independent filmmaker with a dwindling budget. This money could have been used to host our own screenings, hire marketing or self-distribution consultants or even used to make another film. (Literally, what we spent was almost the budget of Gary King’s wonderful little film “What’s up Lovely.”) Adding to the problem is Withoutbox, a wonderful tool to submit to festivals and manage those submissions, but with the side effect of making it too hard to be discriminating with too many options. (Hell yeah I would like to go to Dublin or Hawaii or Bermuda!)
Simply put, the festival submission process is the filmmaking equivalent to the lottery. Worse actually, because at least all lottery ticket buyers are playing on the same level. Do you think every film that submits to a festival gets equal consideration? You don’t? Good, I would hate to be the one to throw that bucket of cold water on you. Here’s a fact: we did not submit to the first festival we screened at. Didn’t pay either. We got in via a friend of a friend and we were extremely grateful, but it was in no way something we planned for.
I won’t pretend to know all the inner workings of the selection process but many films that get in get in do so through back channels, who-knows-who and sometimes even through bribery – friendly and playful bribery, but bribery none-the-less. Many films get selected after screening at a major festival or because the star of the film has connections. There is no way to compete with that. None. My very favorite story was reading an interview with the festival director of the 2009 South-by-Southwest Film Festival joking that she was thrilled a film she acted in was selected. She would have to be one hell of a great actress to make me believe she was really surprised.
If you simply send in the film the chances of someone watching it that actually has power to program it is slight. I highly recommend that every filmmaker watch the documentary “Official Rejection” for a wonderfully frightening tour through the festival submission process. I mention it here for another reason. The filmmakers behind the movie endorsed “The Hill County Film Festival” that was founded by a duo they featured in the doc. We submitted, figuring that given their history with festivals they would make an attempt to at least be conscientious enough to give fair treatment to those submitting. We were rejected. Fine. I read the rejection letter for the salt in the wounds and see that they confessed that they were not able to watch every film. I love honesty, but can I have my submission fee back?
So not to be the jackass that just complains, what would I recommend? Festivals rely on these fees to help cover the costs occurred by running these large events, so we can’t expect them to do away with the fees altogether. (Although bless those festivals that have no submission fees, what few of them there are.) First, filmmakers deserve feedback. Maybe each filmmaker gets sent a chain of custody form, explaining who watched the film, a rating and a few comments. It wouldn’t take much time and would at least provide a sense of where the film stood in the selection process. Or how about a pre-screening process? Have filmmakers send a trailer and/or a synopsis to weed out the ones that are not the right fit for the festival right off the top. This would generate less submission revenue, but is seemingly a much fairer approach. Any transparency is better for my money than just a rejection letter.
Will I ever spend money on a festival submission again? I hope not. In reality I could not look a filmmaker in the eye and tell him not to submit to Sundance, Toronto or any of the half a dozen or so major fests. You just need to try to do everything your power to get it seen by a person who makes the decisions. Are there other smaller festivals that are worth the fee? Yes. Ask other filmmakers. Do the research and choose carefully. There are thousands of festivals and you can’t submit to all of them and shouldn’t submit to most of them. Buy Chris Gore’s “Ultimate Film Festival Survival Guide” and read it cover to cover. (We did not get this book until six months after we began submitting and what a difference it would have made.)
Making THE WATERHOLE was a learning process. In many cases we learned only after making mistakes. Spending the type of money we did on festival submissions is one mistake I do not want to repeat. If you have any interest in seeing our film, you can buy it hear now for $9.99: http://www.thewaterholemovie.com/store