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Why Do Film Festivals Reject Good Films?

Why Do Film Festivals Reject Good Films?

As befits its title, “Best Kept Secret,” Samantha Buck’s intimate look at a New Jersey High School for special needs children, is one of the best kept secrets of the past year. At the movie review aggregation site, it is the only film with a perfect 100 “Metascore.” It was the Audience Award winner at IFF Boston and named one of the Best of the Fest at AFI Docs. It played well on PBS’ P.O.V. strand in September. And yet 15 film festivals rejected “Best Kept Secret” before it found acclaim. What did critics and audiences eventually see in “Best Kept Secret” that 15 film festival programmers did not?

Film festivals reject movies for a variety of reasons — quality, or the lack of it, of course — but there are other factors, as well: achieving a “balanced program”; picking films appropriate to specific local audiences. But do some films have a harder time than others? Can a film’s subject matter or style hurt its chances for exposure?

While most film festival programmers deny that political biases ever come into play when putting together their slates, it’s actually the most obvious reason that certain films hit stumbling blocks. For example, “After Tiller,” Martha Shane and Lana Wilson’s documentary about late-term abortion doctors, was ultimately rejected by two film festivals for being politically at odds with the community. “The programmers wanted us,” said Wilson, “but they didn’t take the films. At one, the board of directors vetoed it.” According to Wilson, both festivals were in states where the abortion issue is hotly contested.

On the opposite of the political spectrum, documentary filmmaker AJ Schnack said “Caucus,” a chronicle of the 2012 Iowa Republican caucus, which shows Rick Santorum in a fairly objective light, was rejected by at least one festival “because the programmer didn’t like the subjects,” he said. “‘Couldn’t stand the sight of them,’ was I think the phrase he used.”

Schnack was puzzled by the decision. “If the film was about a beloved Democrat — say, Elizabeth Warren — rather than Santorum, would there have been more initial demand or interest?” he said. “Yes, of course.”

In most cases, filmmakers are given no indication of why their movies have been rejected — it can’t hurt to ask — but social issue documentaries, in particular, may face particular scrutiny. According to “Pandora’s Promise” director Robert Stone, “Programmers choose films that they like, and often with social issue docs, those films tend to conform to their political beliefs. No surprise there. We’re all human.”

Stone doesn’t know for sure why prominent festivals in Australia — such as Melbourne and Sydney — rejected “Pandora’s Promise,” but in a country that is virulently anti-nuclear, it may be expected that a documentary that dispels some of the negative myths about nuclear power would be blackballed. Though “Pandora’s Promise” was embraced by a number of conventionally environmental-friendly fests, such as Sundance and MountainFilm, “What’s bizarre,” added Stone, “is that it’s been rejected by every broadcaster in the world except for CNN.”

One of the most famous recent examples of a film being treated like a blistering hot potato for its subject matter is “The Sheik and I,” whose director Caveh Zahedi became embroiled in a nasty spat with the Toronto International Film Festival’s Thom Powers — who called the film “deeply troubling for its breach of filmmaking ethics.” In the film, Zahedi travels to the United Arab Emirates, where he explores some of the contradictions, complexities and stereotypes of the Islamic country.

Powers was not the only programmer who rejected the film less on aesthetic and more on moral grounds.

According to Zahedi, a couple of prominent festivals in Europe “all rejected the film because of its politics rather than because the programmers thought the film was poorly made,” he said. “Those countries have all seen plenty of political violence and I think there was an understandable desire on their part not to piss off the Islamic fundamentalists in their communities.”

Right-wing filmmakers have also felt slighted by festivals. When Ami Horowitz and Matthew Groff’s critique of the United Nations, “U.N. Me,” was rejected by several festivals, Horowitz told the New York Times he was disturbed by their reactions. “It’s fine to curate based on quality,” he said, “but to do so on ideology is a very dangerous road.”

But such ideologically-based rejections are not the norm. Film festival programmers remain adamant that they are highly competitive and movies don’t make the final cut for far more banal reasons.

“We receive around 2,000 submissions, and we have 45-55 feature slots,” said Sky Sitney, director of AFI Docs. “When you do the math, it’s as difficult to get into Harvard, so inevitably, you have to turn down work that is utterly and absolutely deserving.”

According to Sitney and others, there are several factors that can have an effect on programming decisions, including simply bad timing. This year, for example, “there were three films circulating about Albinism,” said Sitney, “and we can really only have one film about Albinism.”

Also faced with a similar problem of over-abundance, SXSW director Janet Pierson said they receive some 200 music-related documentaries each year. “We’re going to show a lot of them, but we’re not going to show 200,” she explained. Similarly, they receive a lot of fighting films, like Mixed Martial Arts docs. “I don’t think filmmakers realize how many filmmakers are mining similar content,” she added.

Cultural fit also clearly comes into play. At the Sarasota Film Festival in Florida, which has a sophisticated arts culture buoyed by an older demographic, SFF director Tom Hall admits that he largely stays away from modern horror films. “We just don’t have the audience for it,” he admitted.

But what happened with “Best Kept Secret”? The film is neither political nor potentially offensive. Producer Danielle DiGiacomo said some programmers felt the stakes weren’t high enough, “to which a friend of mine replied, ‘It’s a movie, not a poker game,'” she recalled.

“It could be that our film is not a hot button topic,” said director Samantha Buck. “Or it could be that it’s a quiet film, or it could be that they expected something different. It’s very observational — we don’t comment or diagnose — and it raises more questions than it answers.” But these are all possibilities Buck considered in hindsight. “We were surprised,” she said. “It just seemed like there was a vast difference in reaction between the festivals and the critics.”

Simon Kilmurry, executive producer at POV, who championed “Best Kept Secret,” wondered whether programmers may have doubted their ability to sell enough tickets for a film about kids with disabilities. “These issues are not particularly easy and the film has a really interesting perspective on them,” he said. “Maybe that doesn’t translate in a festival catalog.” 

Whatever the reasons the film was rejected, DiGiacomo and Buck said their experience offered evidence to filmmakers not to give up, even after dozens of rejections. “I think it is important for other filmmakers who have issues getting programmed at festivals to know that there might be other roads to take,” Buck said.

Tribeca Film Festival senior programmer Genna Terranova put it succinctly: “Not every film is right for every film festival.”

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That is why you have to submit your film to more than one film festivals.

Howard S Marks

UPDATE: We have now done a new edit of ELECTRIC Va va Vivre …it came to me over night that early interview was a kind of obstacle. Although I prefer the quality of a BD-R DL I decided to go the VIMEO route to update the festivals. One very good thing is that your VIMEO SCREENER has a play count. So if you apply to ten festivals and they all have ten judges or 20 festivals and five judges each you should be getting a hundred views. So if your count is 6 they are not watching your submission.


I forgot to mention both so far both Catalina and Santa Fe have rejected us and I am getting the feeling more rejections are to come. Maybe they are friends of Joe Biden he is kind of the bad guy in our narrative and that is based on content that was before Biden and his Coup friends launch a brutal military offensive upon the people of Eastern Ukraine and he Biden had his youngest son Hunter Biden installed onto the Board of Directors of Ukraine’s largest gas energy corporation under the US installed Coup regime.


I consider the quote from Janet Pierson to be a disgusting insult. To suggest that most films are mining the same material is simply an awful thing to say. Yes certain genres like martial arts will be a broken record but I have a documentary called ELECTRIC Va Va Vivre it is about electric cars, renewable energy but it is very cinematic, has diverse styles and a very strong and not heard before music soundtrack. It breaks many docu conventions and raises diverse issues.
On Youtube you can find our trailer just search engine ELECTRIC Va va Vivre documentary trailer.

Filmmaker & Programmer

They might be "good" films but they're political in nature, of course they're going to be turned down by some programmers. Programming political content is a fickle bitch in any town because you absolutely HAVE to understand and sympathize with the community's general view if you want returning customers. The filmmakers need to do research into the festival, not just who the programmers are but what the general audience members are – esp. if there's a shred of politic in the story/format.

With that said, programmers need to be open minded about the art in and of itself and forget about the films that they "like" but try to find films that are absolutely "unlike" anything their town has ever seen before. Art house cinema, for one, is the most commonly rejected kind of film in any American film festival. Why is it? Simple: because programmers are often not qualified enough in film, as an art, to understand what they're looking at. They're looking for full entertainment value for them and their customers and nothing more.


Laurie Kirby

All of these points are fair and valid. Perhaps filmmakers could use a little more transparency from festivals so they understand why their film has been rejected. It really isn't a conspiracy or a closed rank system, like so many of them believe. There are practical reasons why films don't make the cut, all of which were enumerated. A good programmer uses a committee and doesn't impose his or her taste at the expense of considering the viewing audience. That said, there are more films made than festivals can screen. So to use Sky's analogy, they aren't all getting into Harvard.

Richard Sowada

I've programmed a lot of festivals and curated activites and the way I look at at curating a festival is the same as a filmmaker may look at making a film. To me, the festival is the film and the films themselves are the shots or scenes. When placed in an order they tell a whole story. In a film you may shoot the best scene you ever have but if it doesn't work with the other shots and scenes around it, you have to cut – no matter how good it is. It's not always about the work itself but what's around it – and how the programmers interpret the creative world around them. It's not just about the strength of individual titles but the momentum of international movements and ideas.


Know who doesn't reject good films?
The Audience Awards dot com
We let the audience decide


While this article does a fair job of telling the story of a few films, it would have been nice to see an article where the actual story is told: "You didn't premiere at our festival, so you don't get an invitation." Why even ask festivals like Tribeca, Sundance, SXSW and Toronto? They are demand premieres and restrict filmmakers from showing at their festivals, because they showed elsewhere first. Doesn't matter is they're the best films, or even perfect for their festival. I had a film that was invited to Miami several years ago, then invited to SXSW. I was forced into making a choice, rather than being able to show at both events. The ego of some of the festivals is beyond me, because it's not about the films. It's about egos, plain and simple. So, instead of being able to show at 10 festivals, I have to make a choice to show at 5, and MAYBE I'll find distribution. But, my audience is already cut in half, because a festival demanded a premiere, rather than simply selecting the film based on its artistry. The good news is that I did find distribution, but I am not the only one placed in this situation. Every year, I have friends with films who are forced to make decisions similar to this one, and many who never find distribution even after showing at Tribeca or SXSW. If you truly want to get at the crux of the issue as to WHY great films are rejected from festivals, start with the egos of the festivals and go from there. I actually wonder why great films are rejected from places like Sonoma, San Francisco, Newport Beach, Santa Barbara, Cinequest, or Denver, than I am why they are rejected from ego-driven festivals.

Nina Seavey

I made a film with Stephen Higgins, THE MATADOR. Matt Dentler, when he was Festival Director at SXSW, programmed the film and it really challenged audiences. Most other programmers wouldn't take it because they said "it wasn't anti-bullfighting enough." It wasn't pro-bullfighting either, but the fact that it didn't castigate the centuries old tradition meant that most programmers found it "objectionable." Matt was a fearless programmer and the festival world needs more like he was — open, willing to take risks with his audiences, and interested in the three dimensions of life, not just one.


"On the opposite of the political spectrum, documentary filmmaker AJ Schnack said "Caucus," a chronicle of the 2008 Iowa Republican caucus, which shows Rick Santorum in a fairly objective light, was rejected by at least one festival "because the programmer didn’t like the subjects," he said."

I think this film is about the 2012 — not 2008 — Iowa Republican caucus.


Quite frankly, right-wingers have the entire FOX News empire and CNN and such to spew their agenda. Film festivals can definitely do without it.

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