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Attention, Filmmakers: Tips for Getting Into Sundance (and Other Festivals)

Attention, Filmmakers: Tips for Getting Into Sundance (and Other Festivals)

The name of a Sheffield Doc/Fest session was “The Secret World of Film Festival Programming” and the goal was to demystify how festivals are programmed and provide tips for filmmakers navigating the festival system.

Moderated by Adam Benzine, associate editor at Realscreen and featuring Hussain Currimbhoy, Director of Programming at Sheffield Doc/Fest, David Courier, senior programmer, Sundance Film Festival and filmmaker Jeanie Finlay (“The Great Hip Hop Hoax”), the panel delivered on its promise — and then some.

Finlay, whose films have screened at SXSW, Sheffield Doc/Fest, Hot Docs and elsewhere, provided the filmmaker perspective on navigating the film festival circuit, while Currimbhoy and Courier explained the process for applying to and getting accepted into their respective festivals.

Here are some of the highlights from the panel:

Let’s be clear. The odds are not in your favor.

Currimbhoy said Sheffield Doc/Fest gets about 2,000 submissions and they screen about 150 films (but that includes interactive films, shorts and older films that screen outdoors).

“Last year, we received overall, close to 13,000 submissions including shorts and fictions. Of those 13,000, close to 8,000 were shorts. The rests were features. Of those features, I’d say about 1800 or close to 2,000 were documentaries. Of those, we show 41 feature films.” — Courier

Don’t send your film in until it’s ready.

“When I first started here, I’d say send me the rough cut, it’s cool. Then when I saw it again, the whole thing had changed. It was a different film totally. Now I say ‘send the best thing you’ve got.’ I don’t mind if it’s not color corrected or sound mixed….More and more, I do suggest don’t rush it. Say what you want to say and express what you want to say with your film.’ — Currimbhoy

“My advice would be don’t send your film until it’s ready…It doesn’t have to have gone through complete post, but make sure you are telling the story the way you want to tell in the form that you want to tell it and that it is very clear. Send us the best cut you can.” — Courier

Don’t send gifts to programmers.

“Don’t send me gifts, please. One guy sent me a film from Liverpool that was about a drug rehab center. The DVD case came and there was a syringe inside of it. One guy sent me a packet of shrimp gumbo mix from Louisiana. It was a sweet thing, a little taste of home, but please don’t do that.” — Currimbhoy

READ MORE: Here’s What We Learned from Joe Berlinger’s Master Class

Be assured that someone from the festival will watch your entire film.

Despite what some filmmakers might think, film festivals aren’t one big scam designed to bilk gullible filmmakers of their money by charging them submission fees and then never watching their films. Both Sheffield Doc/Fest and Sundance rely on pre-screeners who watch and rate films before they get passed on to programmers.

“We have eight feature programmers, a whole separate set of shorts programmers and about 35 screeners who are the first eyes on most of those films. They are all people who have terrific jobs in the industry and who want to do this also. We pay them. They rate the films. They write coverage and they grade the film on a 1-5 basis with 5 being the best. One of our programmers covers all of the 1s and 2s to make sure the screeners didn’t miss something — or that possibly, it was an experimental film and it was meant to have burnt footage. The rest of us cover the 3s, 4s and 5s….Every film gets watched in its entirety. They have to watch the entire film even if they think it’s the worst thing they’ve ever seen in their life.” — Courier

Don’t forget to put your film’s name and your name on the DVD cover. 

If you’re making a DVD, make it a clean cover so it’s easy to find it. Show me you care enough to put your name on it and your number.” — Currimbhoy

“Make sure you put the title of your film on your DVDs because we wind up with these stacks and going through them, we say ‘what’s this blank DVD here in my stack?’ You want to make sure you catch their eye with the title and you’re watching that film.” — Courier

Check to make sure that your film plays all the way through.

“Filmmakers are rushing to get the DVDs made and don’t check to see if they play all the way through. It’s so frustrating to get 40 minutes into a film especially one I’m really enjoying and thinking it has a chance…Most of the time, we’re not going to contact you and say ‘send us another DVD.’ It’s irritating because you’ve just wasted 40 minutes of really precious time.” — Courier

Some festivals — including Sundance — allow you to re-submit a film.

“Not all film festivals allow you to re-submit a film. We do it. We don’t love it, but it happens.” — Courier (who explained that “Watchers of the Sky” submitted two times before it was finally accepted last year. “Searching for Sugar Man” also re-applied after ring rejected once).

Festivals don’t make money on submission fees — but not everybody has to pay them.

Currimbhoy said that if a filmmaker writes a really nice note explaining they can’t afford the fee, it may be waived.

Courier said that established filmmakers often don’t pay submission fees – “We don’t charge Alex Gibney to submit to us because we have an incredibly relationship with Alex Gibney. It doesn’t make sense. It’s not like you’re only charging the little guy. It’s about honoring a filmmaker whose work you respect.” — Courier

Pick the right festival for your film.

“There are so many festivals. you’ve got to get the timing right. Ask yourself: what do you want from the festival? Do you want to make a name for yourself? Do you want to make money? You can’t make your name, make lots of money, get the right sales…it’s a weird alchemy. You’ve got to realistic.” — Finlay

Do your research. And follow the rules.

“You need to know what the premiere status rules of a film festival are and abide by them and don’t try to trick people.” — Courier

Reach out to festival programmers — but not too much.

“I encourage people to contact me to say ‘Here’s what I’m doing. What do you think?’ —  I do encourage people to write to me.” — Currimbhoy

Sundance keeps an extensive tracking list for films in production or even in development, which is one of the reasons Courier said he is attending Sheffield Doc/Fest’s “Meet Market.” “I’m looking for things for next year. If you’ve got something, be in touch with me because I will add it to our tracking list and when it’s ready, get in touch again…but not too much in touch. The perfect balance is what you need.”

Know the right times to follow-up.

“It’s pretty well known from us that we make our decisions around Thanksgiving time, so don’t bug us in September or October or even early November that you didn’t hear because it makes sense that you didn’t hear because no one heard.” — Courier

Film festivals reject great films. There are many factors that come into play.

“I write so many personal notes to filmmakers because of the high volume of films that we get and the few documentaries we show, we have to say ‘no’ to so many films we love. I’m writing these really sincere glorious reviews of a film that I just rejected basically. People think that’s just so phony. Why would you reject it if you really feel that way?… But there are a bunch of factors. You can’t have four films on hockey, for instance, in a program of 12 films. That’s crazy. You’re mixing up what you’re programming and there are lots of different factors to it.” — Courier

This Article is related to: Filmmaker Toolkit and tagged , , , ,


Adrienne Anderson

I’m a film festival programmer/director (International Black Women’s Film Festival) and this article is accurate. As a festival programmer, I prefer uploaded films. As a programmer I’m only checking for things like theme, production, lighting, sound, etc. A watermark isn’t an issue during the preview process. Personally, I have a window ("Earlybird" Submission) for free/no-fee submissions. If your film is selected, I need a clean, theater-ready DVD or Blu-ray. (I encourage filmmakers *not* to watermark, because if there’s a technical glitch, I can always use the backup uploaded version in a pinch. It’s happened and I have.)

Uploading a film is *FREE* for the filmmaker, and there is no paper or mailing fees. If you’re an emerging filmmaker, please consider smaller festivals. All film festivals review your film. No one gets "a pass" …unless you’re a Duvernay, Scorsese, Jarmusch, etc.

germaine mccormack-kos

if you send a rough cut with everything ready except the final music and post production to Sundance is that acceptable Thanks for answering me pronto as the deadline is soon

prashant shinde

I want job in this industry I can do acting and dialogues delivery also I can do properly with acting pls if there any job for me pls contact me on 9820298827

Robert Ansley

Actually I’ve had success getting fees waived in about 25% of the time. There usually is an email address in the listing where you can ask a question. We simply say what we think is important for them to hear and include a link to a private copy of our film on Vimeo. We do get notes back saying they will waive the fee. It doesn’t hurt to try.

One thing I’d like to ask other filmmakers here is how do you go about finding film festivals to submit to? Do most filmmakers use services like Withoutabox and then search through the festivals on their website? What other resources are there to help filmmakers find festivals that would fit their film?

We are holding our second annual international film festival this year (100 Words Film Festival) and we are trying to get more filmmakers aware of our affordable entry fees and great benefits to entering. This message is not intended to spam, I’m trying to hear from actual filmmakers (and the #filmmaker subReddit is not very active).

Lorenzo Guarnieri

it is not extremely important to be select at sundance film festival I win more the 30 awards only international and the last was the prestigious 48th Worldfest- Houston were my movie Sonia’s Story win a Remi Award.I send to sundance but they do not select it, never mind!!! so I not Agree with Paula Bernstein is not the truth. there are many reason because one film not be select at the Festival!!!!!


Lets see. 13 000 films. 8000 shorts, three deadlines, three fees, average fee $60, 60 x 8000 = $ 480 000
5000 features which of 2000 documentaries, three fees, average fee $ 80, 80 x 5000 = $ 400 000,
Eccles Pass B $1,500, Access to the Eccles Theatre plus Awards Night Party
Express Pass B $3,000, All Access, Awards Night Party Ticket
Express Pass A $3,500, All Access, Day One Party Ticket
Multiply that with the amount of filmmaker/industry guests


"Currimbhoy said that if a filmmaker writes a really nice note explaining they can't afford the fee, it may be waived." This is a joke, right?

If this is true, when do I submit the "really nice note"? When I submit my film through an online screener? As a separate note through snail mail, even though everything else is submitted online, and I keep my fingers crossed that the festival director will like my "really nice note" and write back in longhand to tell me s/he's waived the fee? Do I write my "really nice note" first and wait for a reply from the festival director to tell me s/he's waived the fee? And if s/he doesn't, the fee has gone up or, worse, the deadline has passed. And what constitutes a "really nice note"? Talking about my grandmother's death? That I have to feed my kids? My car broke down? Praising the festival director?

And then there's this: ""Last year, we received overall, close to 13,000 submissions including shorts and fictions. Of those 13,000, close to 8,000 were shorts. The rests were features. Of those features, I'd say about 1800 or close to 2,000 were documentaries. Of those, we show 41 feature films." — Courier" and yet, with all those submissions 13000 submissions, "I write so many personal notes to filmmakers because of the high volume of films that we get and the few documentaries we show, we have to say 'no' to so many films we love." I wonder how many "so many" is . . . out of 13000.


Festivals are actually distributors…who charge to review your film, then maybe give it a one week theatrical and keep 100% of the box office…hope that works out for you…lol


Do festivals prefer online screeners or DVD copies? Withoutabox charges $3 to submit an online screener but DVDs are only the cost of postage (often just two stamps). I'm sure every festival has different preferences, but some guidance on that would be cool.


I think we will stop sending to festivals. Basically they rip filmmakers off and act like they are doing you a favour. If you need help of a film festival to promote your film you are already in trouble. Steer clear also from all these tv-station commissioning editors who travel to these festivals mostly on the expense of the filmmakers who pay high fees to attend the festivals. Very few of the commissioning editors have any serious money and still they act arrogantly like the kings of the world and if you are so short of money that you end up doing a deal with them, their tax supported tv-station pay like 2-20 % of the budget at the most and still they think they own your film and you work for them. There are plenty of money in this world, it should not be a problem to find it if your project is good and you look outside the box. And don't worry too much about the distribution either. The time of gatekeepers have run out with the Internet even if the so called industry try to act like there wasn't any options for you.

P. Bell

I no longer believe that festival programmers watch the entire cut. Submitting with Vimeo allows for advanced stats and whether films were finished and to what percentage. Suffice it to say our Sundance submission, as well as several others, watched around 35-39% of the cut once. I suggest taking screen grabs and start asking for refunds.

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