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5 Questions You Always Wanted to Ask a Documentary Festival Programmer

5 Questions You Always Wanted to Ask a Documentary Festival Programmer

So you’ve finished your documentary, and you’ve submitted it to the film festivals that seem like the best fit. While awaiting your fate, some questions start to creep in. Like: who’s watching, how are they watching, and what your chances?

At the Tenth Annual Camden International Film Festival last Friday, as part of their Points North Documentary Forum, four U.S. programmers sat down with filmmaker Robert Greene (“Actress”) to discuss and demystify their processes for selecting films. “The idea here is to pull back the curtain, to try to talk about some of the process things, some of the stuff that gets shrouded,” Greene said to those gathered. “With each film I think I have a greater understanding of how festivals work, and that has alleviated some of the stress and pain of being a filmmaker on the other side of the process—of trying to get people to watch your movie and get it to be seen in a certain light.”

READ MORE: 6 Must-Read Tips from Academy Award-Nominated Documentary Filmmaker Marshall Curry

1. Once I’ve submitted my film to your festival, who watches it? Do you use volunteer screeners to vet films? When in the process do programmers get involved? 

“I have a team of volunteer screeners, which ranges each year from 12-15 people. And those are the people that see everything for the first time. We have two people watch every submission all the way through—they can’t turn it off. I look at all the submissions that come in, all the entry forms, just to get a sense of everything that’s out there, and I watch random films to get a pulse on things. But mostly, I read the first two reviews of every film, and judge from there what moves on to our programmers. All of the programmers are kind of doing what I do, looking at random things and especially reading reviews that are not as favorable, just to make sure our screeners are on top of things. Of the 15 screeners we’ll have this year, 9 have been doing it for at least 4 years, some 9 years. And I fire volunteers every year and hire new ones—there’s a whole application process to become one. It’s pretty rigorous and diverse.” – Joanne Feinberg, Ashland Independent Film Festival

“Our structure is similar. We have about 20 screeners, and I have three people watch every film. I have a yes/no process for whether a film should move on. I read through their reviews and if I think they’re missing something I’ll have other people look at it or I’ll look at it myself. But basically I go with those yes/no’s, and I move films on and drop things out pretty aggressively because we have to get moving on it. There are 5 of us in the core programming staff, and we watch all the films that get moved on.” – Jason Perdue, Sebastopol Documentary Film Festival

“There are four of us [who program the festival]. We do not have a formal submissions process, and we don’t have screeners. I think the reason we don’t do a formal submission process with a screening committee is because we have a year-round program that we have to deal with. It would be too difficult.” – Gabriele Caroti, BAMcinématek

2. How many films do you program based on submissions, compared to films you’ve found at other festivals? 

“For nonfiction films, I think there are three festivals in the United States that have a legitimate claim to demanding world premieres from U.S. filmmakers, and that’s Sundance, SXSW and Tribeca—January, March, April. Every other festival is then looking at what they’ve programmed, including us. For us and for most fests, we are using our submissions process to fill a tiny number of slots out of our total pool. Most of the slots out of our total pool we are programming films that have already been other places. That said, nothing is more vital to us than finding new work. As a festival, as a programmer, I only look good if I find new work. Nobody up here, none of my peers, are impressed by me when I show a film that was at Sundance. So holding these two things in your head is really important. It’s really hard to get a straight submission into festivals, because there are a lot of good films coming from other places. And no festival worth its status as a festival wants anything more than to find a new voice and a new work, something nobody else has seen. That’s really critical, especially for first time filmmakers, to not be so discouraged. It’s a really tough process, but we are all on your side. We all want to find great films, and to be the ones to say ‘look, we brought this film into the world.'” – David Wilson, True/False Film Fest 

“I think there is a tension between what you curate and what comes over the transom. It’s been close to 50/50 but there have been years when we curated at a higher percentage than that. And I always felt a little uncomfortable about it, because I had all these films that we didn’t pick, while I went out to all these festivals and found other films. What I want to not do is program a festival for you guys. Like, oh I want David to see my program and think that it’s cool. That gets in my head of course, but I don’t want that to be the driving force. Because if I show a film 14 months after Sundance that never played in the Bay area, or in Sebastopol, then who cares? My audience hasn’t seen it, and I want to bring it to them.” – Jason Perdue, Sebastopol Documentary Film Festival

3. How do you work towards remaining open and objective about every film, and avoid being too tired to give my film a fair shake?

“I bury myself in a film festival when I’m here, but when I’m in the programming process I usually watch 1-2 films a day at the most. And I do it at work. Because I realized that when I get home and put the kids to bed and get to sit on the couch and choose something to watch, that 90 minute film about Rwanda is not really that enticing. All of a sudden my reviews at home were looking a lot worse than my reviews from work, and I was like, something’s wrong here. I realized that this is a job, and I have to do it when I’m at work, where I can pay attention and I’m focused. And I advise my screeners to do that. I tell them, watch how you feel when you watch these films at different times, because it will affect you. Do you watch on your TV, or on your computer? What’s your environment? Because you could just be in a bad mood if the film isn’t speaking to you.” – Jason Perdue, Sebastopol Documentary Film Festival

“I don’t particularly like going to film festivals to see films. I was just in Toronto, seeing 5 films a day, and by the 5th film you have no idea if it’s good or not. You’re exhausted. It just becomes—you forget what you see. Something really needs to jump out at you for it to be strong enough to want to program it.” – Gabriele Caroti, BAMcinématek

“I’ve spent my life in dark rooms watching movies. I was an editor for about twenty years before I started programming, and I still just adore it. And I love film festivals especially—I get excited about the creativity. I have cut the number of films I see to 4 a day. And I now bring another programmer with me to Sundance. We get a little more coverage that way, but a lot of the time we’ll watch together.” – Joanne Feinberg, Ashland Independent Film Festival

4. Do you prioritize premiere status, and will my film’s premiere status affect your decision?

“If a film premieres at a competing New York festival, it can’t show at BAM. Though we’re always having an internal debate about that. We’re in New York, and there are three doc festivals in NY that are very established—DOC NYC, Doc Fortnight at MOMA, and now the Art of the Real at Lincoln Center. Then there’s Tribeca, New Directors/New Films, Film Comment Selects, New York Film Festival—so it’s very difficult for us. There are films that show that we want, that we think we need and want, and then they go with ND/NF, for example.” – Gabriele Caroti, BAMcinématek

“We walk a line between trying to play the game and change the game, I guess. We have a whole set of screenings we call secret screenings, which are screenings we will never talk about, which we forbid press from talking about, of films that will premiere later in the calendar year. We do this because we think we have things to offer those films and filmmakers, just by being at True/False, and we also believe that the things they get from the festivals they will eventually premiere at are valuable as well. We’re not an industry facing fest. Like Camden, there’s plenty of industry here and there’s plenty of industry at True/False, but we’re not a fest that people are looking to buy and sell and do business at. We don’t want that—we want to do something different. And so we kind of do weird contortions and limbo acts to try to show films we love the most, and sometimes that means we’re the first people to show a film, and sometimes that means we’re the tenth to show a film. And our goal is to sort of just say—hey, these are great films. These are films that are wonderful and we want you to see them, and they’re probably all new to you. That said, there are certain filmmakers whose films are starting out at True/False who want to use that as a place to shout from the hilltops of Columbia that it’s happening, and we certainly encourage them to do that.” – David Wilson, True/False Film Fest
“I know where we are in the hierarchy. I go to Sundance, I see the films, but I don’t have a way to get in front of the other festivals. And I get it from filmmakers. I’ll go to somebody that showed at SXSW or Sundance, and they’ll go, oh, San Francisco International Film Festival is looking at it and they say I can’t let anybody in the Bay area look at it. Except usually San Francisco has been cool with me, and let’s me know, hey, “we’re not going to take that film, you can have it.” – Jason Perdue, Sebastopol Documentary Film Festival:

“I do go to Sundance, and we do wait to lock the festival until after that, and we do get quite a number of films [from there]. But what’s happening now is filmmakers will send me their films in December, I’ll fall in love with them, but they don’t get into Sundance, so we have to wait. They might not be at True/False or SXSW, and then it’s pretty much over for us, because of Tribeca. The filmmaker says no—they’re waiting for their premiere. They love Ashland, would love to be there, but it’s not the place that’s going to have industry, and we have press but not the press that they’re needing. And I understand it. I want the best for them too, even if I have to live with it.” – Joanne Feinberg, Ashland Independent Film Festival

“Many aspects of the film business, especially the independent film business, are caught up in the dark ages. The idea that there’s a place in Utah where everybody gathers and they watch a movie and they call in and file their reviews or something, or maybe they write them a few weeks later because what does it matter, the reviews are going to come out in the trades and everybody’s going to get their copies of Variety and read it. That’s not how it works anymore, but we haven’t caught up with that. Actually in the Internet/social media age, there’s a lot of places where things can start and be seen. This is what happened with Telluride and Toronto this year. People who go to Telluride, thanks to the magic of the Internet, can file their tweets immediately after walking out of a screening, and that changes the awards landscape in Hollywood. It’s all happening in a more disparate and widespread way. And when we catch up to that, it’s not going to be as important where you premiere, because that physical place [of the film festival] will hopefully be a place with a great atmosphere and audience, and then word will get out like that.” – David Wilson, True/False Film Fest

5. My film might share a subject or theme with other films—what do you do when there’s more than one worthy film on a certain topic?

“Things crop up through the zeitgeist I guess, with people making films about the same thing. I’ve got 8 films about Syria right now. What am I going to do? Show all 8 films? They’re all great. Last year we got three amazing features about boxing, out of nowhere. We either have an entire program about boxing, which we considered, or we pick the one we want to screen, and it may or may not be the best one. At least for us, the idea that we’ve got this many films, and we’re going to pick the top 30 features to show, is not necessarily the case. And then there’s a balancing act of how heavy can you be? How much world politics can you cover? So we try to balance that.” – Jason Perdue, Sebastopol Documentary Film Festival

“It’s important for filmmakers to hear that you don’t take every film that you love. It’s hard to get rejected, but good to hear it’s not necessarily about the quality, that it’s about putting a program together. Just like you can’t use every great scene in a movie, you can’t use every great film in a film festival. You have to make choices.” – Robert Greene (“Actress”)

READ MORE: Tips for Getting Into Sundance and Other Festivals

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