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Attention, Filmmakers: 9 Tips for Maximizing Your Film’s Success on the Festival Circuit

Attention, Filmmakers: 9 Tips for Maximizing Your Film's Success on the Festival Circuit

As the director of The Portland Film Festival, I was recently invited to speak on a panel with other festival organizers called, “Maximizing Your Film’s Success on the Festival Circuit.”
To prepare my presentation, I reached out to colleagues from other festivals to ask for their tips on how filmmakers can get the most out of their film festival experience during every step of the process. I compiled some of their tips below:

READ MORE: Attention, Filmmakers: 5 Regional Film Festivals with Deadlines Coming Up

1. Do your research before applying.

“Research the past programming of the festivals you intend to submit to. No use submitting to festivals who aren’t interested in your type of film.” – Alan LaFave, Hell’s Half Mile Film & Music Festival

“Research the festivals that seem to make sense for your film. Check out the festival’s website and previous programs. Ask other filmmakers what festivals they think would be a good match for your particular film.” – Shannon Franklin, Naples International Film Festival

“Find out how many films are selected through blind submissions versus selected by invitation. This will give you a sense of what you are up against. If the festival can’t share this information there’s a good chance you are wasting a submission fee.” – Peter Baxter, Slamdance

2. Don’t submit until you’re absolutely sure your film is done.

“Make sure you’ve made the best film you can BEFORE you start submitting to festivals.” – Christopher Holland, Atlanta Film Festival

3. Spend time perfecting your title and description.

“No more titles like ‘Mother’ and ‘Box’ and ‘The Gift’… They’re not archetypal, they’re bland and forgettable — and I keep seeing more films with those same names coming in every year.” – Sven Bonnichsen, NW Animation Film Festival

“Work that description! Don’t just give me a plot summary; give me words that describe the genre, the tone, the feel. Sell me on why I want to see this film.” –  Michael Dunaway, Sarasota Film Festival

4. Have a festival strategy in mind before you apply.

“Always have a real plan for what you want to do with your movie—find a film whose festival strategy you admire and emulate it. Apply to the same festivals your model did, build relationships there, etc.” – Tom Hall, Montclair Film Festival 

“Know your ultimate goal for going to festivals. Research the festivals you want to attend and see if they fit into your festival strategy.” – Anne Chaisson, Hamptons International Film Festival

5. Don’t take rejection personally. And be a good sport.

“Don’t take a rejection as a reflection on your work; sometimes a really good film just doesn’t fit well into a given year’s program.” – Michael Dunaway, Sarasota Film Festival

“If you get rejected, and the notice comes via an email from an actual programmer, I would recommend swallowing your pride and replying with a short note thanking them for watching your film and wishing them the best of luck with their upcoming festival prep. And, if that’s too difficult, at least don’t shoot back a scathing indictment of the programming team and its taste.” – Brad Wilke, Seattle International Film Festival

“Film Festivals are about community not about winning or being accepted. Red Rock once had a filmmaker who was not accepted; so we approached the director to allow us to show the film as part of a ‘worst of’ screening. The filmmaker entertained the idea and submitted another film a couple of years later that ended up winning at the festival. Moral: Whether it’s your direction, storytelling, an actor or just your professionalism; your work can be remembered. It’s all how you play the game.” – Matt Marxteyn, Red Rock Film Festival

“If you aren’t getting selected, don’t get discouraged, get advice.” – Paul Sbrizzi, Los Angeles Film Festival, Slamdance

READ MORE: Attention, Filmmakers: Essential Film Festival Tips

6. Leverage social media.

“If possible, maintain an active (and positive) social media presence before and while attending the festival.” – Brad Wilke, Seattle International Film Festival

“Tweet and Facebook during the Festival! Be sure to tag the Festival in these. Again, re-postings will get exposure for your film.” – Steffanie L Finn, Winter Film Awards and 48 Hour Film Festival

7. Support your fellow filmmakers.

“Try to be a cheerleader for fellow filmmakers in your program. Yes, there might be a competition, but you will end up crossing paths many times more should you all continue to make movies, so get those relationships off on the right foot. There might be one or two winners, but the only real losers are people who don’t make authentic connections with other up-and-coming filmmakers.” – Brad Wilke, Seattle International Film Festival

8. Be nice.

“Communicate. Answer emails. Keep deadlines. Be nice.” – Deidre Haj, Full Frame Doc Fest

“Be nice to festival organizers—they work their asses off for no pay so that people can see your film. I’m sure most festivals would say that they take an objective look at all the films and their relationship with the filmmakers isn’t part of the decision. But I’ll just throw it out there—I like to show films by people who I think are doing good things in the world = with their films and their lives. Nice people should finish first. They do at Cucalorus. Oh yeah, except we don’t give awards, so no first places.” – Dan Brawley, Cucalorus Film Festival.

9. Stay in touch.

“Keep in touch with the festival after it is over. If your film goes on to win awards or distribution, or there is a good interview or article about you, email your Festival and let them know. There’s a good chance they will post it on their website/Facebook page and give you some more exposure. They also will be interested in seeing your future work and may be able to help you network.” – Steffanie L Finn, Winter Film Awards and 48 Hour Film Festival

Portland-based producer and director Josh Leake is the founder and executive director of the Portland Film Festival, which runs from September 1-7. He produced “Glena,” a feature length documentary that premiered at Slamdance ’14 (now available on Showtime and VOD). His film “Emptys,” a short documentary about people who collect beverage containers as their principal source of income, won first place at Tropfest New York. With his production company, Mindpollen, he’s currently developing an adaption of Chuck Palahniuk’s “Lullaby.” Follow him on Twitter @joshleake and @portlandfilm.

READ MORE: Attention, Filmmakers: Don’t Submit to Festivals Yet

This Article is related to: Filmmaker Toolkit and tagged ,


Dan Fields

This article is ridiculously condescending ""Make sure you’ve made the best film you can BEFORE you start submitting to festivals." – Christopher Holland, Atlanta Film Festival" Thanks Christopher! We’ll make sure to heed your advice!

Curtis Lamb

This guy from Seattle who says that we should thank the programmers for even watching our films is an idiot.


Here’s my #1 tip: Look at what every festival played in the previous year. Chances are you will see the same titles over and over, both for features and shorts. Coincidence? Or the best films of the year? Neither. Many festival programmers are lazy and just scout whatever premiered at Sundance, SXSW and/or Toronto. So they’ll invite those filmmakers rather than take a chance on something that hasn’t been shown anywhere. You’ll find these in the generic "city" festivals (Dallas, Boston, Minneapolis, etc.). Basically, ignore those and go for smaller indie festivals. They won’t be as posh but you’ll stand a much better chance at getting accepted. Cheers

Giulio Vita

As a monkey from La Guarimba Film Festival, I am agree with all this tips!

Gary Meyer

The graceful artist is the one whose work is rejected but still attends to see what has been accepted, how they play and learn for the future.

We know it is tough having your inspiration, sweat and hard work rejected. But as stated above, often a very good movie just doesn’t fit the balance of the festival program.

Then there are the filmmakers whose work is truly terrible….bad script, directing, acting, lighting, music, cinematography, sound and not even fun because it is so bad. You write a respectful rejection letter. And the filmmakers tracks you down and heaps verbal abuse on whoever answers the phone. It has happened more than once.

Also Confused

Are you going to keep re-posting this same dumb film festival self-promoting bull**** article every time one of them needs a little PR boost? At least get them to write a new one with new nonsense "tips" once in a while to make things more interesting.


I don’t know Matt, it sounds like you’re tap-dancing around this. The idea that you’d reject a film from your festival and then approach the filmmaker later, for a separate screening series that is branded as a "worst of" seems pretty insulting. Calling something the "worst of" is quite different than calling something ironic, kitchy, or intentionally in bad taste. And whether you intended it or not, it makes it sound as if you are curating really bad films from your submissions so that audiences can join in and make fun of them.

Caleb Straus

I’m sorry, Matt. I’m sure we really appreciate the reply and attempted clarification but I struggle to think of anyone who wouldn’t find that insulting, unless they were trying, as you say, to create something cheesy. However, your original quote in the article makes no mention of that. May want to rethink that. I say you got lucky with this particular filmmaker, and I don’t think I’m alone here. No hard feelings whatsoever, just sayin’ .


This what happens when 5 olds review films made by adults. That’s why most film festival films are unwatchable. The closing film for the Denver film festival was so bad that half the crowd walked out. Interns who have never written anything shouldn’t decide the films to be played. Also just because you see this industry as a hobby is no reason to force the rest of us to give it away because you are too stupid to make a full feature. NO SHORT FILMS MAKE MONEY EVER. SO go back to your day job until you learn how to actually make a feature and nbot just a a few scenes. Just because you have no value doesn’t mean I do. I have a right to make a living even though you think you are smart without learning anything.

Matt Marxteyn

Relax, we would never actually do a separate event of just poor scorers! There’s ‘worst’/’bad’ meaning bad — there is also ‘worst’/’bad’ meaning cool or funky or cheesy as well as everything in between. The film was INTENTIONALLY off, where "everything goes wrong." In this case, the funky comedy scored well, just not high enough for the actual festival. There’s a big difference between John Waters intentionally making a film shot from the hip, and the next "Transformers" movie even though artistically some of Waters’ films aren’t for everyone. Just because a comedy of any niche may not fit into a festival does not mean it doesn’t have an audience in another outlet. You can still like it without loving it. After all, people watch network news even though today’s televised news is not the best form of documentary filmmaking.
‘Le Bad Cinema’ was a trademarked category at Blockbuster, withoutabox once had a niche for ‘Blaxploitation’ — although definitions of those labels may differ, if you put the right ones in a film series or special event you have an audience for it. Just to clarify, we would most certainly take a cheesy-Le Bad film into the actual festival if it scored high enough. I personally love cheesy films when they are done right ; )

Ignatius J Reilly

A "worst of" screening? Matt Marxteyn – you are a dick.


"Red Rock once had a filmmaker who was not accepted; so we approached the director to allow us to show the film as part of a ‘worst of’ screening."

Are you serious? This is so terribly cynical and ugly.


Agree 100% Be nice and open with festivals and other filmmakers because we are all sharing one common thing: a love for films and filmmaking.

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