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

Photo of Paula Bernstein By Paula Bernstein | Indiewire June 12, 2014 at 10:17AM

Here's what you need to know when applying for film festivals.
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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

Jeanie Finlay's "The Great Hip Hop Hoax"

"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

"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

"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

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: Festival Strategy, Filmmaker Toolkit: Festivals, Festivals, Sundance Film Festival, Sheffield Doc/Fest