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Why Do Film Festivals Reject Good Films?

Indiewire By Anthony Kaufman | Indiewire October 31, 2013 at 10:47AM

Can a film's subject matter or style hurt its chances for exposure?
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"Best Kept Secret."

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 Metacritic.com, 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.

"Caucus"

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."

Pandora's Promise

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."

This article is related to: Festivals, Festival Strategy, Filmmaker Toolkit: Festivals, Best Kept Secret, Samantha Buck, Janet Pierson, Genna Terranova, David Wilson, Documentary