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by Anthony Kaufman
October 31, 2013 10:47 AM
13 Comments
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Why Do Film Festivals Reject Good Films?

"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."

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13 Comments

  • Filmmaker & Programmer | November 1, 2013 11:12 AMReply

    They might be "good" films but they're political in nature, of course they're going to be turned down by some programmers. Programming political content is a fickle bitch in any town because you absolutely HAVE to understand and sympathize with the community's general view if you want returning customers. The filmmakers need to do research into the festival, not just who the programmers are but what the general audience members are - esp. if there's a shred of politic in the story/format.

    With that said, programmers need to be open minded about the art in and of itself and forget about the films that they "like" but try to find films that are absolutely "unlike" anything their town has ever seen before. Art house cinema, for one, is the most commonly rejected kind of film in any American film festival. Why is it? Simple: because programmers are often not qualified enough in film, as an art, to understand what they're looking at. They're looking for full entertainment value for them and their customers and nothing more.

    Ugh.

  • Laurie Kirby | October 31, 2013 8:52 PMReply

    All of these points are fair and valid. Perhaps filmmakers could use a little more transparency from festivals so they understand why their film has been rejected. It really isn't a conspiracy or a closed rank system, like so many of them believe. There are practical reasons why films don't make the cut, all of which were enumerated. A good programmer uses a committee and doesn't impose his or her taste at the expense of considering the viewing audience. That said, there are more films made than festivals can screen. So to use Sky's analogy, they aren't all getting into Harvard.

  • Mark Pope | November 28, 2013 3:09 PM

    Laurie, I know you are looking at this from a festivals perspective, but I don't think we can generalize. Even the spell checkers we use everywhere are political by design and will never guess you wanted a word that might in any context be controversial. Try it.

    Festivals are run by people and people have prejudices. Some they are aware of, some they are not. First off, you are just being naive if you really think "all of the reasons films are rejected were enumerated". All decisions can always be explained away to avoid embarssment by the programming director, and usually, though not always as in the case of one of my films, they are smart enough to not use an excuse that can be factually proven to be invalid.
    Some festivals are run by a dictator that bans certain filmmakers for life, or at least that has been my experience and that of the director of a newer film festival who used to be an insider at an established major LGBTQ film festival.
    Do you think whether or not the director is Jewish plays absolutly no part in whether a film is selected by a Jewish film festival when they have to make a choice between two Jewish subject matter films they would like to screen equally, but only have room for one, and one is made by a Jewish filmmaker, and one is not? How about if a film student submits a "very well made" short documentary film, just their first film but amazingly well done, about someone famous but never before featured in a film and the festival staff knows a feature film about that person is being made by a very, very well known and extremely powerful TV/film producer and he will be submit it to them next year and they are even going to feature it by showing it for free. The feature film is going to be marketed as the first film about this famous person. What do you think they will do? Upset probably the most powerful documentary producer in the country by upstaging his baby? Sure they will, not!

    I think you should research how many festivals actually use a democratic committee, and one made of screeners not afraid to assert their beliefs, railroaded, or coerced before making blanket statements like the Harvard comment which presumes merit is the rule or that it "is not a closed rank system", assuming that means it is impartial as to merit. Not sure about "straight" festivals, but I think that if the truth be known LGBTQ festivals are particularly prone to the dictatorship-in-all-but-name system of programming. It would bother me much less if they were not also receiving large local govermnment grants every year.

    As for the "subject matter is why you were not selected" problem, that is particularly true of "straight" festivals.Most might occasionally screen a token"LGBTQ" themed documentary about a pair of lesbian twins wgo are comedians but that is hardly contriversial material.

  • Richard Sowada | October 31, 2013 6:36 PMReply

    I've programmed a lot of festivals and curated activites and the way I look at at curating a festival is the same as a filmmaker may look at making a film. To me, the festival is the film and the films themselves are the shots or scenes. When placed in an order they tell a whole story. In a film you may shoot the best scene you ever have but if it doesn't work with the other shots and scenes around it, you have to cut - no matter how good it is. It's not always about the work itself but what's around it - and how the programmers interpret the creative world around them. It's not just about the strength of individual titles but the momentum of international movements and ideas.

  • Mark Pope | November 28, 2013 3:29 PM

    Your way of programming can be quite a valid approach for one program of shorts or a feature and a short shown together, but I don't see what it has to do with an entire festival where no one is going to see every film and even if the did they may see seem in any combinations of order. I am not sure what kind of festivals you curated where this might be a valid justification. It is usually physically impossible to see all the films even with multiple showings. The corresponding analogy to a film would be to direct a film where the audience only watched it on DVD or Bluray with an interactive feature where they can skip scenes and watch in any order.

  • Mark Pope | November 28, 2013 3:28 PM

    Your way of programming can be quite a valid approach for one program of shorts or a feature and a short shown together, but I don't see what it has to do with an entire festival where no one is going to see every film and even if the did they may see seem in any combinations of order. I am not sure what kind of festivals you curated where this might be a valid justification. It is usually physically impossible to see all the films even with multiple showings. The corresponding analogy to a film would be to direct a film where the audience only watched it on DVD or Bluray with an interactive feature where they can skip scenes and watch in any order.

  • Jennifer | November 18, 2013 2:05 PM

    Hi Richard: Having attended plenty of festivals, I really don't think the biggest ones do not think that way at all. I have to agree with the point below where it is about egos. One of the biggest culprits is Tribeca, which I frankly don't believe thinks anything outside of premieres and big names. That, and having spoken with former programmers, I am not of the mind that the entry fee charged by Tribeca, is really worth the 5 - 10 minutes they spend watching a film. I can't say the same with every one of the large festivals, but I do know this particular one all too well. And, come one...do you REALLY think SXSW is thinking anything outside of premieres? Save your money on both of those.

  • Paige | October 31, 2013 6:22 PMReply

    Know who doesn't reject good films?
    The Audience Awards dot com
    We let the audience decide

  • Anonymous | October 31, 2013 3:13 PMReply

    While this article does a fair job of telling the story of a few films, it would have been nice to see an article where the actual story is told: "You didn't premiere at our festival, so you don't get an invitation." Why even ask festivals like Tribeca, Sundance, SXSW and Toronto? They are demand premieres and restrict filmmakers from showing at their festivals, because they showed elsewhere first. Doesn't matter is they're the best films, or even perfect for their festival. I had a film that was invited to Miami several years ago, then invited to SXSW. I was forced into making a choice, rather than being able to show at both events. The ego of some of the festivals is beyond me, because it's not about the films. It's about egos, plain and simple. So, instead of being able to show at 10 festivals, I have to make a choice to show at 5, and MAYBE I'll find distribution. But, my audience is already cut in half, because a festival demanded a premiere, rather than simply selecting the film based on its artistry. The good news is that I did find distribution, but I am not the only one placed in this situation. Every year, I have friends with films who are forced to make decisions similar to this one, and many who never find distribution even after showing at Tribeca or SXSW. If you truly want to get at the crux of the issue as to WHY great films are rejected from festivals, start with the egos of the festivals and go from there. I actually wonder why great films are rejected from places like Sonoma, San Francisco, Newport Beach, Santa Barbara, Cinequest, or Denver, than I am why they are rejected from ego-driven festivals.

  • Nina Seavey | October 31, 2013 11:27 AMReply

    I made a film with Stephen Higgins, THE MATADOR. Matt Dentler, when he was Festival Director at SXSW, programmed the film and it really challenged audiences. Most other programmers wouldn't take it because they said "it wasn't anti-bullfighting enough." It wasn't pro-bullfighting either, but the fact that it didn't castigate the centuries old tradition meant that most programmers found it "objectionable." Matt was a fearless programmer and the festival world needs more like he was -- open, willing to take risks with his audiences, and interested in the three dimensions of life, not just one.

  • No | October 31, 2013 11:13 AMReply

    "On the opposite of the political spectrum, documentary filmmaker AJ Schnack said "Caucus," a chronicle of the 2008 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."

    I think this film is about the 2012 -- not 2008 -- Iowa Republican caucus.

  • arshadfilms | October 31, 2013 10:59 AMReply

    Quite frankly, right-wingers have the entire FOX News empire and CNN and such to spew their agenda. Film festivals can definitely do without it.

  • No | October 31, 2013 11:11 AM

    Yes, let's engage in the same sort of narrow-minded exclusion of other point of views that the right routinely engages. That's how a democratic society corrects itself by excluding information.