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Why Do Film Festivals Reject Good Films?

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

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


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."

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

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