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by Noam Kroll
June 23, 2014 4:40 PM
11 Comments
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Why You Shouldn't Care About Getting Rejected From Film Festivals (and Some Tips on How to Get Accepted)

Noam Kroll is an award winning Los Angeles based filmmaker and founder of the boutique post-production company Creative Rebellion. In his latest guest post for Indiewire, he writes about why getting accepted into a film festival is no longer essential for getting your independent film out into the world. Check out Kroll's blog here, and Creative Rebellion here.

One of the worst feelings for filmmakers is the disappointment that surrounds the opening of a dreaded rejection letter from a film festival. Many of us feel that festivals are the key to our success and growth as filmmakers so naturally, when we don’t get accepted, it can be a tough pill to swallow. This year, I was fortunate enough to have been brought on board as the short film programmer for an excellent festival in Los Angeles (DFFLA), and sending out my share of rejection notices really put things in perspective for me. Below I'll share my two cents on why getting rejected from a festival often has nothing to do with the quality of your work, and what you can do to improve your chances.

I’ve directed many short films and have been lucky enough to have them screen at a number of festivals where, occasionally, they have even won awards. But I've also had many of those same films rejected from other film festivals as well, and I can certainly relate to the disappointment of not getting in. That said, it really wasn’t until this year when I started working as a festival programmer that I truly understood the submission process including the massive amount of films that come in, and the extremely hard decisions that need to be made in order to take hundreds (or thousands) of films and cherry pick a few dozen of them to fill out various programming blocks.

READ MORE: 10 Things Filmmakers Want Festivals to Know

Most filmmakers incorrectly assume that if their film was rejected, it was a direct result of their film itself not being strong enough. This could not be further from the truth. Yes, there are certainly films that get rejected because the production value is low, the script isn’t great, the acting is poor, etc. But generally these types of films are from filmmakers that are just starting out and haven’t yet honed their craft. They simply need more time to develop before their films are at the level that they will be accepted to film festivals. You may very well be at the point where the quality and substance of your films is quite strong and you've spent enough time developing your craft to know that your work is festival-worthy, which is why it is so frustrating when you don't get in.

Festivals of all shapes and sizes receive a massive amount of submissions, and there are only a handful of slots open – meaning a very low percentage of films are accepted to any given festival. Many festivals can only take as little as 1% – 2% of the submitted films, which makes the decision making process extremely difficult. Also, most film festivals aim to have a well rounded program that consists of films of various genres, styles, and formats. This means that your odds of getting can be even further reduced (depending on the other submissions that come in), since your film likely only applies to one or two categories and those categories may have an abundance of submissions that year. For instance, if you submit your short horror film to a festival that only has 6 slots available in their horror program, your odds of getting into that particular festival are pretty slim. This is especially relevant if the festival happens to get loads of horror submissions that year. I’m not saying this to discourage anyone from submitting to festivals, as I truly believe that great films do rise to the top and get accepted. But there are many great films that don't get accepted for various reasons. Your film might simply be too long to fit into a program, or it has already premiered (and the festival is looking for a world premiere status), or maybe another film already selected covers a similar theme or subject matter.

Festivals will always send out a rejection letter telling you that "there were so many great films this year" and that "hard decisions had to be made." Having now programmed for a festival, I know just how true these statements are. There were some incredibly powerful and moving films that I screened for this year's festival that couldn’t make the cut for various reasons – none of which had anything to do with the overall quality of the work. So at the end of the day, applying to festivals really comes down to a numbers game. If you submit to enough relevant festivals, you will start to get in. Even award-winning films don’t get into most festivals that they apply to, so don't be discouraged or take it personally if the majority of festivals reject your work – it's just how it goes. But remember that all it takes is one great festival to give you an acceptance letter and it will make the journey worth it.

READ MORE: 10 Things Even Film Festival Wants Filmmakers to Know

There are many ways to improve your odds of getting into a festival, but probably the most important thing that you can do involves targeting your submissions. If you have an experimental genre film, go after genre festivals, or if you have a documentary, submit it to as many documentary-centric festivals as possible. Following this simple principle will mean your film has a much better shot of getting in, as there will be many more categories open for your film to potentially be programmed in. Also, make sure that if you are submitting through withoutabox (which most festivals will require), your film's profile is engaging and complete, as it makes it much easier for festival programmers to organize and identify your film. Not to mention it’s a chance for you to write something original and really grab the committees attention right from the get go.

Something else that you can do (once your film has already screened at a few festivals) is attempt to have other festivals curate your film. In other words, rather than submitting blindly through withoutabox, e-mail festival programmers directly and let them know your film is having a successful festival run. Most film festivals are looking for at least a handful of popular films that they can curate, so once you've been accepted to at least a few festivals you can really use this to your advantage.

READ MORE: Tips for Getting Into Sundance and Other Festivals

The good news is that while it's exciting getting accepted into a film festival, festivals are no longer the only route to success for independent films. Today, being selected as a Vimeo Staff Pick is considered to be as prestigious or exciting as getting into a major film festival, and many careers have taken off after distributing work online. That said, festivals are still very much a part of the equation, and should always be considered when formulating your film's marketing strategy. If you can have a successful festival run, it will only fuel all of your other efforts (including an online push), and it will help immensely in getting it on the radar of more traditionally oriented industry professionals (like agents, managers and distributors), who will likely place a premium on those festival laurels.

Get out there and make the absolute best film that you can make. When it's just right, submit it to as many targeted festivals as you can (knowing that you will only get into a few, no matter how great your film is), and then leverage your success to appeal to more festivals as the year goes on.

11 Comments

  • Eric | July 11, 2014 6:18 PMReply

    I was one of the filmmakers who received your form rejection notice on withoutabox. Yes, it was a disappointment, and yes, it was full of all the same cliches (so many films, hard choices, yada yada) but what's worse is this new trend I see where a film festival is too lazy to even bother notifying you of a rejection. That is just a complete lack of respect for filmmakers and their craft. I'm a film festival veteran going back over a decade (had an award-winning film at Sundance 2002), and back then every festival that rejected my film actually sent me a letter (in the mail) to formerly let me know. Sadly, those days are long gone. I have had several of my rejections for my new film never even confirmed by the festivals, either by email or even withoutabox. How lazy is that? It's like getting spat in the face. Its a little disturbing to me that films made by small independent filmmakers who scrape together their life savings and pour blood sweat, tears, and life-long dreams into their work are treated like a disposable commodity in this way. If you are running a festival but do not have the respect and decency to make a formal acknowledgment to a filmmaker who spent time and money participating in your festival submission process, then you simply should not be running a film festival. Period. Perhaps we should compile a public list of festivals which do this.

  • Joe | June 25, 2014 1:24 PMReply

    Hi Noam. Would you say that your thoughts above could also be true for screenplay competitions (at festivals or otherwise)? I've been accepted to one, and was told I made the top 10% (top 100 of ~1000). That statistic was told to me over the phone though, it's not published anywhere on their site. Also, the list of finalists/official selections was not broken out by genre. So does that make my script an overall top ten 10%?

    I looked to the festival crew for feedback in ANY form... there was no one there. This is the same even for the screenwriters that won the competition. Just a huge mystery as to how I got in in the first place- the same script but in even a better version of it has been denied from at least six other screenplay competitions.

    I'm not railing against the system but now I'm on sites like Amazon Studios, hoping for a bite there. Just gotta keep rollin' the dice.

  • Uncle Buck | June 25, 2014 12:49 AMReply

    I think I'd like the writer to be a best bud, sat beside me when the rejections come in as this is a nice pick-me-up. Nothing new to see here, but a bit of lifting people's spirits has good intent.

    Have to take issue with the sentence that starts: "Festivals will always send out a rejection letter...." because we all know that too many festivals don't send rejections letters or even acknowledge submissions that aren't on WAB etc (and they only acknowledge there because they ain't getting paid else). I've never seen an article on any industry site that slams festivals for failing the test of good manners. Too many ignore filmmakers who were good enough to send in our films but we don't mention it. Why? Some festivals are damn rude - let's talk about it.

    Anyway, the missed point about online self-distro is that film consumption is now increasingly democratized. You don't have to be best buds with someone on the programming panel anymore and you don't have to be the youngest son of someone who has been in Hollywood for years. The industry will always have elements where being a great filmmaker with a great film is irrelevant and taking a high school class in 'mastering nepotism' would be more useful.

    We know that some people whose films are programmmed get programmed because of who Daddy is and/or because of the other thing no-one ever talks about: Star F***ing. Completely dishonest to deny those things are widespread.

    Not that it matters. Nowadays, we are all festival programmers and we can watch great work and engage with awesome filmmakers without leaving our apartment - online. If you make a good film, the most important people in the film business will be on your side. Thats the audience. They are all that matter or count for anything. The audience will give you more support than industry execs ever will. Now we can go to the audience directly, thanks internet, so relax and smile.

  • Laurie | June 24, 2014 2:52 PMReply

    There is no magic bullet for success. If there were, we'd stop writing articles because there would be one way and all filmmakers would follow that path. There's talent, hard work, connections, timing & luck. Just like in life, it's a recipe with many moving parts. Programmers are tasked with programming films that will be watched and enjoyed by audiences. To continue the analogy, if your film wasn't picked, there could be any number of reasons why, but blaming programming is like blaming an oven for a fallen soufflé. The chef makes the recipe and if its great, then the restaurant will do well.If the film is meant to be successful, it will find its audience in one of the many methods of distribution.

  • jeremyw | June 24, 2014 1:07 PMReply

    gadfly - I think the point is that having high numbers of viewers/fans potentially gets you further down the road of making more films, having more audience, quicker than waiting around for festival recognition. they both have value, obviously, and the filmmaker will decide whether laurels and/or tons of viewers is a fit for their project. more and more I'm astounded at the success I'm seeing from various random YouTubers building their audience/career all on their own.

  • Gadfly | June 24, 2014 1:59 PM

    Hi Jeremy,

    I agree to a certain extent, but it really comes down to what kind of audience/career the filmmaker wants to have, or more specifically, each filmmaker's personal definition of success.

    Indiewire is a website that is driven by traffic, so to a certain extent, its business model is based on the number of people who click. A positive, enabling message is always going to be easier to deliver than one that is based on difficulty and hard work. What I dislike about this article is that there is little new here to necessitate an article. It's the kind of thing people skim for amusement, but seems to rarely actually help people.

    As far as various random youtubers, it's still early in the game, and no doubt some of them will build significant careers. That will always be based on hard work and suffering though, which it would be nice to emphasize a little more than "don't have hurt feelings."

    Ultimately, the fallacy in your logic, and the difficulty of being a filmmaker, is that it's not always the filmmaker who decides whether they have laurels and/or tons of viewers. The programmers decide for the laurels, and honestly, through their influence on distributors, marketers and the like, often the number of viewers a film receives as well. Staff picks is also curated; if it wasn't, it would have no meaning. Also, is there a filmmaker who doesn't want laurels and/or tons of viewers? I don't feel that this is a valid argument.

    It all comes down to what kind of careers people want to have, and whether the material they make is strong enough to find an audience, whether that's at festivals or not.

  • Gadfly | June 24, 2014 11:01 AMReply

    Here's a wild question; has the author of this post ever screened a film at a major festival before? Does this article come from any actual experience or is it rather speculation, or worse, self-promotion?

    Of course festival rejection will hurt, particularly for the top festivals. A rejection doesn't mean people should quit, but it's ludicrous for someone to equate staff picks to Sundance. Those festivals are coveted for a reason. Staff picks has chosen 8,000 pieces of content in the last 6 years; Sundance has chosen a few hundred. By virtue of scarcity alone, in a world piled high with mediocre content, those laurels still mean a lot. So it's ok to mourn when you don't get in, just don't stop making things.

  • Tom | June 24, 2014 3:00 AMReply

    its all well and good saying ' submit it to as many targeted festivals as you can' but when its wokring out to be $25-50 a time that all adds up as money spent for nothing. festivals that charge a premium should at least send a few sentances about the film as they reviewed it, at least give out some feedback

  • JULY | June 23, 2014 6:13 PMReply

    Having attended many festivals in several capacities (filmmaker, programmer, jurist, boyfriend) I would argue that "another film already selected cover[ing] a similar theme or subject matter" helps a new filmmaker get their work programmed.

    Complain as we will about festivals, most of them take their work seriously and that means putting thought into individual programs. More than one -four, as it happens -programmers have told me that they'll find themes that stand out within a year's submissions and build around them. Sometimes it starts with one or two films as centerpieces.

    This also explains why some choices may be puzzling.

    It does reinforce the point that a rejection may not have anything to do with the quality of the film but the work's fit in the grand scheme of the festival.

    Ultimately, of course, it's a matter of taste -which is a good thing. Otherwise, every festival would be a carbon copy of Sundance or Cannes or other high profile showplaces.

  • June | June 23, 2014 5:20 PMReply

    If there are so many great submissions, then how come so many crappy films end up being programmed? So many festival reviews on this site are so-so or worse, and I've attended quite a few shorts programs where I've left the theater puzzled by some of the choices. And I'm not a filmmaker myself, so please don't take this as sour grapes. I'm genuinely curious about how this process works.

  • Brian | June 24, 2014 5:09 PM

    That's actually pretty easily explained. Your taste differs from the programmer's. I am one, and I've seen some things at some festivals that I didn't like at all and I know I like some filmmakers whose work has a limited appeal. I've also programmed some things that are obviously less than perfect because of local interest or because I think people will enjoy watching the filmmaker grow (assuming there are future films from them).