How to Submit to Film Festivals, According to Programmers

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So, you’re a filmmaker with a completed project ready for the big screen. Congratulations! Now it’s time to figure out how to submit to film festivals. Whether you’re an established filmmaker with distribution already lined up or a newcomer finding the right audience for your film, festivals are a crucial aspect of the moviemaking industry. To get you started, we asked programmers from Sundance, TIFF, and more: What should filmmakers keep in mind when submitting their project to a film festival? (And for even more advice, check out Backstage’s Behind the Fest, which features in-depth interviews with the organizers and founders of festivals around the world.)

Find a story worth telling. 
We don’t program along thematic lines, but our program does reflect what’s preoccupying our cohort of global artists. They also reflect work that’s getting financed and made—and how the independent filmmaking community is imagining and creating its own future. When we encounter something new—a new voice, a new perspective, a new approach to storytelling—we know that we’ve found something special to support and share that with our festival audiences.... Independent film is both a craft and an art form, and it takes hard work and discipline and a willingness to take risks. Ultimately, you have to focus on finding a story worth telling, and a vision for how to do so—and then stay true to them. Kim Yutani, Programming Director of Sundance Film Festival 

Reach out to festival programmers for advice.
It’s important for filmmakers to not be shy about writing to programmers. I meet some people who say, “I don’t want to bug anybody,” but that’s our job. My job is to help you navigate this world. It’s to find new voices, and so every year there are. We need to put them together because there are some exciting stories. I think it’s important for people to reach out because it’s key and we are a community. Sometimes people think, “Oh, you guys are so busy,” but we want to work with filmmakers and support filmmakers, because that’s actually what we do...we’re all working together and it is a wider community. Diana Sanchez, Senior Director of Film of Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF)

Consider submitting to smaller festivals.
When submitting to festivals, do your research. Look at the programming of that festival and think “would my film belong here?” Don’t blow all [your] submission budget on the A-list festivals and ignore the smaller ones where your film probably has a better chance of being accepted. Kevin Monahan, Artistic Director of the Boston Underground Film Festival 

Audio can make (or break) your submission.
Challenging and innovative submissions catch our attention. When evaluating submissions, we are checking the normal boxes of technical proficiency (audio is so important) as well as narrative consistency. In particular for us, we are looking for stories that dive deeper into identity, and in particular, the unique multi-cultural identity of being [part of the] Asian diaspora. This doesn’t mean only dark, dramatic explorations, but also joyful, funny, and romantic moments. We’d love to see more genre work coming from the community as well. While we started as a film festival, much of our programming aims to meet Asian diaspora storytellers wherever they are. Wynton Wong, Programming Manager of the Asian American International Film Festival 

Familiarize yourself with the festival’s “vibe.”
We give each and every film entered into our festival equal and full consideration. Your film will be reviewed by two different people from our enthusiastic cadre of AAFF volunteers—folks who love and attend the festival and can’t get enough of the films we show. They are on the lookout for the AAFF vibe, range, and visual and philosophical aesthetic. We are an experimental and avant-garde festival, so we are looking for films that push the medium beyond the mainstream techniques, subject matter, and aesthetics. Leslie Raymond, Executive Director of Ann Arbor Film Festival (AAFF)

But don’t make something you guess festivals might want.
In terms of submitting to festivals and making sure that you stand out, it’s important to trust your own voice and your unique experience. We see a lot of films that don’t work because people tried to make something they thought everyone else would like, or they tried to kind of edit themselves, or they think something will be perfect for Tribeca. But they should make something that’s perfect for them. And that’s the stuff that we really do respond to, that has personality and uniqueness. Cara Cusumano, Director and VP of Programming of Tribeca Film Festival 

Consider what your film offers or teaches audiences.
We throw a wide net, in fishing parlance. We allow and are willing to cultivate visions. One of our areas is called “independent visions.” We have no issues walking outside the normal parameters. And we do! We are willing to look at films that teach us something, either teach us something technically or story-wise because of course it’s all about the storytelling—or a lot of it is. Something that stretches our limitations...that makes us stand in other people’s shoes. I think that’s really a big part of it. And not just trying to understand the human story but perhaps to understand different ways of presentation. Mark Famiglio, Co-Founder and President of Sarasota Film Festival 

Know which festivals encourage new filmmakers.
The one thing that we definitely look for is the perspective—even if a film may be a bit rough around the edges, but it has really clear insight into the LGBTQ experience, and really speaks to what we think our audiences will look to. There’s also, of course, emerging LGBTQ artists that may not have screened anywhere else. We definitely take [that] into consideration because we understand the robust platform that NewFest has to launch careers. Nick McCarthy, Director of Programming at NewFest 

Talent over perfection.
We’re trying to discover, expose, and promote filmmakers at their first or second film.... You are viewed by more than one person, and if we feel that you are a talented filmmaker, you get selected; otherwise you don’t.... We want every type of filmmaker and every type of budget represented in the lineup. So even if a film has maybe some weakness here and there, but we see talent there, we try to do the right thing.... When you have an opportunity, you evaluate it, one-two-three, and you take it. If you have a good movie, that movie is going to make it regardless of what you’re going to do. If that movie was meant to have a life, that life will explode sooner or later. Marco Ursino, Executive Director of Brooklyn Film Festival 

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Jack Smart
Jack Smart is the awards editor at Backstage, where he covers all things Emmy, SAG, Oscar, and Tony Awards. He also produces and hosts Backstage’s awards podcast “In the Envelope” and has interviewed some of the biggest stars of stage and screen.
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