Still from Waking, Ben Shelton dir
Films arrive at film festival offices in all manner of packaging and processing. Of course, the best films always rise to the top. But there are always more films that programmers want to play than they have space to play. If you are clicking ‘Submit Now’ sometime in the next few weeks, it’s probably too late to do much to change the quality of the film you are submitting, but you can affect the overall impression your film makes when it arrives. This is true not just for our festival, but for all of them. Although preferences vary from programmer to programmer, I’ve put together a list of easy fixes or warnings to keep in mind when you send your film in. Some of these suggestions are obvious, but in many cases, they may actually be counterintuitive. Always check with the festival’s website (especially their FAQ) to see if their advice differs from ours, but here are some simple tips for getting your film out the door.
1) Set up your DVD (or BluRay) to first play your film. There is nothing more tiresome than a ‘splash’ screen announcing your film title on a cartoon marquee or giving the viewer the choice between watching the trailer or the film. You would rather have us watch your film than your trailer. Don’t even distract us by having to click PLAY on a menu screen to start the film. All DVD burning software should have the option of making the actual film file, the DVD’s first play. If you’d like to include a trailer or cast list, you can always have the disk set-up to go to the menu after the film finishes.
2) Don’t waste money or packaging space (and thus increased postage) on sending a lot of additional material with your film. Most festivals will not have time to read your past reviews, director’s statement, bios of your gaffer etc. If they’ve asked for it specifically then sure, but most of the time, all that paperwork will be tossed aside. If you are entering through Withoutabox, that information is included automatically anyway in your online press kit for a festival to look if they so choose.
3) Do, however, send a cover letter. There is a chance that no one will read this of course, but this is your one chance to let someone know something about your film that isn’t obvious without watching it (or even after). Sub-thoughts about the cover letter:
- It should be short. Think one paragraph, 4-6 lines total (not sentences). The length of the letter is inversely proportional to the chance it will be read (i.e. long letters hurt my eyes.)
- Do address someone by name (do your research, find an actual person at the festival to send the letter to – even if the package is opened by an intern, they may think you know that person. Certainly it looks better than ‘Dear Film Festival Programmer.’)
- If you are a festival alumni – put that in there. Seriously. You would not believe the number of people who forget to alert a festival to the fact that they’ve already screened there.
- If you are local to the festival, let us know. Every festival wants filmmakers to come and present their films, and if you are more likely to do so, they want to know it. Some festivals have specific programming sections for local or state films, and may even receive grant money based on how many of those films they program. Of course, don’t lie. Also, only include your local status if you actually live there. Also, no extra points are given if your key grip is local.
- If your film was shot locally, include that information. This can be in connection with the above, but not always.
- If your film would be a World Premiere, put that in there. Some festivals care about that sort of thing. Sometimes it matters more for features than shorts.
- If your film played a Major Festival, put that in. Major festivals are things like Sundance, Tribeca, SXSW, Toronto, Berlin, Hotdocs, Cleveland, San Francisco or Seattle.
- That’s it. You shouldn’t have to explain why/how you came up with the idea, or what it all means, we should realize the message of your film from watching it.
4) Don’t send the Programming Team an overload of emails. A majority of the questions we receive have very simple answers that can be found on the FAQ on our website. Questions like ‘when is your final deadline’ have answers posted several places on our website, on Withoutabox and on several other websites. Looking at our FAQ will save you some time.
5) I know that there is a temptation to email every other festival every time your film gets accepted somewhere – don’t do it. Unless your film was a potential World Premiere and now is not, letting us know might not help you. Every festival wants to discover new talent and be an important stop on a filmmaker/film’s journey. Major festivals might not be interested in your film if it has already played a number of small ones. [note: this is somewhat different for a smaller festival, which might encourage them to make sure they watch a film rather than have someone on their screening team watch it.]
6) Choose your World Premiere carefully. It may not be in your best interest to play the first festival that accepts you. You only get to World Premiere once. If you get an offer from one festival but would really rather play another (and later) festival, contact the festival you want to play. The worst thing they can tell you is they are not ready to make decisions. If anything, it might make them watch your film faster and make a quicker decision. When your film plays a large festival, it can lead to invitations (and even waivers) from other festivals.
7) Don’t distract the viewer with over-whelming watermarks. You want a screener/judge to get lost in your film, not constantly be reminded that it is ‘Property of.’ If you feel you have to use a watermark, make it small and in the bottom corner and only come up for thirty seconds every ten minutes. Anything longer might make you seem like an overly paranoid filmmaker.
8) If you are sending a “work-in-progress,” let the viewer know. It may have been in your cover letter, but often those are separated from the film before the screener/judge receives it. Put it on a title card right at the open of the film, let the viewer know what work is left to be done.
9) Don’t use fiber-filled envelopes. They are messy and get all over the office. They are impossible to open and may even end up all over your DVD.
10) Finally, send a DVD if at all possible. Even better, if the festival will take it, send a Blu Ray. Withoutabox has made it very easy for filmmakers to mass-enter film festivals, but consider the quality of the file you upload to these sites. Is it really capturing your film the way you want it to be seen? If possible, at least find a way to send an HD version (like a private link on Vimeo or YouTube). More importantly, a film that is available online can really be watched two ways, by a person sitting at a desk at a computer monitor, or by a person with a lap top (or tablet) on their lap. Again, is that how you want your film viewed? If you send a DVD or Blu Ray, it might be watched on 52” TV, sitting on a couch with a bowl of popcorn. Some programmers may be able to watch stuff off the internet on their TVs, but don’t take that chance. [Incidentally, if you are readying this as a list of recommendations... I can watch HD streaming internet files on my huge TV. I use chromecast. It changed my life. But for two years I couldn’t.]
I hope these recommendations help. If you have already sent your film to us or another festival and broke some of these guidelines, don’t worry about it. Remember, the main thing is your film should be good. These other tips merely help a programmer to be rooting for you before the film even starts – because we all want every film to be the greatest film we’ve gotten that year. We all want to play your film. We want to be the ones to discover a brave new talent that will come back to the festival year after year with new projects and build an audience.