As a festival director, I am privy to the general conversations that happen behind the scenes of the film festival circuit. Here, in our top-secret cabal (it sort of does exist…), we share the various ridiculous ways filmmakers ask for waivers or complain about rejections, we discuss the rise and fall of submission platforms, and we share tips on how to run better fests. I’ve learned a great deal from my peers, and I have shared many of my own best practices.
Not surprisingly, most festival directors want the same thing as filmmakers: the best possible experience for the festival attendees, both filmmakers and general filmgoers. It doesn’t do a filmmaker any good to screen at a festival for nobody… especially if they are making a trip out to the fest and interrupting their schedule. And fest directors know their audiences better than anyone because, let me tell you, if we program something they don’t like… they will tell us. I still hear about films I programmed 3 years ago.
I always tell filmmakers when they ask where they should submit their films to really think about what they want out of the festival. Do they want to attend a packed screening or are they just looking for another laurel to shove on their poster?
Which brings us to a topic that fest directors and filmmakers alike have a stake in: Awards Factories. What is an Awards Factory? Go on FilmFreeway. “Browse Festivals” and check the box “Online Festivals / Awards Events.” They have names that sound legitimate enough, like including “International Film Festival” in the title. Many even claim they have Live Screenings… but a quick jaunt to their website reveals very little about these screenings, where they are and what sort of attendance is there. So many of these events are First Year events, with no history. They will offer your film an ‘award’ and if you come out to the festival they will maybe play the film (beware if they don’t have a specific screening time) and then they will present you a certificate. Or they have trophies, but only if you pay for them… which is just plain weird. I’ve heard of a filmmaker wanting a 2nd trophy (like if you had a co-director) and offering to pay, that’s just fine, but either it’s an award or it’s not an award. Worst case scenario, you fly out for a ‘festival’ your film is nominated in, it doesn’t screen and you don’t win…. What is the point in that?
But let’s say you do win… who cares? These Awards Factories often say judging will be done by ‘industry professionals’ – who? Again, if they don’t list current or past juries, run away. Anyone who enters a script in a contest might claim to be an industry professional. And who are these awards for? Other festivals do not care how many awards your film has won – I swear, no one does. If anything, it looks to a fest director like you are just out in search of laurels, and thus less likely to attend the fest if selected – and every fest director wants as many filmmakers there at the event as possible--it adds greatly (obviously) to the festgoer's experience. Your average viewer is not going to care how many awards your film has won (that they have never heard of), they are going to judge the film on what they see.
So, filmmaker beware. Do your research. There are 5000+ ‘festivals’ out there. They are not equal.
And that’s not to say awards, as a matter of course, are not great. Obviously big festivals with great sponsors (or giant submission numbers) can give giant cash prizes and who doesn’t like that? I’ve read some negative comments about fests that give out a lot of awards (best score, best VFX, etc.) but I think that’s great, because it allows different films to shine for different reasons. And if they don’t have cash prizes, so what… you are still screening at a festival that actually screened your film and it seems to be more about the screening than the awards. Often programmers fall in love with their program and are looking for different ways to celebrate their program. Again, it’s always advisable for filmmakers to look into who is giving the awards… is there a jury? Who is on it? Our fest has three different types of awards – our Mary Shelley Award (which is given by a high-profile jury), our Best Short and Best Feature Awards (selected by audience vote), and the Cthulhies (voted on by the programming team). Because we have 10 programmers, all of who have different tastes, when a film wins 'Best Cinematography,' for instance, it really has to be a standout. I love seeing filmmakers brag about winning a Cthulhy in social media posts, but it wouldn’t mean anything if we didn’t screen that film before a live and present audience.
There are so many places you can send your film. I just encourage you to submit your film to festivals that are looking to give you something you can’t achieve otherwise. You want validation? Ask your mom. I’m sure she’ll make you a certificate, and it’s unlikely she will charge you for it. And please support festivals that are doing screenings. The cost of holding an ‘online’ event or just an awards ceremony is so minimal… so your submission fee is basically just going into the ‘fest’ operator’s pocket. My fellow fest operators and I are booking theaters, printing badges, paying marketing costs, designing programs, posters, merchandise, and doing everything we can to make your screening full and memorable.
This rant has been brought to you by Other Worlds Austin. Submit your film today… live screenings, awards with no certificates, some with cash, but not much. But mostly live screenings before cool audiences in full theaters.