Film Festival Strategies

By Greg Pak

So you’ve finished your short and want to show the world.
What to do? As you know, there are a few giant film festivals which everybody’s desperate to crack: Sundance, Telluride, Berlin, the New York Film Festival, Toronto, Montreal…
    Of course you should enter all of these huge film festivals, particularly if your ultimate goal is to get an agent, sell your screenplays, and make feature films. These are the festivals the big and small cheeses in the industry go to and talk about; it’s a great place to make a splash.
    Do not agonize for more than half an hour when you get your rejection letter from Sundance. Sundance and these other giant festivals are not the be-all and end-all for independent films, particularly for shorts. Nor is getting into one of these festivals any guarantee of your film’s ultimate success — I’ve had friends who have taken their short films to Sundance and had little business result.
    There are dozens, even hundreds of decent venues for your short film. Any one of them can provide you with the exposure and contacts you’re looking for to further your career. And all of them can give you that all-important experience of seeing your film screened before an audience other than your family and friends.
    This point is worth emphasizing: you should jump on chances to screen your film not only for self-promotional purposes, but also because seeing your film screened will make you a better filmmaker.
    Furthermore, I’ve often find that excellent experiences and business contacts come from the festivals or screenings for which I’d had low expectations. More and more cities these days have tiny micro cinemas specializing in independent films and shorts — if all of your expectations have centered on Sundance, you might have ignored these venues. But screening at small local venues can be invaluable, introducing you to a community of local filmmakers, programmers, and film buffs.

So where should I submit my films, you ask?

I’d recommend reading the festival listings in “The Independent,” the magazine of the Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers. On the west coast, the Film Arts Foundation has a similar magazine called “Release Print” with even more extensive listings. Indiewire regularly posts festival deadlines; if you do an online search for “film festivals,” you’ll no doubt come up with many other resources.
    As you’ll quickly see, there are hundreds of festivals in the United States alone. Your next task is to decide where to send your film.
    I have a few criteria I use.

First, submit to the big fests.

You never know.

Second, submit to strong second-tier fests.

There are a number of well known festivals which, though not as huge as Sundance, are excellent places to show shorts and get a little attention. I always submit to South by Southwest, the Austin Heart of Film Festival, the Shorts International Film Festival, the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival, the AFI Festival, the Hamptons International Film Festival, Slamdance
    Clermont Ferrand, a shorts festival and market in France, is a great place to get screened — short film buyers from around the world pick up films there. And other filmmakers tell me that the Aspen Short Film Festival is an incredibly fun place to screen a film.
    For documentaries, the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival, the DoubleTake Film Festival, the Yamagata Documentary Film Festival, Cinema du Reel, and the Margaret Mead Film Festival are good choices.

Third, places you like.

There are a few festivals which have shown my films in the past, which I enjoyed attending, and which I just plain like. Just because they know me is no guarantee they’ll accept my future films, but I like these folks, so I’ll always submit to festivals like Cinequest and Film Fest New Haven.

Fourth, the appropriate specialty festivals.

I always submit my film to any specialty festivals which are appropriate. Many of my films have Asian American content — I always submit them to the many excellent Asian American festivals around the country. Do some digging around and you’ll find festivals which specialize in everything from Native American films to gay and lesbian films to nature films to underground/subversive cinema to digital art to dance.
    I’ve found that some of the best festival experiences, particularly for short filmmakers, can come at these specialty festivals. These festivals often are run by idealists whose agenda is to celebrate their community and support their filmmakers. It’s a nice feeling, being celebrated and supported.
    Specific recommendations:
    If you have a gay or lesbian themed film, by all means submit it to the San Francisco International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival Since my short “Po Mo Knock Knock” played there, I’ve received emails or letters of interest from at least a half a dozen other interested festivals.
    I’ve had great experience at almost all of the Asian American film festivals — for contact information, visit the Filmmakers Network page.

Fifth, places nearby or where you have friends.

I look for festivals I can actually attend (or which friends and family can attend). I live in New York, so I tend to submit my films to just about every venue I hear about in the five boroughs, no matter how small. As I’ve pontificated above, there are huge benefits to seeing your film in front of an audience. I’m also more likely to submit to festivals in places like Texas or the Bay Area — places I have loads of friends and family.
Sixth, places with prizes.

By Greg Pak

Whether a festival gives prizes is an important consideration, particularly if you have a film like a documentary short or an experimental film which can fit into a less competitive category.
    Here’s the way I think about it:
    The vast majority of shorts submitted to festivals are fictional narratives, dramas or comedies. So if there’s a general competition category for “Short Narrative,” the number of films competing is enormous. Now, many fewer documentary shorts and experimental shorts tend to be submitted. So if there are separate categories for experimental or documentary shorts, your statistical odds are simply better. It may seem cold and calculating, but if you’re weighing the worth of coughing up another thirty bucks for another festival entry fee, a little cold calculation may be in order.

4 thoughts on “Film Festival Strategies”

  1. Thank you for an informative and encouraging website!\I am curious to find out more about working at a festival. Do you know how to approach that one?
    Looking forward to hearing from you.
    Thanks and kind regards,

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