What film festival directors really think

1 September '13 18 Comments on What film festival directors really think

film festival directors surveyIn the last instalment of my Film Festival Survey, I offer the thoughts of film festival directors from around the world. My previous posts looked at how many festivals there are and the economics of running a festival. They were largely presented as charts and graphs of statistics.

In total, 523 film festival directors shared their thoughts, providing 14,862 words of commentary. Below is a selection of their thoughts.

The key messages are:

  • Film festival directors are just like filmmakers
  • A great story is the most important factor in picking films
  • Cinematography is the next biggest factor, along with good sound
  • Every festival wants your film to be shorter
  • The smaller festivals are crying out for better films
  • Festivals expect the filmmakers to market their own screenings
  • Press kits and fancy packaging won’t help your chances of being selected
  • Better subtitling and sound will
  • Festival Directors really don’t like Withoutabox

Running a Film Festival is Just Like Making A Film

About one in four of all the comments included the phrase “labour of love” and the overwhelming feeling I got was that of hard work in the pursuit of great art. This passion was indistinguishable from conversations I’ve had with filmmakers over the years.

bergen-international-film-festival-norway-740We rely a lot on volunteers, individual contributions, and arts funding. We are obviously not in this for the money, and work hard at supporting filmmakers as best we can.

It’s harder to run a festival than make a film. Both are thrill rides with backbreaking work involved

You really don’t need much money or time or any clue about business or marketing to run a small film festival- the audience will find you. But you do need to love film and be able to take chances and tell stories that mean something to you. i guess running a film festival is like making a film.

Most festivals really care about filmmakers and make extreme efforts to honor them. It is their creativity, imagination and hard work that enables a festival to be top notch. Storyline , storytelling, pacing, editing and a RESOLUTION are keys that make films worthy.

When the glitz and glam are stripped away, it comes down to this: Have filmmakers shared a compelling, well-crafted story with us? Is the audience going to leave our festival theatre changed in some way?

It’s not easy to do this! Our fest is mainly fueled by passion until we can get more support via grants, sponsors and donors. I’ve personally sacrificed more than most people would even think about to pull this off every year, yet when we have filmmakers come in to our city, and really enjoy themselves, grateful for the honors we’ve bestowed, and move on to bigger and better things because of their experience with us, it makes it all worth it.

Behind The Curtain at Film Festivals

"Amour" Premiere - 65th Annual Cannes Film Festival

Our average selection rate for films is 5%. This isn’t much different from most festivals.

The programmers and directors make almost all the decisions during the judging process. Even in the so-called juried festivals/competitions the programmers and directors guide the selection process. Juries are social and often very unfocused and the real work and selections are made by staff. It’s really the only way the process can function.

Some categories go unentered and if they would have submitted they could have placed by default. The categories we’ve had the least amount of entries in are student films, foreign films, and animation.

Press kits are never looked at

The numbers of people drawn to the festival as an audience is always disappointing.

Film festivals book shorter films in so as to get a higher total of films in their festival overall, and therefore more people overall.

If you submit to the big, big festivals and you’re not already ‘connected’ or on the inside with someone at the festival, your film won’t be screened. The top tier festivals have a small network of friends and associates that program their films first, based on the names of those in the film.

The shorter your movie and the closer your footage was captured to the proximity of the festival, the better chance you have of getting into the festival.

Advice for filmmakers entering festivals

Chris Jones

Submitting a “Work in Progress” is not in a filmmakers best interest as whatever is view is judged as a finished product. The evaluators cannot envision what the final product will look like the way the filmmaker can.

The earlier you send your film in, the better chance you have of selection

Always label the DVDs with name,address, phone number and if they submitted via without a box the number they get when doing so. I can’t tell you how often we get films in DVD form with nothing on them where the envelope it arrived in gets separated from the DVD and we are left trying to figure out how to get in touch with the filmmaker

If you have an online screener, you should write to the festival directly after submitting and ask if they’ll accept it in lieu of sending a DVD. Most will accept it.

All of your packaging, dvd cases, postcards, marketing materials, is thrown away immediately after pulling the DVD out.

Sending an email solicitation about your film to Film Festival programmers is not an effective way of getting your film on their radar.

Good written synopsises are helpful

Please send your films in the best quality you have. Too many are sending low res or not-well-encoded video files).
Cover letters accomplish nothing.

We love to have representatives from the films in attendance!

English-speaking filmmakers should know that most international film festival programmers abroad are not all native speakers of English. Subtitling your film in English (even if English spoken) might be a good idea when sending your film abroad, especially if film relies on dialogue.

If you could say one thing to filmmakers…

The overwhelming feeling was positive, although there were some comments that seemed to come from years of frustration with filmmakers. I’ve added a selection of both kinds below:

The sense of entitlement seems to correspond with shittiness of movie.

Filmmakers need to be more proactive about promoting their films after they have been selected. We as the festival can only do so much as we need to promote the festival as a whole. Filmmakers can promote via social media or hands on by putting up posters themselves if they can attend the fest. Another way is they can reach out to media sources themselves, radio is usually looking for content and local news love to do interviews with a community arts slant. We as festival directors sometimes don’t have time to set that all up when the festival is in full swing.

Festivals like premieres so stop bragging about other festivals you’ve gotten into. It’s not a positive for us.

Festival organizers have an entire festival to promote. Unless your film is the opening night or closing night film, then expect to do the vast majority of the work yourself to generate an audience for your screening. If you do not engage in audience building for your screening, then you are very likely to be disappointed in the attendance for your film.

Once accepted in a festival, filmmakers must make sure one of their screenings (if you have more than one screening) sells out. You have to promote your screening(s) like a mad person. Use the screening itself as a reason to promote your film to anyone who’ll listen.

We are on your side, but follow the rules.

One of the things that irritates me the most is a film maker asking for a fee waver, and listing 20-30 film festivals they paid to enter before they considered our festival.

Out of the all the features we show, only one or two ever come from submissions.

People forgive bad picture, but they don’t forgive bad sound.

Bear in mind that smaller festivals are likely to be under-resourced/overworked and cut us some slack!

Read the guidelines properly. If a filmmakers film does not meet the criteria it will not be watched.

Stop asking for fee waivers. Seriously, please stop. More so, stop asking for waivers and then send us an angry response after we politely declined the opportunity to consider marketing your movie for free

Keep end of film credits short and be easy to contact

Use a large font for subtitles

Most entries could do with another edit

Making a movie with practically no money and resources today is an expectation rather than the exception. Absolutely no one is impressed anymore by anyone who made a movie on a shoe string budget in a limited amount of time.

“Shorty, where’s my razor?”

About half of all the advice to filmmakers was about the length of their films. And the results are in….

  • 0% = “Please can you make longer films”
  • 100% = “Please, please, please make shorter films”

If you’re intending to make a short film, timing is of the essence! Short films that are over 25mins are incredibly difficult to programme into an event, and longer ‘short’ films have to be very VERY strong in order to make it through.

Filmmakers are long winded about their subject matter and shoot themselves in the foot, so to speak. Knowing how to tackle and get to the heart of the subject matter is the key to brilliant filmmaking.

Festivals only program movies which entertain and enthuse their audience. Ultimately, it is a cardinal sin to bore them.

Filmmakers often think that 10 minutes isn’t long enough for their film. Audiences often know that 10 minutes is too long for a first film.

Make your film shorter– 5 minutes or under and it will increase its likelihood of being selected.

Advice for other film festival directors

If you’re thinking of starting your own film festival here are a few pointers from the guys already doing it:

Have a large contingency fee, have a bigger volunteer base than you think you are going to need.

Very hard to interest official bodies unless you’ve been doing it a while.

Running a Film festival is a huge work with lots if volunteers and a financial struggle but its worth it cause films get a wonderful audience in very crowded cinemas

It is MUCH harder than it looks (or would seem that it could possibly be), but can be really interesting and rewarding to make it worth the effort. Also, the first year is the hardest.

1. Know your audience 2. Publicity is everything 3. Partnerships are KEY

Go in managing your festival as a hobby, have a regular full-time job, and work like hell, and you will have a successful event.

Vital for success: Organizational Skills Funding other than tickets or entry fees. Stability in terms of graphic arts, web site, PR, volunteer support. Financial and entry selection integrity. Clear delineation of roles and responsibilities. Minimal sponsor control. Make it enjoyable for Everyone

You need a good five year plan and you must see it through. It takes time for events to get on people’s radar. So keep plugging your event and use social media!

It’s a highly competitive space, with film festivals on very often in our city. Arts funders are not often interested in supporting us, because of the amount of film festivals in our city, and the local council and larger sponsors find us too small. Difficult to capture the market sometimes

It’s better to do a small festival really well than a large one poorly.

Sponsorship pays the bills 1) Treat them well 2) Don’t let them dictate the rules of sponsorship 3) Have a solid, reasonable sponsorship program 4) Ensure they get their monies worth 5) Follow up with them afterwards You have to be consistent in organization – you must be polished, even if you’re a casual festival

You can run a good festival on the cheap as long as you put a lot of effort into it. You need to build good partnerships and treat all the filmmakers and distributors with respect. It is a lot of work but very fulfilling

The public loves a Q&A with the director / crew – they really like to get involved!

Sponsorships for a film festival are very hard to get, and once you get them everyone wants a say in what they think would make the event great.
Set up a good supporting group before starting a film festival.

It takes a certain combination of passion for cinema and championing filmmakers, and a suicidal death-wish to create and run a film festival, particularly in the current global economy.

The movie theatre business has been turned on its head, with local, independent theatres being devoured by big corporate chains. This makes finding affordable, available venues more difficult.

Raising sponsorship is the hardest aspect of all. To find someone who will sponsor the event, even though its profitable, is virtually impossible.

Screening films rarely make money, it’s the add-ons such as Festival Lounges where audiences can purchase sponsor supplied alcohol, food, etc, that help our festival break even.

It’s a long, stressful and complicated process, but totally worth it.

Test the equipment, test the films to make sure everything runs well, make sure the lighting and microphones are operating well and the cues are worked out with the technicians.

Lack of money

In a previous post I showed how very few film festivals are making money, with many struggling to survive year on year. A number of respondents mentioned that they didn’t want to charge submission fees but felt compelled to by the economic realties of running a festival.

We know people don’t like paying submission fees, but without them our festival (and I assume many others) would not be able to make ends meet.

There seems to be a huge chasm between the prominent and monied festivals (Sundance/SXSW) and the majority of festivals that struggle with small budgets. There seems not be be a large “middle class.”

Don’t think you will make any money running a film festival.


Many festival directors commented on Withoutbox. Here a few of their thoughts:

WithoutaboxThe WAB software interface used by festivals/competitions is difficult and often doesn’t work well.

If there were one piece of advice I would give a beginning film festival promoter, it’s avoid Withoutabox like the plague.

Film makers often don’t realize that WAB deducts a very big percentage of the entry fees paid by the filmmaker before passing on the remaining entry fees to the festivals/competitions. Festivals and competitions often absorb the costs of WAB mistakes to keep the good will of filmmakers rather than try to recover the costs from WAB.

We stopped using WAB this year after 8 years because we felt that for the number of entries, it wasn’t worth what we were losing to them. including our package fee and the 18% cut per entry, we only took home about 57% of our fees, to get about 350 entries.

We would like to accept online submissions but we can’t afford WithoutaBox.

This year is our first year using WAB and we decided to do so simply because we thought it would increase the number of submissions. It hasn’t worked out that way. We couldn’t afford to set up the account as ‘no fee submission’ so we set a nominal fee. The fee has discouraged submissions (I think) but our film festival is now publicized more within the filmmaker community.

Withoutabox is the ugliest monopoly in the festival scene, and they keep your entry fees artificially high. Before a festival has even received a single submission, they’ve already spent thousands on Withoutabox for basically an entry system that hasn’t significantly improved in years.


Each festival director will have had different experiences and consequently their opinions will vary greatly. This article includes many quotations from film festival directors; some are contradictory and I’m sure that every festival director who reads this will find at least one comment they vehemently disagree with.

I have done my best to pick quotations that reflect common themes in the responses and I have favoured thoughts which are helpful to the most people (i.e. leaving out ones that are specific to a particular city, etc). I’ve not edited the text, save for things which improve readability.



  1. Regarding this statement “Festivals like premieres so stop bragging about other festivals you’ve gotten into. It’s not a positive for us.” Wouldn’t festivals, esp the ones who state they don’t require a premiere want to know if you were programmed in other places or if you won say an audience award (as our film did)? So they’d know your film was having some success? Not talking about bragging – just information.
    Michael Medeiros
    Tiger Lily Road

  2. Yes, it is funny in a way, but maybe it’s a piece of sage advice as well.

    No festival wants to feel like they are the last girl seated, waiting for a dance.

  3. Good article,
    I agree with “Without a Box” being rubbish.
    As both a filmmaker and Festival director I avoid it if I can.
    I used http://www.reelport.com for my first festival (Hollow Earth London Documentary) Film Festival.
    Its like WAB but smaller, run by a German organisation and they are very good to work with.
    Screeners are good quality and if you have a problem you can easily contact them to sort it out.

  4. Great article. I’m so sad to hear about WOB, since for filmmakers it’s been a huge help. Maybe a cheaper alternative will pop up some day.

    1. Hi Evan,
      Filmfestivallife, Filmfestplatform, Filmfreeway (more US), Reelport (already mentioned, more for Europe) & Shortfilmdepot are just a few alternatives to WAB. Some submission portals even have their own blogs with interviews with filmmakers talking about their experience with festival submissions. There are also portals that organise submissions for you (for a fee of course) and who run workshops at festivals etc…it really is worth checking out for a filmmaker. I definitely will be handing over this aspect to someone for my next work. It takes up a lot of time from the creative stuff. That said, I’m glad I went through the whole process and learned by doing before deciding to outsource next time.

  5. Thanks so much for these – very interesting and really made me laugh, particularly the relationship between entitlement and shit. It would be really interesting to hear from the filmmaker’s side on what are the real benefits of festival exposure. Thanks again, Mark.

  6. Hi,

    Thanks for this post- clearly a lot of effort went into it.

    Entitlement vs Quality is also an interesting quirk. It must be that those who can’t take criticism will ultimately never improve.

    I would like to add something from a film makers perspective (I was a significant contributor to one of the films submitted in the Horror Festival).

    I completely understand that festivals need fees to stay afloat and I certainly would NEVER ask for a waiver. However, we have worked hard and long on a feature movie and when we hand over our fees to multiple festivals, the very least they could do is acknowledge that they have watched it and won’t be using it. To hand over your work and so much money in fees and then never hear anything back is pretty soul destroying. If we’re paying a fee, we should at least be acknowledged.

    1. AMEN! Far too little respect with a large number of festivals out there. We’re not asking for in-depth reviews of the films, or some kind of apology. But the least a festival can do is email the submitter to say, “not this year,” before they find out in a public announcement of lineup.

      1. @Token

        Exactly! And I’m pleased to say that The Guild were brilliant with us. They responded to emails and let us know we didn’t make it. Can’t ask for more than that!

        All other festivals: pay attention to these people!

  7. This was very informative, to have a high chance of being selected to film festival make it 5min and under. Send film in as early as possible. All packaging and promo materials are thrown away..thats funny.

  8. There is a lot of good advice for filmmakers here. However I think that some of it should not be taken too literally. There are festivals for example, who do waiver fees from time to time, but I believe that it is a bit rare. I also believe that not every festival expects filmmakers to sell their own screening, but I do not think that anyone would object if they did. Marketing 150 films is a big task, so of course you can’t sell out for every screening.

  9. Thanks for this article, Stephen! Some really great insights here. I agree 100% with the comments about shortening films for live action because you normally have a lot of footage and can cut away to the heart of the matter. For animation it’s trickier because animation is more tedious work than filming so while I agree that in the end phase an editor can always snip off a couple of frames to keep the pace going, animation filmmakers shoudn’t be going in with an already completely cut animatic. There should always be planning to animate a few more frames than you think you’d need at the beginning so that you actually have something to cut at the end! I hope I was able to explain this. We experienced this with our stop motion film and wished we had animated more. Another problem was with sound mix. This is also a crucial point: we mixed it with lots of range in the volume. Some festival projectors did not anticipate our peak and thought the film was “too quiet” compared to other films in the programme so they raised the volume (a common mistake) and when the music came in it was too loud and totally distracting (not to the point of distortion, but still enough to disturb the viewers). What some sound designers or sound mixers do is to compress the sound file and make the peaks and valleys all a little closer to each other in volume (normalisation) so that such mistakes don’t occur and noone touches audio faders in the projection booth! Other tactics are (in well-prepared festivals) to make a couple of technical notes for the projector.
    This was a long comment…but I got so excited about sharing what I’ve learned and learning from others here! 🙂

  10. Many poor director already put lot of money for film festivals gold box. They have taken money smoothly, but after that rarely they have even reported rejections. I think I’ll take a few pictures of cheerful people in a group photo and set up a film festival myself, because it would be nice to get some money – no any risk with that. Money love honey and honey love money – and this philosophy no not need original nature at all. Good, because soon we will have not it.

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