You’re sitting in front of your laptop. It’s 2AM, and you’ve just gotten the forty-seventh rejection email from a film festival you entered your short film into. Depressed, you slump and lay your face on the keyboard, questioning why you ever thought you could make a movie.
I feel you. I’ve been there.
It’s not because you’re a terrible filmmaker, though. There are many reasons why your short film (or feature, for that matter) didn’t make the cut. These include the state of the industry, the nature of festivals, and reality as a filmmaker.
State of the Industry
The film industry has fundamentally changed in the last twenty-five years, but how filmmakers treat film festivals has been slow to follow. See, back in the old days, there were few filmmakers and far fewer festivals. Festivals were the only platform to get your work seen and advance your career. If you had the money and gumption to get a decent film made, chances were it would find its home at a large city fest. You’d get a good review in the newspaper and people would flock to your website.
Just kidding—you didn’t have a website. No Internet, no YouTube, no Vimeo. The only way to show your film was to carry around a reel (or several reels) of celluloid film and spool it into a projector. In a room. Get the picture?
Once the digital revolution began around the turn of the twenty first century, filmmaking became democratized and anyone could make a movie. That’s great for people who wanted to become filmmakers, but it had an unintended consequence: A glut of films. This is especially true nowadays, with DSLR and even iPhone filmmakers around every corner. (Full disclosure: I love DSLR filmmaking.)
In response to this massive influx of shorts, more and more film festivals popped up everywhere. They receive hundreds and even thousands of entries every year, but can only program a handful. You’re lucky if the under-staffed festival has more than one over-worked judge watch your short on their laptop during their lunch break. Your film, no matter how good, can easily get lost in the sea of other sorta-good shorts. Your feature could screen at several large fests and still never receive a distribution deal.
Because there are more films and more fests, the role of the festival has taken a back seat. Creatives now receive more buzz by going viral than they do by touring with festivals. That’s an important truth to compare with the indie boom of the 1990s. Even though fests are harder to get into, they won’t make or break your career like they did in the analogue days.
Conversely, your film could just be bad. Listen—I was there too, and I can tell you that you’ll get better.
Nature of Festivals
There are many other variables at play with a festival. Besides only having a few slots for your short, they often have certain criteria about the films they accept. For example, they prefer films that are less than ten minutes long because it’s easier to program a group of shorts together that way. Your thirty-five minute experimental sock puppet drama might be revolutionary, but they’ll have to turn down five other films just to accept yours.
Also, the bigger fests sometimes like to pick films that go together and put them into themed screening groups. Perhaps your action film got turned away because they received several romances, and they’d rather create a group of romance shorts that play well together rather than randomly show your action film by itself.
Finally, each festival has its own personality. Your film could be spectacular, but if it doesn’t fit the feel of that festival, then they’ll turn it down. I’ve been told multiple times that I shouldn’t submit thus-and-such short to festival XZY because it won’t fit the atmosphere of that film festival. Sometimes taking a chance can pay off, but more often than not, your entry fee goes down the drain because you didn’t properly target your masterpiece to festivals that fit your film’s genre, themes, or tone.
Reality as a Filmmaker
Ultimately, your work itself will speak louder than how many festivals it gets into. While most film festivals are legitimate, they aren’t very “important” within the “industry.” Your grandmother will be thrilled when you win Best Student Film at the Podunk Film Festival, but most professionals won’t care because it ain’t Cannes, Sundance, Venice, Toronto, or Berlin. Even if you win a Student Oscar or Emmy (good for you!), you still have to leverage that opportunity for your career. Awards don’t equal success or even artistic merit.
I’ve gotten into over a dozen festivals, but none of them are important enough to make a huge difference. It’s like a pat on the back; everyone enjoys accolades, but unless it leads to a gig, it doesn’t mean much. Be more concerned about making an excellent work of art than winning imaginary awards. That’s the reality of being a filmmaker.
P. S. Don’t go broke submitting to 150 festivals. It ain’t worth it!