Monday, February 28, 2011

What your festival submission should buy you

I'm not a newcomer to the world of filmmaking. I may not know all of the ins and outs of the festival circuit, but I know a lot of people who do. I've got one film degree to my name, and I'm only months away from my second.

I'm telling you all of this so that you understand that I am not naive. I understand a lot of things about festival submissions. I know the list of reasons why you might get rejected, and I understand that "your film isn't any good" actually isn't on the top of the list.

It's all a numbers game really, and I get that. I want you to understand before I go any further that I am not upset about getting rejected by a film festival. While I obviously think that my film is wonderful and amazingly programmable, I know that is my opinion and the judges thoughts might differ for any number of reasons.

I debated never really telling this story in public, and just complaining about it with my fellow filmmakers whenever we trotted out our tales of rejection for one reason or another. But I feel like it's important for filmmakers to have a voice about this topic.

Basically, I want to say what I think my check to a film festival should buy me.

What your submission fee does NOT buy you is simple. It does not buy you acceptance to the festival, just like a college application fee doesn't mean you will get into the school. For most festivals, the fee does not buy you any kind of feedback, not even a sentence explaining why you didn't get it. I'm okay with that, because I can commiserate with festival directors and how often they must get angry filmmakers calling them with death threats.*

So you aren't owed feedback, unless of course, the festival is DC Shorts, which shows each filmmaker their scores and judges comments. Several other festivals do this, and honestly it makes them more worth your time than other fests. We all do this so that we can become better at what we do, and feedback from strangers is the best way to do that.

I expect only two things for my submission fee to a film festival. I would like acknowledgment from them that my submission was received, so that I don't wonder if something was lost in the mail or if WithoutABox glitched. I would also like a formal rejection if I don't get in.

I know that the people who run festivals are strapped for time, and rely on volunteers and interns to get things done. I don't have any doubt about that. I'm not asking for a custom letter tailored to each individual, but a copy/pasted email (you could even BCC it to everybody at once, I don't care) that says, "We're sorry, thank you for trying, but we did not choose your film." You don't need postage, you need a minimal amount of time, and it would be easy enough to do. I bet there are some rejection letter templates online that you could use. Or heck, comment on this blog and I personally will write the rejection letter for your festival to use, free of charge, if you promise to always send one.

Why is this so important? Let me tell you about my experience. Last year, I made a short film that I am especially proud of. Because it is a bit of a niche film, and my budget for submission fees is very low (I've already spent twice the budget of the film), I mostly have looked to local festivals to find a place to exhibit the piece. I have submitted it so far to six festivals and I plan to send it to a seventh when they open in a few days.

I was rejected from the first one in January, and that was okay. I was upset about it, of course. Nobody is fond of being rejected. As I said before, it's a numbers game, and you're probably not going to get into the first place you submit to. So I waited. Mid-February, as I was submitting to another festival, I thought to check the status of my previous ones. I saw a note on WithoutABox that I was two days past the notification date for one of them.

I hadn't heard anything, good or bad, so I thought I would check their website and see if they had an updated notification date.

Instead, they had their list of accepted films. My film wasn't on it.

Again, I have no problem with not being accepted to this festival. That's fine. But it was a bit of a blow to not even be good enough to be told I wasn't good enough. What exactly was my submission check buying me, if not at least that small bit of communication? The first festival was actually a FREE submission because it was in my home state and they waive fees for residents, and they sent me an actual letter in the mail. But what makes somebody take my money and then never contact me again? It's like getting stood up for the prom or something.

I would have probably let this go, and assumed that maybe they mixed up my email or my letter got lost. But I ran into somebody from the festival office at an event a few weeks ago, and when they asked if I had submitted to them I said that I had but that I had never heard either way, trying to be diplomatic and not accusing them of anything. I was told that the DC Independent Film Festival does not send out rejection letters.

I'm sorry if it hurts their feelings for me to say this, but that is wrong. They should be called out for that and starting with 2012 they need to start sending formal rejection letters. I would say that unless they make a statement saying that they will do so, filmmakers should steer clear and NOT submit to them. They are not worth your money, you worked hard on your film, you've worked hard for your funding, and you deserve to spend it on a festival that cares enough about you to at least tell you "No thank you."

Save your money from DCIFF and send your film to DC Shorts instead, or any one of hundreds of other festivals that you can find that will at least respect you on a basic level.

*I am not exaggerating, sadly. Every festival director I've had more than a five minute conversation with has mentioned that they regularly get hate mail and death threats from filmmakers that they pass over. That is uncool, filmmakers. Don't do that.