Making A Movie: The Vagaries Of Film Festival Submission

"Making a Movie" is a series of columns that chronicles our attempt to make, market, and distribute a film with Stephen Tobolowsky in 2014I decided early on in making The Primary Instinct, that I would want to submit it to film festivals as parts of its roll-out strategy. Not only do festivals provide an amazing platform for publicity, word-of-mouth, and potential acquisition, but I also love the culture there. From the few festivals I've been to (Sundance, SIFF, IFFboston), I've always felt like the air is electric with anticipation and excitement for quality cinema. It would be a huge honor to be a part of that in some way.

But submitting to film festivals is no easy task. There are pages and pages and pages of rules (much of which I'm guessing is meant to weed out those who don't follow directions exactly), and tons of documentation is required. After the jump, you'll find a few things I learned about the festival submission process.

Most film festivals use Withoutabox to accept film submissions - Withoutabox is a festival submission system that's kind of like the "Common Application" was back when I was applying to college – one application that can be used for many festivals. Like the Common Application, Withoutabox festivals often also require you to submit a supplemental form, either through their own site or through Withoutabox themselves. So, one concrete benefit of creating an account and using Withoutabox (aside from it being a requirement to submit to many festivals) is that you only need to do the bulk of the work (filling out tedious submission forms, etc.) one time.

It should be noted that some major festivals such as SXSW do NOT use Withoutabox and have their own submission system. Always check the festivals you are planning to submit to, to see what system they are using.

Most festivals hate Withoutabox - From what I've heard, festivals' grievances are primarily a result of two things: Withoutabox's demands for exclusivity (although my understanding is they have recently loosened restrictions in this regard), and the fact that their online screening system is a disaster. There are other factors too, like their apparently poor customer service support and the fact that their website hasn't seen any major updates in years, but those are the primary issues.

In the example of Sundance, you're allowed to submit your film one of two ways: a Blu-Ray/DVD disc that you mail in, or a Withoutabox Online Screener. When I first saw these options, I thought to myself, "Of course I'm going to use the online screener! Why wouldn't I? There's no possibility the disc will be lost in transit or damaged, and I'll know for a fact that the festival programmers received it. Right?"

Turns out the Withoutabox online screening experience is terrible. Firstly, they don't do 720p video, or at least, they don't do it reliably. Every single festival programmer I've spoken with has described how the video watching experience on Withoutabox frequently stops and stutters, and apparently the compression they do on the videos makes it look awful. It's not an ideal way for anyone to view a film, let alone a person who may help decide the film's ultimate fate.

Festivals dislike Withoutabox so much that there's a substantial-sized Facebook group against it, as well as a dedicated website for explaining why it's terrible. Alternatives have also sprung up recent days. That's why I decided to mail in physical discs, which allow you to exercise more control over how people experience the film (assuming they arrive intact).

Vimeo is your friend - Many festivals are now using Vimeo as their platform of choice to do online screenings of films. And why wouldn't they? Vimeo is awesome. Movies on there look amazing and it's fairly reliable. But I was recently advised that even if a festival uses Withoutabox and doesn't require a password-protected Vimeo link, you should send one to them anyway. This way, you can explain, "if anything goes wrong with the DVD, here's an online link where you can view the film in its entirety..."You should have a website for your movie - If a festival programmer likes your film, they may want to learn more about it so they may search on the internet for the film title. It helps to have a decent-looking website. Right now, goes to our Kickstarter page, which I think is a solid point of entry for anyone wanting more background on our project. But in the days to come, I will probably use Squarespace to put together something basic and professional-looking. You don't talk about Fight Club - As I've been blogging about this entire process and tweeting/Facebooking about it, I've realized: most filmmakers don't really talk/blog about the film festival submission very much. I suspect there are many reasons for this. Firstly, I don't think people want to be seen as publicly criticizing festivals in any way. In fact, the very act of writing this blog post may put me in disfavor with some festivals. I earnestly hope this is not the case, as my point is not to bad-mouth the process but cast some light on it for people who might have no idea about it.

But secondly, and probably more significantly: it's probably just a bad idea overall, from a politics standpoint. If you publicly blog about who you've submitted to, you are instantly telegraphing to other festivals that they may not get to premiere your film, and most festivals prefer some kind of premiere status (World, North American, East Coast, etc.). Secondly, if you broadcast to everyone that you've submitted to a specific festival and you aren't accepted, everyone will know about it. It's like telling people you are applying to Yale. Sure, it's cool to reach for the stars, but when you don't end up there next year, everyone will know you failed.

All that being said, I think it's good to know about other people's failures; I think it makes our own failures feel less significant and substantial. So while I probably won't be blogging too much about the film festival process again until after we've completed the bulk of our run, I will try to share as many insights as I can from the process, including everywhere we've been rejected from. I hope it helps.


So, what do you think, film festival people? Is any of my advice off base or does it all jive with your understanding of things? Feel free to share thoughts in the comments below. As a side note, I also found this article from /Bent to be helpful.

You can find past issues of this column by clicking here.