What Festival Directors Really Think

Film Festival surveyStephen Follows (Blog) contacted 5,000 film festival directors, asking them to fill in a quick anonymous survey about their experiences.  523 festival directors completed the survey. Following is the third of three articles Stephen wrote about the results.

In the last installment 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-740“We 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.”

“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.

“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. Absolutey 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”

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.


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.


About Winter Film Awards

Winter Film Awards (WFA) is a volunteer-run and operated celebration of the diversity of local and international film-making. Our Mission is to recognize excellence in cinema and to promote learning and artistic expression for people at all stages of their artistic careers with a focus on nurturing emerging filmmakers and helping them gain recognition and contacts to break into this difficult industry. We pride ourselves on our diverse collection of Festival selections, allowing our audience to enjoy films they normally wouldn’t think to seek out. WFA is a minority- and women-owned registered 501(c)3 non-profit organization.

Posted on September 11, 2013, in Film Festival Tips & Advice and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

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