If you’re a young or first-time filmmaker, there’s probably no better way to get exposure for your project (and for yourself!) than having your film screened at a big film festival.

But getting accepted to screen at these prestigious gatherings are becoming more competitive every year. So what can you do to increase your chances?

It might seem obvious, but much of your film’s success will depend on its quality. It’s imperative that you start by making sure you’re submitting the best version of your film; the version you screened to family and friends beforehand and incorporated their brutally honest feedback. Beyond that, here are some of the fine print to look out for to increase your chances when the next round of submissions opens up.

Ask yourself: Is my film a fit for this particular festival?

Worldwide there are almost 10,000 unique film festivals. From the best-known like Cannes, Venice, Toronto, Berlin and Sundance, to hundreds of thousands of smaller festivals scattered across the globe. Before submitting your film to a particular festival, make sure you do some thorough research as to what type of films they usually screen. Do the programmers primarily focus on documentary features? Or is the festival specifically aimed at showcasing new indie horrors? Closely examine any film festival you’re considering submitting to and ensure your film will fit into their likely line-up. If you have any doubts, rather not submit your film to that festival at all.

Read, understand and follow the festival’s rules and regulations

Most film festivals exist for a reason, often to differentiate it slightly from other, similar festivals. That’s why many go through the painstaking process of setting up their own specific rules and regulations. Unfortunately, many filmmakers seem to completely ignore this important document before submitting their film. “You won’t believe how many phone calls and emails we get from filmmakers who obviously haven’t read our rules and regulations,” writes Elliot Grove, independent film producer and founder of the London Raindance Film Festival. “To have a legitimate query is another thing altogether, and we, like all festivals, welcome those calls. However, some filmmakers never spend any time researching the profile of the festival they are submitting to, and then complain bitterly of why they weren’t selected.” Always make sure you study the festival’s rules and regulations and incorporate it into your submission to avoid annoying the programmers.

Submit your film as early as possible

Even though you can submit your film at any point during the submission period, it would be beneficial to do it as early as possible. (It’s normally cheaper, too.) The longer you wait, the harder it can be to land one of the coveted slots on the program. Understandably, the people responsible for compiling the final list of films to be displayed at the festival will need to watch many, many movies and short films before making their final decisions. They will likely begin to view and assess films long before the end of the submission period. Slots will be filled quickly and the competition for the remaining ones will become more intense. Just make sure you’re happy with the final version of your film before submitting. Never rush a production to completion just to meet a festival’s deadline. There will always be next year.

Tell the festival programmers why they should consider your film

It’s not enough to merely submit your hard work and hope for the best. Similar to applying for a job and attaching a cover letter with your resume, filmmakers need to make sure festival programmers take note of and understand their submission. If you can, send materials about why you think your film will be an ideal fit for their program; tell the organizers why the attendees to the festival will be an ideal audience for your movie. Try to qualify the kind of attention your film could bring to the specific festival you submitted to. Remember to be enthusiastic but not pushy. And don’t make it about you or your life story; the focus should be on the project and why it should be considered above all the rest.

Make sure you complete your submission details thoroughly

It’s hard to believe, but filmmakers often submit films without sufficiently completing the submission forms. Programmers often complain about filmmakers submitting forms omitting contact details, or important information like the film’s aspect ratio or genre. “These submissions can’t be considered,” explains Elliot. “They go into the ‘incomplete submission form’ pile where it won’t be watched.” Elliot confesses that matters are made worse by the fact that filmmakers don’t return their calls when they chase them for the missing details. “I can’t tell you the number of times I have to email, telephone and leave messages; call other members of the crew trying to reach a producer or director. Sometimes I just give up and we won’t screen the film,” he adds. “So please fill in the form. If you don’t know what a term means, why not try Googling it?

Submit your film the right way and in the correct format

It might seem archaic but many smaller film festivals still prefer filmmakers to submit their work on physical DVDs. However, some of the bigger festivals like Sundance and Toronto have modernised to digital submissions via platforms like FilmFreeway and Withoutabox. If you do submit your film on DVD, make sure the disc arrives without any scratches that might hinder its playability. Don’t overcomplicate your disc with elaborate menus or playback gimmicks — just let it play automatically. Also, make sure to test the disc on multiple players beforehand, including a computer and different commercial DVD players. If your disc can’t play on the day the programmers want to view it, it will undoubtedly end up on the rejection pile. Should you go the digital route and submit your film via a streaming link, be sure to use a protective platform like Screener Copy to protect it from the potential threat of piracy. However, don’t visibly watermark your film with overlaying text like “festival copy” or “for your consideration”. It will merely distract the programmers.

What if you’re not accepted?

Don’t be discouraged. Film festivals literally receive thousands of entries with only have a handful of slots to fill. David Brawley, a programmer at the Cucalorus Film Festival, explains that thinking your film is bad only because it didn’t get in is like “leaving a grocery store and saying everything you didn’t buy in there is terrible. That’s crazy, right?”. Many film festivals, including the Tribeca Film Festival, also allow resubmissions the following year, if you’ve made significant changes to your film. So all hope is definitely not lost.

Now it is time to go forth and submit your latest film to as many film festivals as possible. With confidence.

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