1. Do your research.
First of all, get the idea of ‘Sundance or bust’ out of your head. Facts are facts, and the fact is that less than 1% of the thousands of submissions get accepted to Sundance. Which is not to say that you shouldn’t go for it – the festival still is one of the Meccas of indie film and rightfully so. But set your sights beyond the obvious choices to find the real gems that might fit your film.
Think about what your film has to offer, and start from there. Is your film set in a particular location? Is it addressing a particular subject? Is it catering to a particular audience? Research the festivals that might best fit that description.
2. Make it easy on the programmers.
You’d be surprised how many entries and submissions come in to festivals I’ve worked at that are unmarked and unpaid. Make sure your online and/or mailed application is all good to go; don’t leave it up to the programmers to chase you up for your missing DVD or online screener. They’re busy as it is, and the least you can do is make sure your materials are all in order and labeled correctly. Festival entry fees should be a crucial part of your budget from the start; don’t leave yourself scrambling to cover them once your post-production is done or your festival strategy will be over before it begins.
3. Establish a relationship with the programmers.
Start with your local festivals, or check with your filmmaking friends who may have a friend who’s a programmer. Or else stop in and deliver your DVD in person if you’re near their offices to say hi. Be courteous, not pushy. Have your film’s 30-second pitch memorized, but don’t pull it out of nowhere unless the programmer expresses interest. Remember, filmmakers approach them all the time so desperation won’t do you any good. At the end of the day, they are cinema-lovers just like you and I and they’re simply trying to find the gems that will make their festival special – maybe your film can be a part of that.
4. Attend film festivals.
It astounds me the amount of filmmakers I speak to who have never attended a film festival, whether large or small. How can you be applying to be included in the short film program of a local festival if you don’t even know the kinds of films that festival has selected in the past? Start with whatever is accessible to you, mark those dates on your calendar, and make sure you attend. Stay for the Q&As and get to know the filmmakers if possible – they’re doing something right, after all. The shorts and features they have selected should at the very least give you an indicator of what they considered to be unmissable that year.
5. Craft a good film.
This last step is the most important one. Make your film one that you yourself enjoy and would pay money to see. Do your utmost to make it something you are honestly proud of. Festivals around the world vary in their submission processes, but they all look for something worth showing to an audience. At the end of the day, whether you are accepted or rejected hinges on a multitude of factors. Maybe your film was too long for the slot they were programming. Or maybe the programmers enjoyed it but they didn’t think it was the right fit for their audience. Regardless, it all comes back to your ability to craft the best film you can. Ff you aren’t in love with your film, why should anyone else be?
–Ana Souza - USC M.F.A. graduate in Film Critical Studies, Programmer at Outfest Film Festival, Producer at Scratch & Sniff Pictures.