How to Pick Which Festivals to Submit to (And Get the Most from Your Submissions)

By Brennan Tilley — Lead Programmer of Calgary Underground Film Festival and CUFF.Docs Documentary Festival and Shorts Programmer of Calgary International Film Festival

When talking to filmmakers about what festivals they are submitting to, I too often hear that they have exhausted their submission fees budget on one or two months of festivals. It is a waste of time, energy and money to submit to festivals that are not appropriate for the film. Once the submission fees budget is spent filmmakers forego submitting to festivals that could be a great fit for the film.

With a little bit of effort and planning it is easy to better target festival submissions.

FilmFreeway Resources

I suggest first taking advantage of features of FilmFreeway. Through sorting and filtering filmmakers can craft shortlists of festivals based on deadlines, popularity, reviews, categories accepted, entry fees and more. I recommend not being too focussed on impending deadlines. This can be a shortsighted approach leading to submitting to festivals that are soonest rather than best for a film. However, it is important to keep an eye on deadlines in order to not miss an opportunity to submit to a festival a filmmaker is targetting.

In addition to filtering and sorting, FilmFreeway offers curated lists. MovieMaker Magazine annually selects “50 Film Festivals Worth the Entry Fee”. The list on FilmFreeway includes current and past selections of this list. The staff of MovieMaker Magazine consider factors such as percentage of selections from submissions, networking opportunities, panel and workshop quality and opportunities for press coverage. They also realize that not all festivals can be considered on identical criteria, instead judging the festivals on how they succeed on what they set out to do. Seventy-five festivals that have been included on MovieMaker’s list accept submissions through FilmFreeway.

There are also curated lists based on attributes of the film. If looking for festivals to consider a horror film, check the curated selection of twenty festivals with an emphasis on horror. There are similar lists for sci-fi and documentaries.

Similar Films

If there is a film you love and played to audiences similar to who would want to see your film, you should submit to festivals where that film had success. For example, AMERICAN EPIC SESSIONS won two awards at the Calgary International Film Festival. The website for the film lists screenings and awards. The films also won two awards at Tryon International Film Festival and an audience award at Sydney International Film Festival. It premiered at BFI London Film Festival. Additional selections include Nashville Film Festival, SXSW, Melbourne International Film Festival, NorthWestFest, Bueno Aires Film Festival and Sedona Film Festival. These would be great festivals for a similar film to submit to.

Research the Festivals

If there is a festival that you are considering submitting to, check the festival’s website for past selections. This will give the best sense of the programmers and audience’s tastes. Our archive for the Calgary Underground Film Festival covers the past eight years of our main festival and the full history of our documentary festival. Tags and categorizations allow one to drill down on what films are played. This indicates that less experimental films are programmed than at other “Underground” Film Festivals and that dark comedies are well-represented. Festival websites will usually also list several years of award winners. Audience awards are particularly useful as a barometer of what an audience at a given festival responds to most positively. The best festivals know their audiences well and program accordingly.

Programmer Advice

Lastly, as your film is invited to festivals develop relationships with the programmers and solicit advice. This is very useful for your first few festivals. Programmers follow the success of films they select. They will know which festivals that follow are most likely to program a film. They may even be able to put in a good word for you with their friends at other festivals.

There is no perfect science to film festival submissions. Hopefully with these few tips you can focus on suitable festivals and increase your chances for selection.

Brennan Tilley is Operations Manager and a Lead Programmer for the Calgary Underground Film Festival and its documentary offshoot CUFF.Docs. He programs shorts for the Calgary International Film Festival. He recently completed a four year stint as President of the Calgary Cinematheque; he chaired the Cinematheque’s Programming Committee for six years. Contrary to rumours, he has not recently watched his VHS copy of the Chevy Chase classic Funny Farm.

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