Reel Truth: Why Was My Film Not Selected?

By Jon Gann, founding Board Member of the Film Festival Alliance

Your film is great. You did everything right — precise and natural writing, strong performances, enveloping production design, and stellar technical work — and still the rejection letters outnumber the official selections. What went wrong?

Nothing.

As a filmmaker, it is critical to understand what goes into programming a festival. You probably believe (like I did when I made films) that festivals show the best films they receive through their submission process or watch while visiting other festivals.

For many reasons, that is not how it works.

Ultimately, final selections need to be much more than “great.” Besides being very subjective, it’s not a realistic criterion for which to choose. Programmers are under a great deal of pressure to meet (and exceed) the expectations of their audience, marketing department, and potential funders.

For most festivals, programmers consider all of these points:

1. Is the film truly excellent?

2. Is the film told in a unique way, or with a fresh point of view?

3. Does the film appeal to the festival’s core or niche audiences?

4. Does the film allow the programmers to challenge their audience?

5. Is the film marketable to new audiences?

6. What is the premiere status?

7. Does the film fit into the festival’s schedule and time constraints?

8. Does the film play well with other films?

9. Does the film repeat the same story or theme told by other films?

10. How does the film fit into the overall zeitgeist of the festival?

11. Has the filmmaker been previously supported by the festival?

12. Does the applicant come across as smart, resourceful — and polite?

Notice that the quality of the film is only a small portion of the equation? It’s because “great” is not good enough.

It’s All About the Audience

Without an audience, festivals would have nothing: No one to watch the films carefully selected and slotted; which leads to no sponsors to reach those audiences; which leads to no funders to support festival programs. If a film is screened in an empty cinema, did it really play?

I would venture that appealing to a festival’s core or niche audience is more important than being a “great” film. Over the years, festivals build their audiences based on what was previously screened. The more the film appeals, the more likely an audience member will return — and encourage others to do so.

For example, think about your favorite restaurants. We all have a few usual spots where the food may not be stellar, or the setting may be a little dingy — but we go nonetheless because it’s comfortable. You know what to expect, and you get what you want.

The same holds for festivals. The films may not all be award-worthy, but audiences attend for the experience. The primary job for every staff member and volunteer is to create an experience — a singular mood that permeates every aspect of the festival, from the big picture items (films, parties, seminars, filmmaker lounge) to the mundane (merchandise, transportation, ticketing). The key to building this experience is how the audience appreciates the films.

Programmers must consider if a film is a good for their current audience. Do they appreciate historical dramas over dystopian sci-fi? Are they more likely to attend a smart comedy or a crude one? Will their audience sit through a short program that is 60, 90, or 120 minutes long? All of these factors play into selecting films that programmers know will go over well — and sell tickets, and bring press, and further the festival experience for others.

But just as important is selecting films that challenge the audience. Most festivals are driven by their mission to not only show the comfortable, but to spark conversation through films that are contrary to community standards, or bring new information to light. Finding films that take a jab at complacency — in an appropriate tone that will be openly received and, hopefully, embraced by the audience — is an art form in itself. Not only does it rely on a programmer truly understanding their audience, but it requires the programmer to know which lines can be crossed, how far over they can step — and how many times it can be crossed.

Does your film have the capacity to reach a new audience? Audience building is expensive and arduous. Festivals don’t have the benefit of a multi-million (or even multi-hundred) dollar marketing campaign behind your film. Their marketing and PR efforts are limited by the amount of reach they can generate on limited budgets, and even more limited media space (blogs, newspaper coverage, broadcast reviews). When programming films to attract new audiences, the festival makes a deliberate investment of resources — time, money, and reputation — which may be more reliably spent on the “known.”

Finally, what will the premiere status be when the film screens? Very few festivals require a World, North American, or U.S. Premiere, and those that do are usually the big markets/festivals that dominate in the minds of most individuals. Some regional and local festivals require that they are the first to show your film in their community. However, the majority of festivals could care less about premiere status, but would prefer films that have not played their town in the past month or two. While any festival would be proud to host a major premiere of your film, and some use it as a major factor for selection, the importance of a premiere is usually more important to the filmmaker than the festival, and rarely of interest to the audience.

Moving Forward

If there is only one point I can get you to remember, it’s a catchphrase I have been using for many years: There’s a festival for every film — but your film is not for every festival. Truly understanding what this means and giving into its logic will not only help you develop a festival strategy that is appropriate for your film, but will save you years of heartbreak on your journey.

This article only touches on some of the factors festival programmers consider when selecting films. Future installments of Reel Truth will tackle the rest — and more. But I need your input. The plan is to turn Reel Truth into a regularly-blogged advice column, with input from myself and dozens of festival directors and programmers. Please send your questions to ask@reelplan.com and I will respond to as many as I can over the next few months.

Check out Part 2 of this article here.

Jon Gann is a force in the film festival world, having created, consulted with, and fostered dozens of events around the globe. He has authored two books about festivals and programming available at festbooks.com, juried dozens of events worldwide, and has presented at over 120 universities, film organizations and film festivals worldwide. Jon is a founding Board Member of the Film Festival Alliance, and consults with both festivals and filmmakers through his firm, reelplan.com.