One of the many milestones of an emerging filmmaker is to have a project accepted into a film festival. It’s one of the first moments when your work is considered to be objectively good.
The milestone that filmmakers really aspire to is acceptance to a prestigious festival, like Sundance, Cannes, SXSW, and TIFF. An official selection from that group will put a filmmaker into the upper echelon. Acceptance doesn’t guarantee an established career, but it will prove to yourself and others that you can make successful art.
The problem is that there are so few festivals, but mountains and mountains of films to be accepted. The submission process is extremely difficult, and it requires consistency. I’ve put together a list of nine steps below to help new filmmakers overcome the difficulties of festival submissions.
Step 1. Take writing and/or directing courses and workshops.
Learning is a great start, and I don’t necessarily mean film school. There are great programs out there to get you started with real-world instructors and situations. Writing and directing courses can build a fantastic foundation, and workshops can be really effective if you have a script or an idea that you’re trying to work through. The generic platforms like Udemy and Skillshare have great foundational courses, but illustrious organizations like Sundance and Raindance also offer courses to the public.
Step 2. Write your script.
You have to do the work; there is no shortcut to this. It’s very easy to get stuck on Step 1 and remain stagnant in the continuous process of learning via classes, books, seminars, and workshops. As you complete each one, you will have a feeling of progress. This feeling can be misleading. The hard work is creating your script, and then being vulnerable enough to share it with the world. This is the leap of faith you must take. No matter how many masterclass videos or YouTube clips you watch, you’re only a filmmaker when you’re making your film.
Step 3. Leverage script-coverage services.
A secret to grounding yourself is to send your completed script to a script-coverage service. This is a paid service in which your script will be reviewed, and you will be provided with detailed feedback. I live by this service, because it can be hard to get completely unbiased feedback from even your most professional friends. By having a third party review your work, you will get an honest assessment of what your skill level is, as compared to other writers in the industry. A few great script-coverage services are We Screenplay, Screencraft, and Script Reader Pro.
Step 4. Send your script to script contests.
After working through your feedback notes from script coverage and getting your screenplay to a really strong place, it’s important to gain more exposure. A script contest will pit you against some of the best screenwriters out there. The goal isn’t really to win (but it’s great if you do!); rather, think of it as field research. It will allow you to either humble yourself or affirm how talented you are. It is a real-world assessment of your writing abilities, and it will help show you where you are—but, more importantly, how far you need to go. Some great script competitions to apply to are Slamdance, the Nicholl Fellowship, and Screencraft.
Step 5. Submit your film to film festivals with feedback options.
Few people know this, but there are specific film festivals that provide detailed feedback based on your film submission. This works as script coverage, but instead of just the script, you’re getting feedback on your whole film. These are usually film festivals with a little less notoriety, but they have the time and resources to give you really good notes. A few of these types of festivals are Lift-Off Festival, Short of the Week Festival (for short films only), and Rochester International Film Festival.
Step 6. Submit your film to indie or regional film festivals to gain experience.
Globally, there are about 3,000-4,000 festivals running on a continuous basis throughout the year. Sundance may be the end goal, but it is really beneficial to leverage some of the regional and more indie festivals first. The benefits are getting to know your local filmmaking community, getting to know the festival organizers, and just enjoying the energy of a film festival. At these film festivals, the experience of getting selected is a great learning experience—or a valuable lesson in being humbled if you’re not accepted.
Step 7. Take writing and/or directing courses and workshops… again.
You must repeat this step to really be successful. Steps 4, 5, and 6 should be repeated in a loop until success, because the goal is to build a growth ideology. The pipe dream is to submit your first project to film festivals and automatically be considered—and while this does happen occasionally, I’d argue that this position puts you at a disadvantage. Enjoying the growth journey of improving yourself is much more advantageous than being so great from the start that there is nowhere to go but downhill!
Step 8. Find and connect with festival organizers.
Connecting with festival organizers may be considered to be a bit controversial because it could come off as spamming or disingenuous. However, if you approach it with a sense of connecting with people sincerely, then it may be helpful. Much like applying for a job, submitting an application to a website blackhole is a lot less effective than knowing and networking with people in the industry whom you’d like to work with. It’s the same with festivals. As you build your network, connecting with people who make the decisions behind the scenes at festivals will be advantageous, not only for getting a leg up in the submission process but also to know beforehand what the judging panel will be looking for in a film.
Step 9. Submit your film to the premier festivals… when you’re ready.
This is the final step in the process. At this point, you should have built up your portfolio of film, learned from successful and/or failed attempts, learned and relearned techniques to develop your skills, and built a network that includes some film festival organizers. You should now be ready to submit your film to some of the best festivals out there. However, you can’t rely on just a simple submission. Leveraging your contacts, the press, and the team of people behind your project will help you build fanfare and momentum. We sometimes forget that the main objective behind submitting to any film festival is to get ticket sales. So, if your film has some momentum behind it, then the odds of your film getting selected will be much greater.
There you have it! The nine steps it takes to get your project into a film festival. It’s not an easy or quick task, but remember that the film festival itself shouldn’t be the goal. The steps above are a good primer to build a career in film that you will enjoy. If you’re selected to be a part of film festivals, whether big or small, that’s really just the icing on the cake!