The End Run

Why Don't You Play In Hell? (Drafthouse Films, 2014)

Avoid wasting time, effort, and a lot of money

Previously for The End Run, I wrote about sales agents and film festival strategies, but there’s more to the festival submissions process — particularly if you’re going it alone, without a sales agent — starting with knowing where to submit.

Know your territory

The first — and maybe easiest — thing a novice filmmaker/producer with a finished film can do is find and assess comparison titles for their project. A comparison title is exactly what it sounds like: a film that exists in a similar stylistic and narrative space to yours, to which you can compare festival performance.

Be realistic here.

If you aspired to make a coming-of-age, sexual awakening film, you could argue that you’re in the same space as Call Me By Your Name — but unless you have an A-list cast, a guaranteed massive festival launch, and sizable budget, you’d be better off finding something closer to your scale.

Once you do find your film, find out which festivals it premiered at or played. This is where you’ll start your submission process.

Beyond this, there are a seemingly endless list of festivals cropping up, and some great resources (such as FilmFreeway or FilmFestivalLife) to help narrow down your searches. These sites can, however, be a minefield.

Tread lightly

An abundance of new festivals are forming every year — especially in America — and while many do have the best intentions, if you keep your ears open you’ll hear the horror stories. The good news is that it’s pretty easy to spot a scam festival, even if you’re new to the film festival circuit.

Consider the festival’s track record. Many regional festivals offer great spaces to program your work. These events often don’t get the same media coverage as larger festivals, but they’re still places where your film will be seen by an audience of industry and film professionals.

So when you come across a festival that looks interesting — for instance, it takes place in the city where you shot your movie — see what kinds of films they’ve played in the past. A festival’s programming history is a good indicator of its promise, but there are pitfalls to look out for, too.

Spend wisely

Festival submission fees are an unfortunate reality.

There are ways of avoiding submission fees to certain festivals — including waivers (just ask, you’d be surprised) or directly submitting to programmers you may already know (making contacts is a good reason to attend film festivals, even when you don’t have a film there) — and internationally there are festivals that won’t charge you anything to submit a film (just make sure they accept international submissions). But if you want your film to play throughout North America, where many festivals are not subsidized by the state, you’re likely going to have to cough up a few bills. A festival is a major operation, one that requires a great deal of people and resources to organize. Submission fees help keep a festival’s staff paid.

What should be a cause for concern are incredibly high submission fees.

It’s hard to give an exact median number for submission fees (each festival’s fee is likely dictated by their status within the industry), but if it’s not Sundance, you shouldn’t be paying more than $100 for a feature. Compare the fees of several different festivals and narrow down to the ones you think will offer your film the best chance for a fair price.

Apart from submission fees, another red flag is the “awards festival” that preys on small films and naïve filmmakers with the allure of winning something. These festivals are a waste of time for the most part. This is related to another major red flag: festivals that invite your film, and then immediately begin pitching you their own services (like running your PR campaign) for an additional cost.

This is often a crushing process for filmmakers, so don’t make it harder on yourself. Keep the interests of your film at heart, do your research, and get your film out there.

Hey, while you're here ...

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Joe Yanick is a co-founder of Yellow Veil Pictures, a worldwide sales agency focused on arthouse and genre cinema. He has been published in Vice, Complex, and Cineaste.

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