So you plan to submit your short film to film festivals -- want some advice that will give your film a better chance at being selected by programmers? You might just have to go back and re-edit your final cut after reading this. Here it is, the juicy must know info every filmmaker should be aware of before sending out screeners.
My scriptwriting professor and mentor, Bonnie O'Neill, shared this with me when we were submitting La Vida Loca to film festivals and now I am happy to share it with you.
Anonymous Advice from a Short Film Festival Director
Why anonymous? Because I assume you want the truth…
Many years ago, I founded a successful medium-profile film festival, which I still direct. And I am a long-time filmmaker, so I understand many of the questions, frustrations, and fears when entering a film festival. Below is advice to short filmmakers who hope to get screened. Mostly, it’s what not to do.
Make your films as short as possible, which is usually 25 percent shorter than you believe they can be. Cut out nearly everything that does not move the story forward or give us more insight into its character(s).
The shorter the film, the easier it is for a festival to program it. Every screen minute is valuable real estate to a festival. For example, if your film is 30 minutes long, it is taking up nearly half of a short film program. Three other films could fill that time. Of course, every year, we get about one 30-minute film that really does command that time, but it is a rare and difficult choice.
Every year we also pray for some really short films: under 4 minutes, because they provide a variety of pacing in our grouped programs. We receive way too few of these films; so if you want to get into a film festival, make a really fast, short, fun film. Really short films also program better for festivals that program all lengths of film, because they can more easily pair your short before a suitable feature. Often, short filmmakers are younger and are in love with their own new craft but neglect to consider their audience. Again, cut everything that is not necessary.
How can you make your film instantly shorter? Cut down your graphics. Long opening title sequences are very annoying to a festival programmer. We often fast forward through them, and once we’ve done that we’re more likely to forward through other parts of the film (sorry…). Ideally, the only front credits necessary are for the main title and if, on the rare instance, you have someone involved with the film who is very well known (a prominent actor, for example.). Filmmakers often believe that because they have chosen a piece of music for their titles, they should fill the entire song with graphics: wrong. Also, production company credits (especially logos) are completely unnecessary, and honestly, when we screen a film, we cut them off when possible. Their branding interferes with the screen graphics of the festival. Most of your titles should be reserved for end credits, and ideally they should not be longer than 30 seconds; again, this is valuable time to a festival, and honestly, we have sped up slow graphics and truncated their music (sorry…).
Get to the story faster. Honestly, our festival does watch every film is receives; however, we do not watch all of those films fully. Usually, a film has about 3 minutes tops to grab us: sometimes less. When we watch a film, we imagine ourselves sitting in the theater as a dubious ticket-holder. We want very little down-time for our audience to doubt why they spent their money. Slow openings to short films are difficult to watch. You need to establish the film premise, ideally through immediate action. There is an old valuable film phrase: “into the pot already boiling,” which is also how you best place pasta in water. Clichés of exposition are deadly. The ones we see most often are: a character waking up to an alarm clock or a character talking on the phone.
Other “Don’ts” for your short film: We rarely program a film with potty-humor (perhaps we’re snobs, but likely most festival programmers are more mature…). We are tired of ninja and zombie films. We worry legally about films that use easily recognizable (pop) music. In fact, music in general is a problem. Canned music (especially reverberating pianos) is a turn-off, as is well-known public domain classical music. Usually truly background ambient music works best. For whatever reason, we get a lot of films that are obviously shot in color video and then reduced to washed-out black-and-white; attempts to recreate film noir through video are difficult. In fact, it is often impossible to suspend disbelief in a short film format to accept any historical period shift, because there is usually not enough time or production value to pull it off.
Another problem we see is filmmakers entering projects that are not appropriate for a film festival. A primary example of this are television pilots that are obviously episodic and mainly (wacky) character-based. We screen films with stories and/or revealing character relationships within an arc.
Almost nothing kills a film more than bad acting. If you are not using trained professionals and haven’t found the next “natural,” we suggest that your actors do less. As David Mamet would suggest, have your “actors” only do those things necessary for the action of the film. Tell them to “bring it down a notch” and not attempt to emote with their faces; often an audience can fill in with their own emotions. Character reaction shots, including eye-rolls and sighs, are painful to watch (sorry…).
Some practicalities. If your audio dialogue recording is not good, nothing else in your film will matter. Titles and subtitles should be sized for large-screen projection, not for youtube. If you are entering via DVD, do not use a main menu; festival programmer want to pop your film in and watch it immediately (we suggest no color bars or slates as well). Test your DVD before sending it; we often receive blank ones. If there is time, we do contact filmmakers for replacements, but sometimes we are considering your film the day before we have a deadline. Protect your DVD in shipping; they really can crack. We don’t care about film marketing packaging; we care about what’s on the screen. We discard all entry packaging and organize DVDs into our own logging system. We’ve heard that other festivals do like packaging, but we can’t believe that your effort wouldn’t better be served on the actual content.
Tricks. We are constantly asked for entry fee waivers and have a policy not to grant them; however, every once in a while a filmmaker will properly play on our sympathies. These can include a charitable project or an entry from a remote country, so you may want to give it a shot. Send your film in twice. It is deceitful and we see it a lot, but with so many entries, it is often difficult for a festival to delete redundancies. You have a chance of getting your film reviewed by different screeners. Do not give up if for some reason you missed shipping your film by an entry deadline. Most festival entries go through one corporate online entry system. Although you paid for your entry, the festival does not get the money until they receive your entry; therefore, it is in the festival’s interest to accept your film even if its receipt is past their deadline. If you do get accepted into a festival, you have an “in” with them for life. Many festivals will grant waivers to their alumni, often in perpetuity : )
Apologies if this article seemed negative. As a festival programmer, these are the things we often wish we could say to a filmmaker, but we must maintain our goodwill and demeanor toward the community. Good short films have genuine and unique insight. The above only hopes to grasp more purely at that amazing potential.