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How Festival Programmers Select Films

We spoke to programmers at festivals big and small to learn how they evaluate submissions

November 4, 2019

GIF of cinema marquee with rotating names of film festivals

If you’re an indie filmmaker, finishing your film is only half the battle. Once the cameras stop rolling and your final cut begins to take shape, there’s still one last stage of post-production to think about: finding your audience. One of the best ways to find the right audience (and maybe even distribution) is by submitting to film festivals. But that process can feel daunting and shrouded in mystery. What exactly do festival programmers want to see? How can you get their attention and snag your film a slot in the festival line-up? We interviewed programmers at eight film festivals about how they pick films, what kinds of movies excite them, and why submitting your work might be the best thing you can do for your film.

Don’t submit until you’re ready

Many film festivals accept rough cut submissions, but that doesn’t mean you should submit your film before it’s ready. Programmers are happy to watch films that are still a little rough around the edges, but if you don’t feel fully satisfied with your work, it’s unlikely festival programmers will either. “Don’t submit your project until you have a cut that you’re proud of,” recommends Adam Montgomery, senior manager of programming at the Sundance Film Festival. “We don’t need to see final cuts but don’t send it to us if you’re not satisfied with what you’re submitting. I can’t tell you how many times filmmakers contact me about resubmitting a project that they knew was not ready the first time they sent it.”

I can’t tell you how many times filmmakers contact me about resubmitting a project that they knew was not ready the first time they sent it.”

If you’re not sure whether your film is ready for submission, Beth Barrett, artistic director of the Seattle International Film Festival, recommends focusing on the story. “We do have a pretty good eye for seeing things that are not complete,” she explains. “We’re happy to look at things that are not color corrected, for instance, but the story should be there.”

Shane Smith, director of programming for the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, encourages filmmakers to host test screenings before applying to festivals. He often sees submissions that are too long or need a tighter edit — issues he believes could easily be resolved before submission. “You don’t know what you’ve got until other people who are not related to the film see it and share their feelings about it,” he explains. “Test-screening audiences should be a combination of industry professionals — people you’ve worked with in the past or colleagues in the industry — and friends and family who want to support you but can also give unvarnished feedback on the film.”

Tell a great story

For the most part, programmers are open-minded about the types of films they program. Of course, films must meet basic submission criteria, which can include specifications on anything from length to topic. But the programmers we interviewed weren’t focused on films with specific subjects, themes, or aesthetics. They were looking for just one thing: a great story.

“I think the most important thing is always story,” explains Sandra Lipski, founder, director, and head of programming for the Evolution Mallorca International Film Festival. “There can be a first-time filmmaker whose camera work isn’t so great or whose technique isn’t perfect, but if the story is amazing, that’s all I’m looking for. The same stories get told a lot, and the same topics get covered, but if you can find an interesting angle to tell that story, you’re golden.” Similarly, Smith notes that “a film can be as slick as all get-out and not be telling a story well, and that means it won’t play at our festival.”

Art 4_Mallorca

Director Toni Bestard and cast celebrate the closing night of film Pullman at Evolution Malloraca in 2019.

Gerard Van Den Broek, documentary curator of the NYC Independent Film Festival, says he does his best to turn off his personal preferences when evaluating films. He, too, wants to see a compellingly told story above all else. “Themes don’t matter to me. The type of story isn’t that important; it’s the way it is told,” he explains. “I may have my own favorite themes, but I turn off that preference as soon as I start watching submitted films.”

Programmers say it’s hard to define exactly what they’re looking for because there are too many possibilities. Barrett, who programs a wide variety of films, says that great storytelling is the one thing she’s explicitly searching for. “For us, it has to have a good story,” she explains. “And that story could be a short documentary, it could be an experimental film, it could be almost anything, but if the story isn’t there, then the film’s not going to be successful.”

“Greatstories aren’t always “big” stories

Smith wants filmmakers to know that great stories can be found anywhere. He believes that normal people and everyday scenarios can make the most compelling subject matter. “There’s so many interesting stories that don’t look like or seem like they’re interesting on the surface,” he explains. “Everyday people you might walk past on the street and not pay any attention to can have an amazing story that a filmmaker is able to bring to life.”

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The key, according to Smith, is finding a way to make your story feel, in some way, universal. “A good filmmaker can make an ordinary story transcend itself and speak to the world,” he explains. “Sometimes filmmakers get caught up in the specifics, but the important thing is to find a way to connect the themes of your story to a broader audience and to the larger human condition.”

One way to do that, says Barrett, is to tell a story people will connect with emotionally. She believes emotional connection is at the heart of good storytelling: “I think what makes a really good story is emotional connection. If the audience can’t connect emotionally — if there’s not some connection point that pulls them in — then the audience is no longer participating in the film.”

Be original

Films with a unique vision are also sought after. The programmers we interviewed want to be surprised and intrigued by the films they see. “We are always looking for unique work made in new and interesting ways,” explains Jarod Neece, senior film programmer at SXSW. “We are open to anything really, but nothing will turn us off more than a film that doesn't have an original vision.”

“There are times when pure originality and creativity supersede the need for an audience to embrace a film as a whole.”

Tim Anderson, programming coordinator for the Florida Film Festival, agrees. Above all, he wants to program films that are original and showcase the distinctive vision of the filmmaker. “We’re looking for unique stories told by filmmakers with unique vision,” he says. “There are no set rules for doing that. In fact, I think we pride ourselves on some pretty crazy and eclectic programming choices.”

Some programmers will even select films they know may be controversial if they believe they are truly unique. Montgomery wants applicants to know that few subjects are truly off limits: If a film tells a story that is unique and particularly meaningful, he will program it even if he knows it will be polarizing. “There are times when pure originality and creativity supersede the need for an audience to embrace a film as a whole,” he says. “I think that a lot of filmmakers out there may be under the false impression that their film could never get into Sundance because it’s off the rails and not stereotypical of what a Sundance movie should be, but we have programmed plenty of boundary-pushing films that we know will result in walkouts.”

Diverse voices wanted

Programmers also want to see films from different countries, communities, cultural groups, and perspectives. Most of the programmers we interviewed said that one of their goals in curating their festival’s line-up was to foster diversity. They want to amplify underrepresented voices and showcase stories that represent a wide range of perspectives. “My personal criteria includes films that present a new vision or ‘voice,’” explains Karen Davis, senior film programmer at the Mill Valley Film Festival. That includes “films that represent perspectives, views, communities, cultures, and lives not often represented in the media.”

Beth Barrett, festival programmer for the Seattle International Film Festival. (Credit: Seattle International Film Festival) 

Barrett, too, says she is seeking out new and diverse voices. “We’re looking to represent lots and lots and lots of different communities, different genres, different cultural groups, as well as some of the bigger blockbusters or more commercial films,” she says. “We don’t usually censor ourselves in terms of genre, but we also have a really strong racial equity and social justice lens to our organization in that we want to be able to bring those voices that are not generally heard into the discussion.”

Barrett believes that promoting diverse voices on the festival level will ultimately encourage diversity in mainstream filmmaking. She cites Crazy Rich Asians as an example, explaining, “The more you elevate those stories, the more people who fund films will think, ‘Oh, people want to see these stories.’”

In the case of Crazy Rich Asians, she says, “People were, like, ‘Oh, if an Asian American is in a starring role in a romantic comedy, you can make a bajillion dollars? I didn’t know that!’ The more those films are made and people see those films and support those films, the more of those films can be made.”

Why submit?

Programmers say that participating in a festival is about much more than just screening your film. It’s a great way to meet distributors, sales agents, and even future collaborators. Above all, programmers believe festivals represent an invaluable networking opportunity for filmmakers. “Festivals are an ideal platform for networking,” explains Lipski. “Even if it’s a smaller festival, if you get in, make sure you go. Take your business cards and network with everyone who’s there, because you never know who you’ll meet or where it will lead. That’s the power of festivals: to get people together in a room who wouldn’t otherwise meet each other.”

In many cases, says Montgomery, exposure is just as important as finding a distributor. That’s because exposure can help you find the connections and support you’ll need for future projects. “If you choose to go the festival route with your project, exposure is the one thing you should be focused on,” he says. “Focus on making relationships throughout the life of your film at festivals, not just with industry executives, but other filmmakers and producers. If you want to get your next project made, it’s important to have a network within the independent film community, and there’s no better way to nurture that than going to festivals.”

That’s the power of festivals: to get people together in a room who wouldn’t otherwise meet each other.”

Anderson wants filmmakers to know that attending festivals and promoting their work is as much a part of the production process as shooting and editing. “Distributors, theatrical sales agents, and audiences are all there, and if you are not, then they can’t meet you and talk to you about your film,” he says. “You did 51 percent of the job in that you made the movie. The other 49 percent is getting that movie out there and representing your work.”

Programmers want to discover you

You don’t need to be a famous filmmaker to get into a festival. In fact, programmers are actively searching for exciting new talent. Being unknown or a first-time filmmaker can sometimes be a strength because programmers are so eager to discover and promote new voices. “I think there’s sometimes a perception among filmmakers that if you don’t know somebody, you don’t stand a chance of your film getting into the festival, and I have to say that’s just not true,” says Smith. “In general, what we love as programmers is discovering films and filmmakers we’ve never heard about, who submitted their film through the regular submission process.”

“My mission is definitely to discover the next big indie filmmaker,” says Lipski. She notes that festivals can even be competitive about finding undiscovered talent. “I think every festival strives to be the one to discover the new, cool filmmakers out there,” she explains. “We all want to find these gems, and these filmmakers making the most interesting new films.”

Still from Kedi

Barrett cites discovering the documentary Kedi (2016) as one of her proudest moments as a programmer. The film, which follows several stray cats roaming the city of Istanbul, was submitted to SIFF via the general submission process. It was ultimately acquired by Oscilloscope and went on to have a successful theatrical run. “That was a film that came through the general submission: Nobody knew who they were, nobody had seen the film, but we watched it, and we all just fell in love with it,” she recalls. “[Director Cedya Torun] came to the festival and showed the film, and there was a representative from Oscilloscope in the audience. He saw it and was, like, ‘We have to have this film,’ and it became the number one grossing film for Oscilloscope. That’s one of my biggest successes.”

Indeed, programmers are among your biggest advocates as an independent filmmaker. They love cinema and want the independent film world to thrive and grow. If you have a story to tell, a unique perspective, and the technique to back it up, they will champion your film. “I want films that push the envelope. Films that don’t just teeter on the edge of the cliff, ones that are willing to run toward the cliff and jump off without a moment of hesitation,” says Anderson. “I believe completely in the power of cinema to change a person’s life and thus to change the world. Rarely, if ever, do I know exactly what shape or form that film will take.  That’s what makes it so exciting.”

Anna Green a producer, writer, and editor based in New York City. She’s worked at Brut Media, Mental Floss, VICE, Radical Media, Aeon, and Court 13 Arts. She graduated from Reed College with a BA in anthropology and from NYU with a master’s in Cinema Studies. Anna once ran the movie club at one of Brooklyn’s last video stores. She loves movies, books, and outdoor adventures, especially rock climbing.
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