For almost every independent film its first exhibition space will be a festival screening room. It doesn’t matter if your film’s budget was in the hundreds and the crew ate bologna sandwiches, or if you spent a million-plus and had a cappuccino machine at the craft services table—once the videotaped copy is dropped into the mail (with festival entry form, fee, and photos) all films become equal. They are just videotapes in padded envelopes waiting to be unwrapped and watched by a stranger, waiting to be discovered, to be loved, and hopefully, to be chosen to screen at the festival.
Okay, so it’s not quite that easy. Not all films are created equal; some have an edge. Maybe your film has Parker Posey in it. Maybe someone else’s film was produced by a guy sleeping with the festival programmer. But in many ways, film festival entries become equalized, if not equal. Each film entered is exactly that: an entry. It is just another film to be watched, approved, and liked, or not. Hundreds, even thousands, of films will arrive at any given festival office each year, all vying for the exact same thing, a spot in the lineup, but only a few will be chosen. They don’t call them competitions for nothing.
There are undoubtedly more film festivals in more countries than ever before. Of course, that is little compensation to filmmakers who are getting more rejection letters than ever before. Isn’t there something (anything?) filmmakers can do with their docs, dramas, and shorts to make sure they not only get noticed by the screening committee, but get programmed into a festival or two? Understanding the screening process will go a long way to unlocking the mystery of which films are chosen to screen at a festival. And once you get a few festivals under your belt, the ball has a tendency to keep on rolling, because so many festivals solicit submissions straight out of the catalogs of other festivals.
Few situations in life are as humbling as dropping your film into the mailbox. You might open and close the lid on it a few times to make sure it’s hasn’t gotten stuck, but it’s gone. You couldn’t get it back if you wanted to. And whether the festival is in Austin or East Hampton, your film’s journey—from delivery to decision—will be remarkably similar.
“Every single tape we receive [at South By Southwest] goes into an office where one person logs them all in,” says Mocha Jean Herrep, an associate professor of radio, television, and film at Austin Community College in Austin, Texas, and a veteran volunteer screener.
At South by Southwest (SXSW) and most other festivals, logging the tapes involves separating any accompanying paperwork from the videotape. Each tape is coded and put into a pile with other submissions in the same category. Larger groups are then divided into smaller batches of tapes, which are sent to screening committee members who will view them at home. Screeners usually receive only the tapes, without supplementary paperwork, cast lists, etc. Thus the film has to stand on its own and capture the home-viewer’s attention. The screener gives the films numerical ratings, so films with higher marks can be easily culled for second viewings.
“Over the whole process, I’ll watch approximately forty features total on my own,” continues Herrep. “This year I’m mostly watching documentaries, and with documentaries we’re also careful to judge the importance of the story verses how well the film ‘works.’”
At smaller or more thematically focused festivals, where the submissions are fewer, the initial screening step may be skipped and the films will be first watched by a group. In the case of very young festivals, like Other Minds, a San Francisco film festival dedicated to films about new music and avant garde composers, the programming is “curated” by one individual. In this case, it was Charles Amirkhanian. “We originally wanted to show all the great European television documentaries about new music that Americans are missing,” Amirkhanian explains. “While putting the line up together, I asked some people for advice, but I had so much that I wanted to show . . . that I programmed the first festival myself.”
Daryl Chin, a twenty-five-year veteran screener at the Asian American International Film Festival in Manhattan, remembers similarly simple days when AAIFF was starting out. “There wasn’t always a committee,” Chin says, “there was just whoever was working on the festival at the time, and we would watch what came in.” Chin has also served as a screener for New York’s Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. Both AAIFF and NYGLFF have become large enough to need individual screeners as well as screening committees, where submissions can be discussed. SXSW also uses second-round screening committees to assess the films given to the take-home screeners. “We’ll look at the ones that did well and the ones that didn’t do as well,” Herrep says.
During these meetings, choices are narrowed until a consensus is formed for including or excluding each film. But this isn’t a silent jury. Screening committee members lobby for the films they care about. In these meetings, it is possible for a film without much support to move on after one or two individuals argue strongly in its defense. Herrep remembers many times where individuals became advocates for a certain film and were able to convince the group to get behind a film. “One of the benefits of programming committees,” says Chin, “is keeping the process open for many points of view. Filmmakers should know that unless their work is really bad . . . there are people trying to find a way to fit their work in so that it can be programmed and seen by an audience.”
“The screening committee is exactly what it says it is,” says Rajendra Roy, director of programming at The Hamptons International Film Festival in New York. “The individuals on the screening committee are a filter, and one I have to be able to trust: Watching all the submissions myself would be simply too time consuming.” As the director of programming, Roy knows that it is ultimately his reputation that is on the line. So after the committee has done its job, his is really only beginning. Roy watches all the highly ranked films, as well as some that received the lowest marks, to see what inspired such a negative reaction.
Every festival programmer is different, and every film festival has its own set of goals. A festival’s agenda might be to support Asian American filmmakers (AAIFF), or independently produced films (SXSW), or world-class auteurs (Cannes). Upon close inspection, applicants may find that each festival has a surprisingly narrow focus. Every programmer who spoke with The Independent for this article was adamant that filmmakers must first try to understand the focus of each festival they want to enter.
“All festivals have a focus,” says Chin, “even the New York Film Festival, which is supposed to show the best of the best of the festival crop of that year, has a focus. AAIFF is different from [other Asian and Asian American] festivals put on by the National Asian American Telecommunications Association (NAATA) in San Francisco or by Visual Communications (VC) in LA. They focus on work dealing with ‘the Asian and Asian American experience.’ AAIFF’s focus has always been to showcase work made by Asians and Asian Americans. If we had been offered Sense and Sensibility, we would have shown it because of Ang Lee’s participation. NAATA and VC would definitely not have shown it.”
At more broadly programmed festivals such as The Hamptons, accurately understanding the festival’s specific guidelines will help filmmakers decide if the festival is an appropriate place to submit their films. “Filmmakers should know the rules,” Roy says, “absolutely. Rules control so much of what we do at The Hamptons that filmmakers really need to ask questions to get the right information.”
When it comes to The Hamptons, only very specific kinds of films are accepted. “American first- or second-time directors—not necessarily born in the US but produced here—and without distribution compete for The Golden Starfish Award; features and documentaries about world conflict are part of the traditional ‘Conflicts and Resolutions’ segment. Everything else is out of competition, in the World Cinema category,” Roy explains. Thus if your film is an American independent but not a premiere, its only hope at The Hamptons is if it is considered special enough to hold its own among films from world-class directors from across the globe in the World Cinema category.
“I think filmmakers need to figure out exactly what they need,” says Roy. “Is it press coverage? Is it prize money and press coverage but perhaps not a distribution deal? Once they decide what they need, then they should strategize.”
At The Hamptons, a film can garner one of the largest cash prizes of any festival, The Golden Starfish, which will earn significant press coverage, but The Hamptons is not traditionally a place where distribution deals are made. In contrast, a film playing at Sundance, even in a low-profile category, may garner distributor attention by the mere fact that it is at Sundance.
The Hamptons is by no means alone in its focus on premieres. SXSW tries to show only films that haven’t shown in Austin before. “We don’t focus on premieres just for premieres’ sake,” says Roy, “but because when a premiere wins, it will garner press, as opposed to getting press first someplace else where it played first. This brings attention to the festival and to the filmmaker. It’s a two-way street. We can get front-page notice in The Hollywood Reporter and Variety for our winner, and that wouldn’t happen if the film had already been in Sundance or Toronto. Regionally it would get press, but nationally and internationally it wouldn’t work.”
The decision of which films ultimately screen at a festival is also highly influenced by the personal idiosyncrasies of programmers and the screening committee members. While some of the tastes and interests of various festival staffs can be deciphered by their programming histories and reputations, different things will influence them each year.
“It is very personal,” says Roy. “I’m personally interested in diversity—of subject, filmmaker, etc.—and I’m interested in good stories. Last year we ended up with fifty percent of our competition entries directed by women. It wasn’t something we planned; it slowly became apparent that we had a lot of strong entries by women, and that fed us to look for more. It was a naturally developing trend that we saw and then pushed. And it’s not something I would necessarily repeat.”
Everyone who spoke to The Independent for this article perked up when asked: What advice would you give filmmakers considering submitting a film to your festival? “When I get a film,” Herrep says, “I don’t get any of the publicity materials or anything. I just get the tape. So if there is anything I need to know—a section with bad sound that I need to overlook, or a key section you want to highlight—put it [physically] on the tape. Don’t write it on the box or tape it on the cassette, because even that might get lost: Write the note directly on the video, otherwise I may not see it.”
“Also, if the filmmaker knows someone on the committee—even if it’s someone they met for two minutes at another festival—they should definitely e-mail them or contact them in some way so their film is flagged.” Herrep continues, “It’s no guarantee, but like I said, all the tapes at SXSW go through one office and it’s very easy to not get a specific film to the right person.”
“Personal recommendations always help,” says Roy. “It’s just a way of flagging something for extra attention. Also important is that you submit your best work. You don’t want to get into a situation where you’re submitting something that is not quite finished and if it doesn’t get in, you are going to go back, work on it, and resubmit it next year. It just won’t work. Don’t rush something you don’t feel is the best it can be. Unless you’re a known quantity.”
A specific issue Roy noticed programming The Hamptons last year involved short films. There was a large quantity of films that were in between shorts and features and thus were very difficult to program. “The problem this year  was all these mini features. There is nothing a programmer can do with them. They are too long to play before a feature, and two of them make a whole program. I would tell filmmakers not to make mini features, but if that is what they really want to do, then they need to prioritize the festivals they submit to. Send their films to short film festivals like Aspen’s shorts festival, and not someplace like The Hamptons, who just doesn’t have the space for programs of shorts.”
Chin, perhaps because he’s been screening films longer than anyone else The Independent spoke to, hopes filmmakers don’t see the relationship between programmers and filmmakers as adversarial. “Filmmakers should never take a rejection personally. There are just too many extenuating circumstances,” he explains.