Top Tips for Engaging with Film Festivals

Our Midlands Talent Exec, Alex Jackson gives you the lowdown on things to keep in mind when getting your film into festivals

31 August 2018
Alex Jackson
By Alex Jackson
Alex is the BFI NETWORK Talent Executive for Film Hub Midlands

If you’re reading this post, there’s a good chance you’re a filmmaker. And if you’re a filmmaker, there is an equally good chance you’ve submitted or want to submit your work to festivals.

I have been curating shorts programmes for the best part of a decade, and though the landscape of programming and festivals continues to evolve, I would like to share some of the constants. I hope this may serve, for new and emerging filmmakers alike, as practical and creative advice on how to cushion the often bumpy and expensive journey to festival success.

  1. Watch films

This might feel like a given, but studying your craft and understanding what others before you have achieved can help you to find your own voice and style. If you are pre-first-feature and looking to establish your name in short film, attending festivals and watching short films online can be one way of getting a sense of the competition. It also, perhaps more importantly, offers a great opportunity to build connections with other filmmakers and possible future collaborators. And that’s before we even mention the chance to be inspired by the work of others to develop new ideas of your own.

  1. Have a strategy

Deciding on a festival strategy is essential, aligning your aspirations, expectations and budget. It can and should be something you start to develop as soon as you start to write your film. Work out what you want from your festival run and which festivals could help you achieve that. There are 1000’s of festivals across the world, all of which cater to different audiences and have different remits. Be realistic about where you want to screen and where your film best fits in the circuit. In the UK we have some of the world’s best festivals, including BFI London Film Festival, Encounters, BAFTA, Aesthetica and Leeds International Film Festival. But there are also many smaller, quality festivals, some of which serve specific niches such as location, communities they represent or genres.

As premiere status becomes less important to festivals (but do still check the guidelines of your first-choice fests) don’t underestimate the benefits of engaging with festivals in which it might be “easier” to find a place. Some may wish to celebrate work within your region, the style of film in which you work, or lesser heard voices.

  1. Identify your audience and how they will watch your film

How you want people to watch your film will determine many of the creative and practical factors of your production. These may include the crew with whom you work, the equipment used, your post-production process and, very often, the length of your film.

If you want to exhibit your film in a cinema, shooting in 4k, or giving sufficient attention to your sound mix may increase the appeal of your film, or, at least, remove barriers to its considerations for larger festivals. Nothing, however, can make up for a weak story or performances, so balance your resources efficiently.

  1. Detective work

Unfortunately, not every festival listed online, or even on reputable portals is legit. So, if you’re thinking of parting with money to submit to a festival you’ve never heard of, perform your due diligence. Are they worth the submission fee? There are, unfortunately, some people who go to great lengths to make a festival appear genuine - creating multiple users, writing bogus reviews, using stock images of venues or Photoshopping well-known logos into their materials. Don’t take things at face value. Research their social comms and their stated venue to make sure it exists, and that the event is happening. Even if a festival is exactly what it claims to be, this is never wasted time, as you will come away with a much clearer idea of the tone of the festival and its aims.

  1. Ethos

Since 2013, when Withoutabox lost its dominance as the online festival submission portal of choice, the number of players within the field has increased dramatically - most notably, the introduction of the filmmaker-friendly Filmfreeway.

Alongside the ease of listing festivals, of course, comes the risk of ethically-dubious festivals (see above). In order to tackle this problem, a group of portals created the setting out their aims for fair business practice, and the protection of filmmakers. My advice here is to investigate the mission and ethos of the festivals to which you submit, ensuring it aligns with your own aspirations and values, for both you and your work.

  1. Read the guidelines

They might look like the boring small print, but a festival’s guidelines can give you insight into what they are looking to programme – their creative brief – saving you money and a few of those always difficult rejection emails, if your film is ineligible or unsuitable. The guidelines protect you and the festival, so use them as a guide to what you can expect from the festival and, conversely, what they expect of filmmakers.

  1. Help a festival to programme your film

The more detail that you can give a festival upfront, the fewer tedious emails you’ll receive with requests for further information, and the better a film festival will think of you for making their job easier. The festival administrators of today will probably be the festival directors and judges of the future, so alongside decency and professionalism, taking the time to give as much info as possible and maintain pleasant and professional communication with festivals can bolster your reputation.

  1. Remember why you started your journey

We all make films for different reasons; we all tell stories as individual as we are. By bringing your work to the festival circuit, you have the opportunity not only to share your stories with an audience, but also to listen to the stories of others. As important as our work in film is, as a professional, our life in film is why we chose to become filmmakers in the first place. Don’t forget to enjoy the experience of being with like-minded creatives, learning from their successes and their challenges and being part of the greater film-making community.

  1. Not this time doesn’t mean never

Rejections from festivals are a hard but inevitable part of doing what we do. The hit rate of festival success from film to film can vary dramatically and whilst it feels personal when you’re not selected, in reality, it’s not. And at the other end, you'll find someone - or a small team of someones - who wish they never had to disappoint anyone. 


I’ll leave you with this: a short checklist to go through the next time you submit to a festival. And, more than that, I'd like to wish you success with your film’s journey through the festival circuit.

Submission checklist

  1. Fill in all the information fields. They are asking for it for a reason.

  2. Cover letter. This gives the festival a better idea of who you are, and whether or not you are a good fit for their programme.  

  3. High-res stills which can be used in brochures, on websites and via social comms. If you label the image files with the name of your film and its director, there will be a designer out there who will be really rooting for you.

  4. Be ready to send the required format. If the festival requires a DCP for cinema exhibition you can try to make this yourself with free software (such as DCPoMatic), but it’s worth talking to your local cinema to find out if you can test it there before you send it. Some festivals will make a DCP for you, or screen from file so having the highest res version of your film ready to send over is really handy.