Docs In Progress Executive Director Erica Ginsberg here. In the coming weeks, I'll countdown from 10 to 1 of what I consider the most important tips on film festivals. I will preface my tips by saying that, as an organization focused on documentaries, I am writing with documentary films in mind...and specifically knowing that many of our readers are emerging documentary filmmakers who may be working on their first films and are not necessarily coming out of film school. That said, I think there are some things which may be relevant to fiction filmmakers and hopefully even more seasoned documentary filmmakers might find a tidbit here and there. You may or may not agree with all I have to say but that's why I decided to share these on our blog. Your comments are welcome. So, without futher ado, let's get started:
Festival Tip #10: Don't Wait Until the Last Minute to Submit
I say this knowing that there are hundreds of you out there who probably have been crashing for a week to get your cut ready to submit for Sundance's Late Submission Deadline. But there are three main reasons you really don't want to wait until the last minute to submit a film to a festival:
(1) Your film is probably not ready. Painful to hear, I know. But invariably when you are working against the clock, you are paying more attention to the clock than to quality. You probably have not left yourself time to step away from your film and come back to it fresh. Nor have you had time to seek outside feedback beyond your closest loved ones which could help clue you in to how a festival evaluator who may know nothing about the subject of your film might react to it. All you can focus on is making that deadline. And that is when you are most likely to submit something which is not ready.
But what do you have to lose from submitting something even if it's not ready, you ask? Maybe the festival will see the potential in it and that will give you more time to hone it between now and the screening date. No. Festivals are not in the business of finding rough gems, especially not festivals which receive more than 1,000 submissions each year (and Sundance typically receives more than 8,000). And this brings me to my next point...
(2) Festival Evaluators Are Tired and Cranky
Well not always. But after spending many months looking at dozens if not hundreds of submissions, they have seen the good, the bad, and a lot of the ugly and it's showing in their patience level...as they watch your film which you just submitted along with a few hundred other hopefuls. While their friends may think it's cool they get to watch movies all the time, for many of the evaluators, it has now become a somewhat tedious task -- especially as they get ready to watch all those last-minute submissions by filmmakers whose films are not ready. At this point, they need to pace themselves when watching the film and, whether anyone wants to admit it or not, that may mean the finger is on the trigger of the fast forward button while watching your opus (presuming they don't give up on you altogether if they are not grabbed in the first 10 minutes).
(3) Festival Slots Are Going Fast
In the A-List world, a premium is put on getting certain films which already have buzz around them. Festival programmers want to have the premiere of a well-known filmmaker or the breakout hit of the year or want to make sure that a film which has been playing other top festivals gets featured in their hometown since it can help publicity, ticket sales, and sponsorships which help sustain the festival. Call it unfair or just the cream rising to the top, but some films are hand-picked by festival programmers who spend a good part of the year traveling to other festivals and talking to other programmers. That is not to say that festivals do not want to discover new films or revel in the fact that they were where a new filmmaker got his/her start. But they may also be finding these gems among the films which were submitted earlier in the cycle and, in some cases, may be committing early to these films to ensure that they can secure the premiere. That means that films being submitted at the last possible deadline are competing for ever-decreasing program slots.
OK, you are now saying, why is Docs In Progress being such a Debbie Downer when you are supposed to be the organization which gives hope to emerging filmmakers? Mostly because we actually care about you and your film. We want it to be the best it can be. From my own painful experience and that of many a Docs In Progress alum, you need to finish the film when it is finished. Festival deadlines can be helpful to keep yourself on track but you need to allow yourself adequate time to get a reality check. You also need to be realistic that first-time filmmakers especially may have to do three or four rough cuts before moving to a final cut.
When your film is as done as it is ever going to be, you start submitting to festivals. Around your schedule. Not theirs. If you are deadset on playing an A-list festival, keep in mind that there are quite a few of them spread throughout the year. You may miss one festival's final deadline. But you might submit a stronger contender to the next festival's early or regular deadline.
So now that we've started off on that note, I'll spend more time in my next tip on Researching Festivals Wisely.