Six Key Areas in Which Film Festivals Need To Up Their Game

By , posted 5 July 2011

Today there are many thousand film festivals run across the globe every year, providing almost limitless opportunities for filmmakers to get their work in front of an audience, and in some cases (particularly where a film is good), offering one of the shortest possible paths to a filmmaking career... once you get through the submissions process.

Recently I had the perhaps unenviable task of looking after the submissions for one of our short films. As any filmmaker who's delved into the festival circuit knows, the submissions process is a time-consuming and potentially expensive undertaking. I was aware of this when I started the process, but wasn't quite prepared for just how much so this experience was going to be.

While it's never going to be possible to make the experience completely hassle-free, after submitting to several hundred festivals, I'd like to share a few observations with all of you festival-runners out there which would help make us filmmakers' lives easier when it comes to submitting our films to your events.

So in no particular order of importance...

Online Submission Forms - one of the biggest surprises during my submissions adventure was just how many festivals there are which still expect you to download a form and fill it in by hand. And inevitably these forms are poorly designed or don't print out correctly. Not to mention that I wouldn't want to wish my handwriting even on my worst enemies. There's virtually no excuse for not offering some method of completing a submission form without having to fill it in by hand. Ideally, all festivals would offer a simple online form, but I appreciate that not everyone has the know-how to create the necessary code to process web form submissions. But there's always PDF (or at a push, Microsoft Word) documents as a workable alternative. A reasonable number of festivals provide PDF form downloads, but virtually none use PDF's capability to allow forms to be completed in the document (then printed). That's a no-brainer. And even if you don't have the Adobe Acrobat software to produce PDF forms, even just a plain old editable Microsoft Word form is vastly preferable than having to handwrite your film's 200 word synopsis for the 150th time.

Submission Fees - you American festivals... what gives with the massive submission fees? I mean, up to $100 to submit a short film? That's just ridiculous. I appreciate that reviewing submissions takes time, and can cost money if you're paying a team to review submissions. I also appreciate that some festivals offer cash prizes to the winners and one way of sourcing them is via entry fees, but those are actually few and far between. Most festivals in Europe, and particularly the smaller ones, are completely gratis to enter. Now while I'd never expect this to happen in the Land of the Free, it would be nice to see submission fees across the pond be a little more reasonable in relation to what they actually offer filmmakers.

Email Confirmations - no festival is so big that it cannot send an email to filmmakers letting them know a) whether their submission was received, and b) whether it was selected or not. Sundance and Telluride are two offenders which come to mind. Given that the bigger you are the larger your submission fees tend to be, it's common courtesy to at least let filmmakers know the score. In the days of ubiquitous email, it's amazing that so many festivals disrespect their filmmakers so much that they can't even take the time to send a couple of quick emails.

Digital Exhibition - in 2011 I'm absolutely stunned that so few festivals, and particularly many of the big (and sometimes expensive) events, do not offer digital screening options. The mind boggles when you've sweated blood and tears to shoot on 35mm or Red and the festival wants to screen off an NTSC DVD or a Betacam SP tape! I mean, plug any half-decent laptop into a projector these days and you can screen a beautiful crisp 720p or 1080p HD file (or even at a push, a well-encoded 576p PAL file), so why is it necessary to disrespect the audience by showing them a crappy SD copy? Even the smallest events should be able to accommodate the old laptop and projector system. If you can go to the trouble of getting a Betacam SP deck plugged in, surely you can do it from a laptop instead?

Online Screeners - these days even your grandma can watch the viral clip du jour on YouTube, so why is it so few festivals allow online screeners? It is a massive pain to burn and post hundreds of DVDs all over the world, particularly when you take into account the PAL/NTSC divide and the sometimes overzealous local Customs officials. Even those few festivals that do offer digital submissions, I don't want to have to upload a 4GB HD file every time I submit to a festival. My broadband is fast, but it's not so fast that 4 gig is a no brainer. Services like Vimeo offer filmmakers the ability to password-protect their videos so a process allowing us to send you a link and a password would make life so much easier. And for those about to protest that services like Withoutabox or Short Film Depot allow file uploads, have you actually tried to use these? When you have, come back and we'll talk. Speaking of Withoutabox...

Withoutabox - where do we start? Having a centralised system allow filmmakers to submit the same information was a great idea. However, great ideas don't always come with great execution, and sadly Withoutabox is a poster child for that. Since it was bought by IMDB (which itself is owned by Amazon.com), the service seems to have had virtually no investment, retaining pretty much the same interface and functionality which it had when it popped out of David Straus and Joe Neulight's bedrooms way back in 2000. I was going to talk about some of the problems I see with Withoutabox here, but I've realised there's just so much wrong with it I'll save that for a separate piece.

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