An (outsider) academic’s perspective on submission to, and rejection from, film festivals

On Monday I received my first rejection from a film festival for Comic Book City. This wasn’t particularly surprising. Not only is this my first long form film, it is also only the second time I’ve taken one of my works and submitted it to festivals.

Of course, this time around, the stakes are higher. The first film I submitted to festivals is “5 Cups of Coffee“, a scripted short that I directed, edited, and co-produced with Maren Anderson, who wrote the script. With “5 Cups” I targeted a small, local event, the Mid-Valley Video Festival, and after being accepted there, made a couple of additional submissions before stopping. What I wanted out of MVVF was a sense of the festival experience and a chance to screen a work with a group of strangers. “5 Cups” was also a project I undertook primarily for the doing of it, and not as a “publication” (that being said, a few years later, I did submit the film and an accompanying essay to Aether – still waiting on publication – and am generally pretty happy with the work).

Comic Book City, by contrast, is a film that I made with the intent of it being (fully) counted as part of my scholarship. Film festival review and acceptance needs to work here in the same vein as peer review and publication works for more traditional publications in my fields.

One of the challenges for an effective novice to the festival circuit, like me, is how to decide where to submit. One starting point is AJ Schnack’s listing of the top twenty-five festivals for documentaries, but there are, potentially, thousands of festivals to consider, and at this point in my filmmaking career path, I have only so many resources available to apply towards submitting my work for consideration.

Unlike journals, conferences, or book publishers, film festivals typically charge a fee for submission of work. And one additional cost I had not considered until recently is the cost of media for submission. Where possible, I have relied on my Withoutabox online screener, but in some cases organizers want DVD copies for review. Whereas I can count on access to paper, when needed, as part of the supplies and services provided by the division office, I have to buy DVDs myself.

In any case, submitting a film to a festival, more often than not, costs money, and, on average, I think I have been paying about $50/submission. Whatever the risks associated with, say, journal submission, paying $50 for the pleasure of rejection is not one of them. Being appropriately selective about venues for one’s work is always important, but adding a financial cost to these decisions attaches a new significance to making the best choices.

One way in which submitting to festivals is like submitting to journals, conferences or book publishers is that there is a clear top tier of places to get your work seen and recognized, but equally true is that not all of your work will be suitable to those outlets. In both forms of “publishing”, beneath the top tier is a thicket of choices that is more difficult to navigate in terms of appropriateness, quality and reputation than is the consensus “best” places.

For example, the festival from which I just received a rejection is one of a myriad of self-named “underground” events. That word, “underground”, is used in different ways by different festivals, sometimes clearly defined, as when identified with certain genres, and sometimes not, as when it is being used as an “edgier” expression of “independent”. Depending on the event, “underground” maybe promising for my work or it may be a waste of effort and resources.

There is also the question of reputation. Fortunately for me, one of the advantages of working at a smaller public university, with a focus on undergraduate education, is not having to worry about this matter as much as someone at an R1, for example. I can afford to think about appropriateness or how interesting a venue is more than I need to  think about the “right” places.

For Comic Book City, I have trained my attention on Pacific Northwest-based festivals and events dedicated to documentary and non-fiction film, and on calls for entries that show an openness to works that may or may not have mainstream appeal or that have an academic intent. So far, I have made a few exceptions for fests that seem cool or interesting or that would raise the profile of my film were it to be selected (the aforementioned rejection came from one of these outliers).

I expect that this recent rejection will be the first of a number to come, I would be surprised by any other outcome, but I also know that I have other notifications coming up this month that represent more of a test for the film’s (external) viability. Not sure how I’ll feel if those come up “not accepted”.

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One thought on “An (outsider) academic’s perspective on submission to, and rejection from, film festivals

  1. An academic’s perspective on film festival submission: take two « A Weird Fish

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