An academic’s perspective on film festival submission: take two

Earlier this week Peter D. Marshall, via Twitter, linked to Elliot Grove’s post at the Raindance Canada site on, “16 things that film festivals hate about filmmakers“. Reading Grove’s list I gained some additional insight into some of the mistakes I have made in submitting Comic Book City to festivals, but also how the culture from which I am working, academia, is different from that of film as an industry.

In general, Grove’s advice reads as pretty sensible, essentially telling filmmakers to, “be professional, don’t make a festival’s job harder than it needs to be.” Substitute “article” for “film” and “journal” or “publisher” for “film festival” and, with some minor changes for context, the advice would still make sense.

At the same time, there is a clear implication that a film festival is necessarily an industry showcase, that the purpose of holding a festival is to provide films and their makers with exposure to people looking to buy and hire. When films and filmmakers are “discovered” at a fest, the festival solidifies its position in the industry. What unites everyone is this commercial purpose (see Grove’s comments to “#14: Filmmakers who don’t understand the role a festival”).

As someone who undertook filmmaking as part of my scholarly work, I do not share this commercial purpose. As a result, my submissions are lacking in areas related to publicity (see Grove’s #10 and #12). I do not have PR skills, nor do I have the resources to hire people to do that work, and I did not think about publicity during the making of the film anymore than I would have with a journal article, which is to say, I didn’t think about it at all. The area where this has put me in the most awkward position in relation to festivals is in provision of high resolution images for catalogs and advertising (#10). I have done what I can with the online press kit function in Withoutabox, and I have an IMDB page, but both are minimal. When it comes time to announce screenings, I do have social media I can use – like this blog and the production blog, for examples – but my social network, and networking, is likely not up to the standard advocated by Grove (see #11).

In one sense, lesson learned. On my next project I will at least know to produce a few high quality stills for use by festival organizers. In another sense, while I want my film to be seen, I do not see my film as an entrée to the industry. For me, festival acceptance constitutes a form of peer review. Whether and what an “industry person” might do with Comic Book City is beyond me, but that doesn’t make a festival screening meaningless either. It just doesn’t have the meaning assumed in Grove’s advice to filmmakers.

This would seem to make me guilty of #14, but I’m not sure that a festival’s purpose can be reduced to, “Together, the festival and filmmaker hopes that you get ‘discovered’ ie: that someone gives you a cheque. That way, we can both say ‘this is the film that was discovered at Raindance – enhancing both of our press kits.”

For one thing, many festivals include categories of films that would not normally be seen as ways to break into the industry or to have someone cut you a check. There clearly is a function of festivals that relates to filmmaking as art, and not as commerce, to access to audiences, but not necessarily access to the industry.

I think that these distinctions matter in terms of the performative aspects of festival submission that Grove focuses on. The advice in his post seems most relevant to filmmakers who have commercial aspirations, but are more curious for those of us without such expectations.

I still agree with the general sentiment that it is in a filmmaker’s best interests to not make a festival programmer’s job harder than it needs to be, but the limited resources that Grove points to for why filmmakers should have good publicity materials, and thick social networks, would seem to apply equally to, if not have more salience for, individual creators, especially those working with minimal personnel and finances, if not as, essentially, one-person shops.

As I discussed in my previous post on submitting to festivals, I am learning to read between the lines when looking at how a festival is represented. Many festivals, as implied by Grove, place a heavy emphasis on the idea of “discovery” and on connections to industry and industry celebrities. I have decided to sidestep such events, even where they would seem to be promising in other respects (size, location). Others frame what they do more in terms of providing an audience, and bringing films to communities that otherwise miss out on, particularly, unusual or less commercial offerings than in terms of being places where filmmakers can “make it”.

Obviously, Grove is on-point for most festivals when he writes, “Your job is to deliver a pleasing and entertaining film, and if you attend the festival, to be available for interview and Q&A sessions after your screening.” On the other hand, there should be room for a film to be, “challenging and interesting”, too, or where what constitutes “pleasing and entertaining” has a wider meaning than “commercial potential”.