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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Updates: comics doc, Whedonesque, Vimeo

Some updates about my online work elsewhere:

  • I started an album of production stills from my comics documentary. You can link to that album from here.
  • In addition, Charles Heying, Professor of Urban Studies and Planning at PSU and a featured subject in the film, has kindly noted the completion of the documentary on the Artisan Economy Initiative blog that he co-authors with a group doing research on Portland’s “artisan economy”.
  • I recently took an opportunity to join the community at Whedonesque, a collectively authored blog dedicated to gathering discussion and references to work by and about Joss Whedon and his collaborators. It’s an unique space where academics, critics, and fans mingle and intersect. Content ranges from pointers to films and TV episodes featuring actors from Whedon shows to links to articles about the Jossverse. I blog there as “sph“.
  • A few months ago I started building a video page at Vimeo, where I plan to have my new video home. I had been using bliptv for that purpose, but in the past year or so that service made a strong turn towards looking and feeling like a TV network and that does not seem like the right context for my work, where content is provided on an irregular basis and without much commercial aspiration. My Vimeo page now has a variety of content on it, including previews for the comics documentary and films from the International Documentary Challenge and 48 Hour Film Project.

Documentary finished

For the past four years, almost exactly at this point, my major scholarly project has been a documentary about comics creators in Portland, Oregon. I recently finished work on the film and have begun submitting to festivals and have started to think about other screening opportunities.

One of the questions I have to address with this project, for professional reasons, is peer review and festivals seem to provide the best route to gaining acceptance of the work in a way that is equivalent to review for a journal or book.

What kind of work is this for professional purposes is another question I have to think about, or at least may have to address for purposes of review and application for promotion. Is the film equal to a book or  an article? I am writing  an article from the film, but that will be a digest more than a reproduction. Interestingly, some festivals would have me in the short film category and others in the feature film section (the running time is 57:53).

I’d rather not dwell on these matters, but in my particular professional context, I, like anyone doing non-traditional forms of research and scholarship, eventually have to make the case that what one is doing is what one should, in fact, be doing (quick references for current work on the methodological margins of cultural geography: Geohumanities, ed., Michael Dear et al, Experimental Geography, ed., Nato Thompson, Merle Patchett’s Experimental Geography in Practice, and Bradley Garrett’s Place Hacking). I’ve already had a few interesting discussions regarding Faculty Development funding of the project, although no serious threats of being denied funds. I imagine that these conversations would be tougher at an R1.

I am generally happy with the work, at least in the sense that most of the remaining flaws feel like the product of things I can’t help, such as being a first feature, being solely responsible for all of the major aspects of the production and post-production (with the notable exceptions of sound editing, by my cousin Dave, and music, from my sister’s friend, Adam Selzer, and still photography, by my dad, Pat, and my friend and photographer, Erin Marr), and having a very small budget (I received approximately $4300 in grants for the project and that also constitutes the budget, more or less).

Color correction is probably the most notable aesthetic and formal weakness of the finished film. I made some minor corrections to some shots, but stayed away from major work because I simply do not know enough about what I am doing there yet. There are also some passages that I am unsure about pacing, how long I hold on certain shots, or choices I made in terms of images, but I am also at a point in the project where I need to let go or I will never stop working on it.

Hence, the decision to be “done”, and to release the film into the wild.

You can learn more on IMDB (which still feels weird), or for additional details, visit the Welcome & Introduction on the project blog.