7 Lessons I Learned from Film Festival Rejections

7 Lessons I Learned from Film Festival Rejections

7 Lessons I Learned from Film Festival Rejections

Brian Carlin
Brian Carlin
a year ago

For many filmmakers, the film festival acceptance is one of your biggest dreams realized – even now as more people share and stream content from their homes than ever before, the allure of the festival hasn’t dampened. Not for me at least, and I imagine many of you too. The feeling of going up to the theatre, seeing your name and your film in the program, and most of all – seeing your work play in front of a real live audience. Not to mention networking with your fellow filmmakers and maybe even the chance to dare I say it, the industry movers and shakers who could finally help you get to that next level you’ve dreamed of reaching since you first set out to make your film.

But let’s face it – you know the reality. You struggle through writing your script, drag yourself through production and post, and finally pay your fee and submit. After what feels like an eternity of waiting, you get your ‘Judging Status Has Changed For ’ email from Film Freeway. And often (okay, almost always), it’s a “Thank You for submitting your film. We received many more submissions than we expected and…” well you know how the rest goes.

Another rejection! All that hard work for naught! When you are new to submitting to festivals and the rejections keep pouring in, it’s incredibly discouraging. I’ve been there myself. And I’m still there because every time you submit, whether it’s your first or your twentieth film, you will have to endure getting that rejection from everyone, from the top tier festivals to the local indie festival in its infancy. But there’s some good news for you – I made a bunch of mistakes when I started out submitting, and the team at Stage 32 graciously offered me this platform to share those mistakes so that you don’t have to waste your time and money like I did!

7 Lessons I Learned from Film Festival Rejections

Me at the Texas Terrors film fest

Here are several mistakes I made:

1. Not being honest with myself about whether the final product was festival worthy. Filmmaking, like any other discipline takes time, effort, and learning to master. When I made my first films, I made a lot of storytelling errors, wore too many hats, and often after having that high from having finished the process, thought that every festival programmer would feel the same way and take my film. Wrong! You could make a brilliant film your first time out, but remember, it’s called “the exception that proves the rule” for a reason.

2. Submitting to top tier festivals (or any film festival) on the late deadline. True story: I submitted a short that I put together as part of a timed film competition that was my first major effort as a producer to Sundance. Did I submit on the late deadline and pay the much higher late fee to do so? Yes. Did I go back and fine tune the film to make it the best it could be? No. Was I honest about whether I should have submitted a film to any festival, let alone Sundance, that was not up to par? No. Did I get in? No. (Sidebar: all the above was due to my own inexperience and naïveté around making films and submitting to festivals, NOT of the incredibly talented cast and crew who generously volunteered their time and effort to help me. Remember, when you make a film, any credit is to your cast and crew, any mistakes are yours!)

3. Taking rejection too personally. Getting rejected evokes a combination of anger, sadness, regret, futility, and the feeling that you wasted all your time and hard work. This is normal. I repeat, THIS IS NORMAL. What doesn’t help is getting so bent out of shape that you ruin whole day. It does hurt, but remember, it doesn’t mean that you’re never going to get in anywhere. Nor does it mean you will never improve as a filmmaker. And, it has absolutely NOTHING to do with your worth as a person or a storyteller. It’s not easy, but if you can accept this, give yourself a day or two to feel sad, and then move on to the next submission or film, it can get easier. Oh, and NEVER EVER write a mean email back to them – they’re human beings too, and they all talk to each other.

So now that I’ve gone through my mistakes, here’s what I learned:

7 Lessons I Learned from Film Festival Rejections

1. Research Festivals Before Submitting

When I started out, I made a point of submitting to every festival that was local or regionally based – they almost all have a local films category, right? What more do you need to know?

Well, you need to know their audience, the type of films they program, and just because they are looking for local filmmakers doesn’t mean your film is a good fit. The local films need to fit the overall program too!

2. Get Feedback & Fine Tune Your Work 1st

An important part of post production that I skipped when making my first short films – showing them to people! I would put everything together, make sure it was close to the script, and get it done before the deadline.

The bottom line – you need to get several sets of eyes on the film during post – often they find mistakes you will miss. And if you fix them, your final film can turn out even better than expected. The industry has done test screenings for years to get feedback before bringing out the final cut – so should you!

3. Keep Making Films

So, your first film didn’t make the festival grade? Make another one! And another, and another. Sooner or later, as you develop your voice, get feedback, and keep your passion and persistence, one of them will be ready for you to submit proudly, regardless of the outcome.

Look at your first films as practice, and if you need to get them out so people see them, there’s always YouTube, Vimeo, and other content sites. If you do happen to be that wunderkind who makes an amazing debut film that blows us all out of the water and gets into Toronto, Slamdance, or Sundance, congratulations! Oh, and have some sympathy for the rest of us, okay?

7 Lessons I Learned from Film Festival Rejections

4. The Latest you Should Submit is the Regular Deadline

The benefits are obvious: you save time, money, and help your chances. The programmers are fresh and have more of a blank canvas to work with, as opposed to trying to find a few final films to help them round out a mostly completed block.

Remember, most of these festivals aren’t going anywhere (especially the top tier), so if it’s not ready by then, keep working on your film and submit it on the super early bird deadline next time.

Speaking of top tier festivals, here’s my strategy: you can’t win if you don’t ante up and play a hand, so pick a few of them after doing your research and submit super early, then move on to…

5. Do your Festival Homework!

The first step is obvious – look for festivals that you or your film have a connection to: genre festivals, festivals in a location you have a connection to (you or a prominent member of your cast or crew are from there, you live there, made your film there, etc.) and knowing what purpose you have for entering the festival (distributors and sales agents attend, networking, a great experience, and so on).

Go to their website and dig through previous programs to see if your film might be a good fit, read the biographies of the creative team, and look at photos of past filmmakers and the audience attendees. This can help you figure out if it’s worth submitting or saving that fee for another festival that would be a better choice. I also recommend the documentary “Official Rejection” to give you additional insights on the festival programming process.

7 Lessons I Learned from Film Festival Rejections

6. Get to Know Festival Programmers!

If you live anywhere that has a major film festival, odds are there are programmers from other festivals that are there to see the films and find ones that are good fits for their festivals. When I volunteered at the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) a few years ago, they organized a panel featuring many of these programmers.

Much of what I learned from that experience helped inform my future submissions and this very blog post! Learn how things are from their side of the table and get to know what is important to them. You’ll come away with a wealth of knowledge and an appreciation for how challenging their job is.

7. Rejection is Part of the Process

Captain Picard puts it better than I can: “It is possible to commit no mistakes, and still lose. That is not a weakness, that is life.” You can make an excellent film, but putting your film out there means it’s going to get rejected at some point.

Many of the reasons have nothing to do with your film’s quality: how well it fits in with other films in the program, how many spots have already been taken by festival alumni or other filmmakers, or it simply not being the right time for your film, or the right fit.

Remember, your job is to make the best film you can and sell it as well as you can. Whatever festivals decide to do with it is out of your hands. Focus on what you can control. Move on to the next festival or film.

In Conclusion

No matter how many times you do it, there is always that nervous feeling when you submit. Remember: you made a film. You went through that whole process from start to finish, and something that was just an idea or words in a script is now a finished film. Whether it turned out festival worthy or not, that sense of accomplishment you feel is real, and earned.

No amount of getting turned down can ever take that away. And one day, when you do finally get that email that starts with “Congratulations!”, that’s your cue to smile big, and enjoy the feeling that getting turned down all those times was worth it. Thanks for reading, and good luck!

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About the Author

Brian Carlin

Brian Carlin

Actor, Director, Playwright, Producer, Screenwriter

Hello! Nice to meet you (well, on Stage 32 anyway)! Like I'm sure many of you are, I'm here to work on turning my passion into my career. I'd be happy to help you on your journey, whether that's through directly working together, trading advice, being a sounding board, or just talking shop and learn...

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