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Top 5 Tips for Submitting to Film Festivals

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OMPA member Scott Ballard has been a freelance filmmaker for about 15 years, the last 10 of which he’s called Portland home. Over that time his works have been selected for literally hundreds of film festivals, and we wanted to know his secret!

He first became addicted to film festivals when one of his shorts was chosen from the New Hampshire International Film Festival while he was in grad school.

“I had such a great experience with the festival, being able to just hang out for a weekend and have curated events based around being an independent filmmaker, meet people outside of my usual circle, commiserate with people, network with people,” Ballard gushed. “I was addicted from there on.”

Indeed, Ballard couldn’t quantify the value he has found from taking part in festivals.

“I absolutely believe that I would be a vastly different storyteller if I didn’t participate in film festivals,” Ballard effused. “Every filmmaker comes to film with their own process and their own interest in what they want to express. Is the audience sitting in the seats being entertained? Are they following my story? Are they experiencing the world that I want to tell them to? The only way to get that insight to know if that’s happening is that interaction between the director, the writer and the audience that you’re delivering to. What better place to find that than a film festival?”

The wider range of film festivals he’s attended, the more he feels he has improved as a filmmaker, getting direct feedback from as diverse an audience as possible to help him learn.

“We make these films for people to watch,” Ballard said. “The whole point of spending all this time, all this money, all this effort, the blood sweat and tears is for someone, somewhere to watch it. Hopefully a bunch of people!” he laughed.

Ballard had some valuable advice for how to make your festival submission process easier.

1. Stay organized

Ballard has trained himself to automatically consider festival submission as part of his post-production process.

“Applying to a ton of festivals is great but if you don’t keep it organized, it goes to chaos very quickly,” Ballard admitted. “It is such a full-time job keeping up on where you’re at with the process. Keep up with what assets you need to send out when you do get accepted and be able to follow up with festivals when you don’t get accepted. All those things are important for different reasons and it really does become a pressure point when you’re trying to see this film through to distribution when, if you’re like me, you’re already onto five or ten other projects.”

Give yourself a meticulous organization tool to keep all these moving pieces in order. “There’s a lot of spreadsheets, I won’t lie!” Ballard joked.

2. Do your research

Ballard likes to get to know each festival before deciding to submit or not, and said that it’s easy to get clues about what kinds of films each festival skews to.

“Each festival does a nice breakdown of what their intention is, what they’re looking for, what their audiences are like. You can go see what played last year, what won last year, the different awards they give out. Maybe those films are online now because they played through festivals. Do some due diligence to be able to decide if that’s a good festival or not. There are so many festivals out there, so it’s smart to be able submit intentionally, instead of just blasting out to a bunch of festivals that might not work with your film.”

And of course, be clear with yourself on what kind of film you’ve made, as far as story, genre, and structure to help yourself get a feel for which festivals will be receptive to your work.

3. Plan Ahead

Once you have a good idea of which festivals might be the best matches for your film, take action! You’ll save money by submitting during early bird rounds and the money you save could go toward submitting your film to more festivals, upping your chances to get selected.

“The majority of festivals have a tiered submission deadline where the longer you wait to submit, the more expensive it’s gonna be,” Ballard explained. “If you can think ahead about which festivals you want to submit to and hit those early bird submissions, you’re going to save a lot of money, which means that you can apply to more festivals.”

Ballard advised submitting to as many festivals as your budget and bandwidth allow, so that when rejections come in, you still have others out there that you’re waiting to hear back from. And speaking of rejection…

4. Don’t take rejection personally

“As soon as you submit your film, remove expectation from if you’re going to get in or not,” Ballard advised. “There are so many people making movies out there and often times film festivals are a curated event, so they wanna provide the audience with the most diverse amount of content they can. There might be a quality bar that they strive to, but then after that they still can’t include the thousand plus films that meet this quality. They have to curate it in a way that juxtaposes different voices and perspectives, so it’s not personal at all.”

Easier said than done, right?

“Of course we take any rejection personally, but one of the things that I’ve learned over time is that you build a relationship with a festival, with the programmers, with the judges, so if you’re going to continue to make films, keep that in mind,” Ballard warned. “As painful at it is, take that rejection with grace, take the appreciation that they watched your film, evaluated it, and thought that for whatever reason it didn’t work. It can pay forward in spades if you’re able to show them that appreciation. One festival you might get rejected to one year and submit the next year, get in, and win an award. That happens all the time.”

5. Don’t rest on your laurels…literally

Ballard won’t discount the pride that comes with getting selected for a festival, but shared that the recognition is only part of the benefit of being part of a festival.

“When I see so many laurels, that means it’s been vetted through competition and people found value in it and decided to watch it. Those accolades can be very beneficial for your career and for getting that film seen,” Ballard admitted. “But as far as specific experience from film festivals, I’m going to make the most terrible pun, but I don’t rest on my laurels,” he laughed, “It shouldn’t be about that, it should be about, what are you going to get out of that festival experience to make yourself a better storyteller, to find more resources, to be able to push whatever you’re doing further and take it to the next level next time.”

Stay tuned for an upcoming OMPA article about Scott’s favorite local and worldwide film festivals!

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