Being Rejected By A Film Festival Sucks


As a film kid at heart, the bittersweet part for me about attending any film festival is knowing there are countless films that didn’t make the cut.

Obvious fact: Rejection sucks.

I’ve been there. With my short film in college, I said a silent prayer every time I hit submit on or dropped a DVD in the mailbox. It’s perfectly human to want to know why some mysterious gatekeeper didn’t like your work. The feedback I received ranged from your standard form email to a hardcopy notice mailed to my apartment. Thanks, I guess.

Times like that you just wanna reply “Well can I least get my money back?”

A friend recently emailed me for advice as she was in a similar situation. I think this is something a lot of new filmmakers don’t like to talk about until AFTER they get that first “yes”. Hindsight is 20/20, right?

So here’s a little food for thought:

Did you send in a rough cut? Programmers see a ton of films and if yours has changed a lot, I don’t think it would hurt to contact the festival and update them. Also, if you’re going to submit a rough cut, always submit in the early deadline. There will be less films on the chopping block and more chance they’ll remember you [heard from a Tribeca programmer on Twitter]. I’ve read repeatedly that programmers appreciate rough cuts that are as close to the final version as possible. If not, you might want to wait until it’s ready. My gut says when in doubt, email/call the festival for a clear idea.

Do you need fresh eyes? We all get to that point where we are just TOO close to our films. Depending on the type of feedback you’re getting directly from the festival, I suggest holding a small screening of the latest cut with a group of people you trust. Bonus points if these folks know as little about your film as possible.

Should you wait a year? Festivals usually say in their guidelines if the film needs to have a specific production date. If you decide to tweak the film after getting feedback, that’s an option. Keep an eye on the calendar. Winter fests have summer submission deadlines and vice versa.

Should you cast a smaller net? Really think about what makes you and your project distinct. Are you a first-time filmmaker? Asian? Gay? Is your film a noir animation set in Iowa? It’s cool and all to want to hang with the big dogs, but don’t automatically pass on the niche festivals. The pool of contending filmmakers is much smaller and the programmers are often more willing to take chances on stories that might be passed over at larger festivals.

Should you go international? Most fests prefer to have premieres of some kind. It makes them look good to know they discovered “the hit film” first. In the premiere hierarchy, it goes: World, North American, U.S. and some fests even promote “state”. The first screening is the world premiere. Even after screening overseas, you would be eligible for North American and U.S. (and state) which is still good news to festivals. It’s how Toronto (in September) works with screening films that play at Cannes (in May).

Have you asked for help from the right people? AKA folks who have had films screen at festivals. I find that shorts filmmakers are usually the most eager, down-to-earth people at film festivals. Look to see if their contact information is listed in the official program (print or online version). Even better, try to speak with them and exchange business cards. Google and Twitter are great resources too. Bottom line, knowledgable folks don’t put themselves in these social circles for nothing. Get talking!

Back in the day, programmers were these mysterious groups of gatekeepers, but now many festivals are embracing transparency. Are you following any film festivals on Twitter or Facebook? E-newsletters are chock full of insider info. I personally follow individual programmers on Twitter who provide great tips as they’re going through submissions. One of my favorite goldmine resources is the Film Festival Programmers (In Their Own Words) series from Indiewire (2011), which included:

Tribeca Film Festival 

SXSW Film Festival

Sundance Film Festival 

LA Film Festival

Palm Springs International Film Festival

At the end of the day, some films don’t need to have a festival laurel. Your job is simply to find the best way to present your project to a hungry audience.


Have you ever been rejected by a film festival? How did you regroup?



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