Last week I entertained you (I hope) with a list of some of the things I learned watching 891 short films in 43 days. Now I’m back now with part 2. Festival submission fees can add up very fast, so ensure you are maximising your opportunities by keeping the screeners and programmers on your side. And whilst my focus here is on short films, a lot of these ideas will apply to feature films too.
Check out tips 1 to 10 – How to Get Your Movie Into a Film Festival Part 1, and 11 to 22 below.
11. Stars and Celebs
It does tend to help to have famous people in your film. Festivals want publicity too, so if you have familiar names and faces in your film, it’s more likely to be programmed on the basis that it will generate press coverage and draw crowds.
If it’s a comedy, please make sure it’s funny all the way through. You generally can’t string a viewer along for 10 minutes with the hope that your punchline at the end will redeem it, as you will already have lost them. With a short you’re probably aiming for about a laugh a minute.
Get rid of it. Jump straight into the story and reveal who your character is through action. 90% of the time, I don’t even care what your characters are called. Unless it’s important for the story, don’t waste time telling us their names. Likewise, we don’t need to see them being woken by an alarm clock, buttering toast, brushing their teeth or doing up their tie. If it’s not driving the story forward, cut it. As I wrote in Part 1 of this guide, start with a bang.
14. Safe or Not Safe For Work?
NSFW content – a tricky one. Broad appeal increases your chance of being screened but so does making the programmer sit up and pay attention. Festivals do make a note of any nudity, drugs, sex, violence etc. though, so make sure your nudity is motivated (it rarely is). A film about revenge porn and blackmail can become exploitative very quickly if we are seeing the victim character nude for no good reason. Also, make sure you’re submitting to the right festivals if you do have mature content – a festival programming mainly for family audiences isn’t ever going to show your gory horror short where the protagonist runs around drinking blood and snorting cocaine.
Make your opening titles good. Creative typography and tasteful motion design go a long way towards making a strong initial impression and getting the screeners on your side. How can typography tell your story?
…does not work. Sorry to the friends and acquaintances whose films I saw by utter chance; I have to justify my weekly picks, so a bad film is a bad film, whomever you are. I have heard the same advice from Sundance programmers, so I’m clearly not the only baddie around…
17. Experimental Film
Having studied film academically, I am often a fan of experimental cinema. However, make sure you’re submitting to the right festival. Be aware of your film’s narrow appeal, as a festival aiming to attract a family audience isn’t likely to programme you, even if you’re the next Chris Marker.
18. Location, Location, Location
Locations and production design do a lot of the work for you, as you can establish tone and setting within seconds. I saw far too many shorts set in dystopian societies but shot in suburban English houses with white walls and mundane household goods in the background. Perhaps that’s the vital point that I missed; we’re all living in a dystopia.
Likewise, make sure your props look good. Food, especially, needs to be done well. Your dinner tables need to be overflowing: empty space is distracting. A sumptuous feast for a satanic death cult can’t comprise a bag of salad and half a chicken on a disposable baking tray.
20. Host it on Vimeo
The major festival submission platforms give you the option to upload your film to their own servers. Don’t. In my experience these sites lack the bandwidth to let anyone view smoothly in higher resolutions than 480p. You don’t want your film to be stopping and starting every ten seconds, and neither do you want people watching potato-quality images. Vimeo would be my recommended hosting platform as it presents a more polished image than YouTube, and gives you the option to password protect the screener. I know it costs money to host larger files on there, but it’s worth it. You’ve spent this much money actually shooting the film, so you should be just as willing to spend money on getting it seen. Otherwise, what’s the point?
Make sure you’ve cleared the music rights, as some festivals may disqualify projects featuring unauthorised copyrighted material. Avoid tracks from the very well-known no-cost royalty-free music websites, as they’ve done the rounds so heavily they’re instantly recognisable as such. I would also suggest you don’t use ‘House of the Rising Sun,’ whomever the recording is by, as it featured so frequently in shorts I screened that I never wish to hear it again.
Keep it simple. If you want to make a polished traditional narrative fiction film, give your hero a simple clear objective. High concept is great. A man must drive down a winding mountain road at an average speed of 99MPH or his car will explode. When her car breaks down leaving for a job interview, a woman must get her pet dog to pull an improvised sled across a frozen lake to get there on time. These are bad examples (which you’re welcome to steal from me) but are memorable because they can be summarised in a short sentence.
As a sign-off, here’s a very short, very provocative film that has won awards all over: Dad’s Dead (Chris Shepherd, 2002). Maybe it doesn’t directly illustrate the above points, but it is generally a great piece of filmmaking. MATURE WARNING — don’t watch this with your kids.