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Film Festival Submissions: Part 1 — The Agony and the Ecstasy

Sharon Katz talks with independent animators Patrick Smith and Signe Baumane about the agony and the ecstasy of entering ones film into festivals.

The festival circuit is the traditional way for filmmakers to show their work and applicants need to target the right venues.

The festival circuit is the traditional way for filmmakers to show their work and applicants need to target the right venues.

Congratulations, you just finished a film. Now, you can put it in the bottom drawer or send it out to festivals. Nobody I know takes the bottom drawer option.

That leaves two big questions: Which festivals do you target? And how do you deal with the rejections?

There are a myriad of animation and film festivals out there, so how do you choose among them? If you go wide, it may cost thousands of dollars. If you go narrow, you may miss just those venues that are looking for your kind of work.

Because the stakes are so high and the energy around this issue is so charged, I decided to ask two fellow animators to share their highs and lows with us.

Patrick Smith and Signe Baumane are independent animators, both living and working in New York City. Patrick managed to get his last film, Handshake, into what to looks to me like a record number of festivals for an independent filmmaker more than100. Signe wasnt far behind with her new film, Dentist, which hit about 55 U.S. festivals. Whats the secret of their success and what kind of resources did they put into it?

Sharon Katz: Pat, what are your hopes and dreams for your films?

Patrick Smith finds that film festivals are important because they assemble a large group of people who are very interested in film. Also, its an epic party and gives the lone animator a chance to meet others and see many films.

Patrick Smith finds that film festivals are important because they assemble a large group of people who are very interested in film. Also, its an epic party and gives the lone animator a chance to meet others and see many films.

Patrick Smith: I hope that they mean something to people, just like other films have meant something to me; that they will influence other artists in the way that others have influenced me; that my work will age well, remain solid and truthful. I hope that I learn from each film (in craft and in storytelling), keeping up a curve that will benefit future work. I know that sounds cheesy, but its really true.

SK: What role do festivals play? How important are they to you?

PS: Film festivals are important because they assemble a large group of people who are very interested in film. This audience not only sees your film, but sees it in a fantastic venue with top quality picture and sound. The people who come can be critics, buyers, festival programmers, or fans; all of which are important to the independent animator. Festivals also give you a chance to meet the audience, answer questions about your technique or style, or whatever.

Its thrilling to talk to an animator about work you admire and respect the hell out of. On a lighter note, its an epic party. Its fun to be away from the studio, stay out all night, watch hundreds of films. Its a good time to recharge and get inspired by others (their work as well as their personalities).

SK: Signe, what are your submission strategies? I was advised years ago to Get rejected by the big fests first. Does that work for you?

Signe Baumane has strict guidelines to which she adheres. She doesnt aim for big festivals, but submits to events closest to her finish date.

Signe Baumane has strict guidelines to which she adheres. She doesnt aim for big festivals, but submits to events closest to her finish date.

Signe Baumane: I dont submit to the big festivals first and wait for their response (more often than not its a rejection). I do submit to whatever festival is closest to my finish date.

I dont submit to smaller festivals that would not waive a fee. So, when I see there is a festival I am vaguely interested in submitting to, I email or call them and ask for a waiver or discount, There are hundreds of festivals every day, so when a festival tells you, No we wont waive your fee, the festival didnt meet your criteria and you move to another festival. Yes I know writing emails takes time, but it does save me some money which I dont have, I know festivals dont have money either, but I do give them my film for free, dont I?

When Im out of town, I dont submit.

So I think I submitted to some 60 to 70, paid maybe six entry fees (that I know because my check book tells me, but never more than $25 per fee that is a very strict rule of mine) and got accepted into 55 festivals.

My biggest expense submitting to festivals is the postage and VHS or DVD replicating (Im faithful to one company for the last eight years Rainbow Video and my favorite employee there is Geo). When I pull my taxes together in March I see that I have spent about $600-800 on postage alone, and about $1,000-1,200 to Rainbow Video.

I save this money by not buying new clothes, by not eating out more than once in two weeks and a few other tricks. Its a lifestyle, you know what else I can say?

Patrick managed to get his last film Handshake into what seems like a record number of festivals for an independent filmmaker  more than 100. © Patrick Smith/Blend Films 2005.

Patrick managed to get his last film Handshake into what seems like a record number of festivals for an independent filmmaker more than 100. © Patrick Smith/Blend Films 2005.

SK: Is it worth it? I mean all those hours of work completing the submission forms, and then the costs on top? What about investing the energy, time and money in your next film instead?

SB: Hmm not right away. If you dont have a genius one film that everybody wants then the festival game is something that you have to think as long term. You accumulate a wealth of people knowing your name and your work and then all of sudden a festival invites you to do a retrospective and they pay your way to some exotic unforgettable country. Yes, I did spend $700 this year at the post office, but I did get to go to Brazil for free and it was amazing!

As to balancing investment in festivals versus funding my next film, in the phase when I submit to festivals I dont work on a new film. At one point I do stop submitting and start working on a new film, so that keeps everything in balance. I think...

SK: Are there festivals you really had hoped to get into and didnt make the cut? How do you deal with the intense disappointment when that happens?

Dentist is Baumanes latest work. Last year she submitted it to about 65 festivals and was accepted into 55. 

Dentist is Baumanes latest work. Last year she submitted it to about 65 festivals and was accepted into 55. 

PS: It sucks to get rejected by Sundance, but its also a bit expected. That can be said for Cannes, Berlin, Toronto, Apen, Telluride You just have to make the best film you can, and you cant let yourself get too disappointed. People have distinct tastes, some people will love something that another group will hate.

SB: Another rule of mine that I forgot to mention is never submit to a festival that has rejected you in a past, with the exception of course Sundance, Annecy, etc. the mega festivals. If a festival has rejected you once it means they dont like your style or whatever and most likely they are going to reject your future films. Why waste your time, money and, most importantly, hope?

As to your question about dealing with the intense disappointment of rejection, hmm I always wanted to get into Annecy, but learned to accept not being accepted. My films did get shown there in special programs like Erotic Animation and Avoid Eye Contact, but thats all. Am I going to kill myself over that? No.

You get used to rejection, its part of your occupation. If your skin is too soft, you cant be in the business.

Ive been on the other side too. When I programmed for a festival, I got a hate email from one of rejected filmmakers. He wrote, Dont you know how much work and money I have invested in the film! How dare you reject my film it was accepted there and there so it must be good! His film indeed wasnt all that bad. Its just that I had a specific desire for the program and a certain criteria. His film just wasnt fitting the program.

A filmmaker learns to get used to rejection: its part of the occupation.

A filmmaker learns to get used to rejection: its part of the occupation.

But I knew what he felt and now I know what programmers feel when they get hate emails from rejected filmmakers.

It isnt easy for either of us. All we can do is to do the best we can and move on.

A lot of what will determine which festivals reply with a positive invitation is the type of film that you submit. American festivals seem to seek and screen very narrative films, ones that have a clear story in the Aristolian sense a beginning, middle and end. More experimental or artistic films such as non-figurative films or films that focus more on technique seem to do better in European international animation, documentary and short films festivals which look at artistic and innovative criteria.

In Part 2 of this article Ill address more practical issues. The chore of submitting can be daunting, so Ill present valuable rules for submitting to festivals, recommendations to make the process more efficient and provide a number of important resources. There will be lists of our favorite festivals including specialty festivals, digital online submission engines, and much more. Catch you then.

Sharon Katz is an independent animator who lives and works in Ottawa. Her recently released animated short film, Slide, is now traveling more than she is.

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