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Film Festival Submissions: Part 2 — The Agony and the Ecstasy

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Festival gatekeepers dont reveal what basis they make their selection so applicants have no idea why they are getting rejected or accepted.

Part one of this series raised the important question of whether or not to keep submitting to festivals that dont take our work. The problem of course is that for those of us who are devoted to producing work of the highest standard that we can achieve, its heartbreaking not to be heard. After all, a film is only a series of frames without its audience. And so we are dependent, at least to some degree, on the festival gatekeepers who make it possible for our films to be shared with an audience.

But the gatekeepers arent telling us on what basis they make their selection so we have no idea why we are getting rejected or accepted. Except for Chris Robinson. At least he has the courage to write, The only agenda I have is to pick the films that rock my soiled socks. As for the rest, its anyones guess. The criteria appear to be totally subjective. Words like excellence, quality, best, etc. crop up occasionally, but do these words have any real meaning to the filmmakers who are trying to decide which fests might be more likely to select their work?

I contacted Janet Blatter, who just completed her Ph.D. in animation education (can you believe this?) and put the question to her.

Sharon Katz: How do we tackle the dilemma of not having published criteria for the selection process? Do we just accept that this is a lottery and get on with it?

Janet Blatter: Why are the festivals not giving us criteria? Is it because they think its impossible; or because they think its irrelevant; or because there are too few people with too few resources to establish and communicate them to the animators and the public?

I think theyd like to lay the blame on a lack of resources, but actually I believe that those who choose which films make the grade and which dont make it think its impossible and irrelevant to establish genuine selection guidelines.

Animation is not the only art form that had to come out with criteria. OK, its hard but its not impossible. And not only is it relevant, its urgent because so many people are dedicating their talent, resources and lives to this practice. Not only that, but often they are working alone and dont even have a sense of being part of a community of practitioners.

OIAFs Chris Robinson picks the films that rock his soiled socks.

SK: We know that some of our films are genuinely more successful with the festivals than others. It would be fabulous if selection committees would share their evaluation criteria with us.

JB: Yes, and for them to say that its entirely subjective is a cop-out. If you get them to talk about what is a lousy film, youll begin to get some criteria to work from. Though to be sure this is a moving target because the things that we look for in animation, as in art or design, change over time (and culture). The qualities may be difficult to express but not impossible.

In order to publish criteria, one has to make them explicit. In the visual arts we have art critics and curators who explain what it is that rocks their socks. Everybody wants their socks rocked, not just Chris. For some reason the animation community does not seem to require an explicitness of criteria as other artistic or peer reviewed enterprises do.

To leave it as simple as this film rocks my socks or this film sucks is trite and puerile and has no place in an art form with such talented and dedicated people. It sends a horrible signal to society to not take animation seriously because animators dont even take it seriously themselves.

We teach students how to come up with a language to critique every other artistic genre: film, painting, literature, music, etc. Somehow animation is off limits. I dont even want to go there because it says everything about how society devalues animation, and by not identifying and sharing their selection criteria the festivals are contributing to that.

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Janet Blatter asks why festivals dont give filmmakers criteria? She maintains that its not impossible to come up with selection guidelines, and its also relevant since people devote their lives to making their films.

So at the moment it looks like its a crapshoot animation festivals are a contest, not a competition. I asked independent animator Signe Baumane why she bothers.

Signe Baumane: Festivals are an essential part of the job we do (if that is a job we do...).

Because if they are not, then why do I keep stuffing envelopes with DVDs that cost me $3 each and entry forms that take me 20 minutes of my precious time to fill out, bring the packages to the post office and walk out of there $70 lighter every day? That would be sheer madness if this all wasnt given some meaning by me.

Festivals are our feedback. Festivals are our communication window. Festivals are our crazy hope to success and recognition. Festivals are our first outlet to our work. Festivals are our tool. Festivals are our community.

That said, I have to take it all back.

Festivals arent as important as they are made out to be. A rejection from a festival should never crush you. The feedback of rejection only means that this particular festival doesnt like your film, and you should try another one. And another one and another one. If you submit to 70 festivals and get accepted into 20, you are doing well! If you submit to 120 and get accepted to one, well... maybe you should look into the possibility that there is a very small audience for your film. Which may not be such a bad thing, that depends on what your goals are.

My films have not been popular with big animation festivals like Ottawa, Annecy nor Hiroshima. I cant despair about that. It didnt prevent me from making films. I dont make films for festivals. I am trying to make films that other people can relate to.

If a festival has 6,000 submissions each year, then how on earth can they give my film a chance? And how can I leave the important part of my job getting my film out to people in the hands of such a festival?

I do believe that each of those 6,000 films has an important message, maybe not always successful in delivering it, maybe not always standing on its own, but as a collection of images and ideas they all give human thought a different direction from the mainstream. Like an individual ant doesnt always see the Big Picture, but we see from above what the Ant Hill is.

So, when with 10 packages, I make my way to the post office for the fifth time in the week, I try not to think about my individual ant feeling fear of what I am going to eat tomorrow since my last $20 is going to the clerk. I am trying to focus on the Big Picture, on how my little film is contributing to something bigger, whatever it is.

Signe Baumane advises filmmakers, to build a relationship with a festival that has accepted your film. If they liked your film, they are your fans!

SK: OK, so given that screening your films at festivals is really important to you, and knowing that theres no clear criterion of judgment, how do you make the best of it?

SB: Here are a few things that I do: I call or email a festival that comes to my attention (and here we are not talking about mega festivals like Annecy or Sundance you submit to those no matter what and no matter what fee) and tell them about my film. I try to make it sound alluring and fun. If the connection happens via email, I send them a link to my site where they can see my artwork (but not the film).

Also dont forget to tell them that youre broke after investing all your money into the film, and animation is such a time and money-consuming bitch After all that talk I ask for a fee discount. In 95% cases they give me a break on the fee. If they decline, then move on and contact the next festival. There are so many festivals, that the only way to weed them out is by asking if they would waive a fee. If they dont, they are out!

I have to say that connecting before they even get your film works magic. If I just send a film and a check, most likely the festival wont take it. If I contact them and ask for a discount, they are more interested in my film I am not sure how and why it works this way.

Build a relationship with a festival that has accepted your film. If they liked your film, they are your fans! Be very supportive of their needs give them everything they ask for at the very moment you receive their request. The next time they may not like your next film as much but they will remember you were fun to work with and theyll go for it!

In Part 3 of this series I offer a basic guide to applying to film festivals, and oh yes, that list of rules, recommendations and resources. See 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.