Filmmaking For Dummies
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The secret to entering film festivals is what I call entry etiquette. Winning is beyond your control, but following the basic rules I describe here brings you closer to that win.

Don’t take it personally if your movie doesn’t make it into a festival. With many festivals receiving thousands of submissions annually, a film can easily be overlooked.

Sending a work-in-progress — Don’t!

Even though some festivals accept works-in-progress, you’re just donating your entry fee to the festival when your movie doesn’t get selected because it isn’t finished. I’ve made this mistake before and want to warn you to avoid it. Wait until your movie is completed — including music and sound mix — before you submit it for consideration. Many filmmakers eager to make the deadline for the big festivals like Sundance and Toronto end up sending a work-in-progress. But the festival selection committee rarely gives an uncompleted film the benefit of the doubt. The unfinished film is viewed alongside completed films and usually loses out. Submitting a work-in-progress wastes your time and money — and the festival’s time as well.

Entering the right festivals for your film

Your film is in the can, or in the digital realm, and you can’t wait to send it out and start collecting invitations to all the great film festivals. But wait: You have to choose carefully which festival is best to enter. You can start by going to Film Freeway for up-to-the-minute information about film festivals, including entry details and deadlines. Also, going to a film festival’s website enables you to get updated information, including entry rules and regulations. Note that most film festival websites have the extension .org, not .com; many festivals are nonprofit organizations. Film Freeway has become the norm for submitting to virtually any film festival in the world (more on this later in the chapter).

So how do you decide which festival is right for your movie? Think about your intended audience. If your movie is a mainstream piece that Star Wars or Avengers audiences would love, it isn’t exactly Sundance Film Festival fare; Sundance often looks for offbeat or controversial films. If your film is about an escaped convict who kidnaps grandmothers, it isn’t going to be accepted at a children’s film festival — unless it’s a comedy, and the heroes are an odd gang of misfits. But don’t enter just one festival — that’s like putting all your eggs in one basket. Instead, choose wisely and be selective, with good insight, how many and which festivals (and categories within) seem appropriate for your film.

The following is a list of ten top film festivals, in order of popularity, to consider for your film. The list is a compilation of my favorites, including first-film and independent film-friendly festivals and a family festival dedicated to those rare independent family-produced films.

  • The Sundance Film Festival takes place in Park City, Utah, in January, with an entry deadline in early October. This is the festival of festivals, established by actor Robert Redford and named after one of his favorite classic films, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. (That’s why he’s often still referred to as the Kid.) Sundance has become one of the toughest festivals to get a film accepted at. The festival is overloaded with submissions, and a film has to have a sophistication that Sundance audiences and judges have become accustomed to. The festival favors independent films. If your film gets accepted for screening, that’s almost as good as winning — being accepted carries a lot of merit. But it’s a tough one, so don’t rely on Sundance to be your film’s festival premiere. For information, go to
  • The Toronto International Film Festival takes place in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, in September, with an entry deadline in April/May. This festival has been around since 1976 and is considered the second most popular among the elite film festivals, after Sundance. Films are judged on artistic values and subject matter, similar to the Sundance Film Festival. Independent films are especially welcomed. Like Sundance, this festival is also difficult to get into and has become a lot more commercial over the years with a lot of major studios and movie stars premiering their new movies. Go to or phone 416-599-8433.
  • Telluride Film Festival takes place in August/September in the mountain village of Telluride, Colorado, with an entry deadline in April/July. The festival is for real movie lovers and accepts all types of films as well as experimental, first-film, and artsy styles. A lot of gems have been discovered at Telluride. Go to or phone 510-665-9494.
  • WorldFest Houston is in April, with an entry deadline in February. Like many of the other festivals, it accepts digitally finished films transferred to Blu-ray or DCPs for best quality projection. The festival accepts a wide array of styles, from films with wide commercial appeal to experimental short films, and welcomes family-friendly films as well. This is one of the world’s oldest film festivals (since 1961). Even Steven Spielberg won an award in his early career at WorldFest — as did George Lucas, the Coen Brothers, Oliver Stone, and Robert Rodriguez. This is one of my favorite festivals, run by J. Hunter Todd with Kathleen Haney. They truly respect and love the independent filmmaker. It’s also a really fun festival to attend with lots of things to do, including a boating excursion. For information, go to or phone 713-965-9955.
  • Cannes Film Festival takes place in May in the breathtaking city of Cannes, France, with an entry deadline in March. The Cannes Film Festival is in the elite company of Sundance and Toronto. It carries a different sophistication and is run with the international elegance of a European gala event. The festival accepts higher-profile films, especially with an international flair. Go to or email [email protected].
  • Sedona International Film Festival is another one of my favorite festivals, which takes place in the magical and breathtaking elevations of Arizona surrounded by the colossal red rocks of Sedona. (See the following figure.) The festival, which runs for nine days every February, welcomes all kinds of films and filmmakers. Festival director Patrick Schweiss is one of my favorite festival directors. If your film is selected for the festival, Patrick will welcome you with open arms, possibly provide you with free accommodations during your stay, and will be almost as excited about your film being in the festival as you are! The festival accepts all genres, including a special award category for Best Family Film. Check out or phone 928-282-1177.
Sedona film festival screening Actress onscreen, Erica Howard.

The Mary D. Fisher Theatre at the Sedona International Film Festival, courtesy Patrick Schweiss, festival director.
  • Burbank International Film Festival takes place in September, in Burbank, California (just a few miles from Warner Bros. studios), with an entry deadline in April. The festival accepts most styles of films, especially independent films and films from new and up-and-coming filmmakers. The festival runs for five days and includes seminars with industry professionals and celebrities. Go to or phone 818-601-2082.
  • Slamdance Film Festival takes place in January, with an entry deadline in October. Slamdance was created in 1994 to catch the spillover of films that don’t get accepted into Sundance. It’s very much a festival for independent filmmakers and first-film entrants who find themselves left out in the cold — even though they have a film that an audience would appreciate and enjoy. Go to or phone 323-466-1786.
  • Heartland Film Festival takes place in October in Indianapolis, and is also known as a very family-friendly festival. So, if your film is family-oriented, this is one of the best festivals to submit to! Go to
  • Dances with Films takes place in July, in Los Angeles, California, with an entry deadline in April/May. Also known as the “Festival of the Unknowns,” this festival boasts that it features films with no-name directors, actors, and producers. It was originally established to get away from the politics of other film festivals. It’s very first-film friendly and welcomes independent films with great stories. Go to or phone 323-850-2929.

The microphone and audio company Røde has their own film festival. The competition, called My Røde Reel, accepts short film entries that used Røde microphones for their production audio. Røde offers over a million dollars in prizes. The requirements state that your film can be up to three minutes long, that you shoot a behind-the-scenes video showing the actual production being shot, that you feature your Røde product or products in your behind-the-scenes footage, and finally, that you upload it to the Røde website.

When deciding which festivals to enter, keep in mind deadlines and entry fees are subject to change, so always visit the festival’s website or call ahead. Questions are usually answered quickly via email. You should also find updated info on most festivals on the Film Freeway website as well.

Choosing the appropriate genre and category

After you’ve selected the right film festival, you have the dilemma of entering in the correct genre and category (explained in detail in Chapter 2). If you choose incorrectly, you could blow your movie’s chances of winning or placing. Some festivals allow you to enter several genres for this reason — very helpful if you can’t decide exactly which genre your movie fits into. Is it a comedy, drama, science-fiction, or fantasy? A combination of several genres? If you don’t know your film’s genre, who does?

Usually, the judging committee won’t correct your mistake if you enter under the wrong category. It has too many entries to weed through. If you’re undecided, call the festival and ask its opinion. You can also screen your movie for friends and ask what category they feel your film falls into.

Along with knowing the genre your movie falls under, you have to choose the correct category, which is usually one of the following:

  • Animation: Utilizing traditional drawings, stop motion (like Gumby and Pokey or Coraline), or digital computer-generated images (like Toy Story or Frozen).
  • Commercial: A 30-second to 1-minute commercial whose purpose is to sell a product or idea.
  • Documentary: A behind-the-scenes nonfiction (sometimes controversial) production that makes a statement and features the real side of a person or event.
  • First feature: Your first attempt at a feature-length film (at least 90 minutes) with a cohesive story.
  • Independent film (low-budget): A feature-film length production produced with limited funds and independent of a major studio or distributor.
  • Public Service Announcement (PSA): A 30-second to 1-minute commercial making a statement about health issues, environmental issues, or any subject matter that promotes a better society.
  • Short film: Usually under 30 minutes. Encapsulates a complete story with developed characters within a shorter running time.
  • TV movie: Usually slotted within a two-hour time period on a TV network. Produced specifically for the small screen (TV) keeping in mind the TV censors with regard to subject material.
  • TV program: Usually runs within a one-hour time slot. Can be a variety program (such as America’s Got Talent), a reality show (like Keeping Up with the Kardashians — or is it Putting Up with the Kardashians?), or a one-hour drama show.

Some festivals accept screenplay submissions as well. So if you have an unproduced screenplay that you’re proud of, submit it to the appropriate festival. I entered my original screenplay Undercover Angel in the Santa Clarita International Film Festival (which became the International Family Film Festival), and it received an award certificate. I then put the award logo on the screenplay to show that it was an award-winning script, which gave the screenplay credibility and raised interest in the project. (The film was produced and released successfully a year later!) A few years later, I submitted my screenplay First Dog to WorldFest in Houston, and it too won a screenplay award — which was a catalyst in getting that film produced as well.

Writing a great synopsis of your movie

Just like when you had a carefully prepared pitch to sell your movie idea to an investor or distributor, you need to pitch an intriguing synopsis of your movie that will convince the festival screeners to consider your film for their festival. If you write a boring synopsis, they will anticipate a boring film.

Picture perfect: Selecting the best photos from your film

Photos from your movie are an important marketing tool. Film festivals request still photos from your movie to use in their brochures and marketing materials — should your film be accepted. A picture always draws the reader’s attention to an article and helps the reader to understand and remember the material more than with no photograph.

Make sure that you have photos taken on the set. Submit photos that best represent your movie, such as an interesting confrontation between your actors, or something that causes an emotion in the viewer. If you have any name stars, then make sure they’re in the photos.

When you send photos from your film to a film festival, be sure to label each photo with the name of your movie. Identify the scene and the actors in the photo with a caption. If the festival people decide to publish the photo in their publicity ads or festival program, they need to have this information clearly marked. Most festivals accept digital photos through email, or the festival can download the photos from Film Freeway’s entry site if you’re a member and uploaded your publicity photos there.

Submitting the best format securely

Only a few years ago, if you completed your movie on analog or digital videotape (as opposed to cutting on film for release in theaters), you were out of luck when it came to having a festival show your movie. If a festival accepted your movie for screening, you had to provide a 16mm or 35mm film print. Many independent filmmakers were knocked out of the game because their finished projects were on tape or digital files only. You could always transfer your finished video product to motion picture film, but that process was lengthy and expensive and the picture quality would suffer from magnifying grain and imperfections, depending on the quality of the original footage.

Now that digital filmmaking has come into its own, all film festivals have video projectors that can project virtually any form of video such as digital files, DVD, and Blu-ray. The bigger festivals also have the capacity to project your film if you provide an external hard drive in the form of a DCP (digital cinema package). Independent filmmakers can now receive equal consideration regardless of whether their project is shot and finished on an inexpensive digital DSRL camera or a professional $100,000 digital cinema camera.

Blu-ray or a DCP is the favored format when using a video projector. A Blu-ray can be excellent picture quality if it’s authored and burned properly. Burning your projects onto DVDs or Blu-ray with most computers is easy and inexpensive. A popular software application that burns DVDs and Blu-ray discs easily is Toast by Roxio. It also lets you author your disc with customized menus. You can do lots of other things with the Toast software, like convert formats and even encrypt files.

Entering onto the Film Freeway

The traditional way of entering a film festival consists of filling out an entry form and mailing it in with your film submission (usually in the form of a DVD screener or, more acceptable, a private online screener) along with your entry fee and supporting materials (still photos, synopsis, and so on). A unique company, Film Freeway, has simplified the film festival submission process for the filmmaker.

Film Freeway is a unique service that creates a direct link between the filmmaker and the film-festival circuit by allowing you to submit your film entry online to thousands of film festivals of your choice worldwide and hassle-free. Under their online private screener service, Film Freeway even gives you the option to upload a copy of your movie that can be accessed by the film festivals you choose. You can also provide a Vimeo link, if you have your film on Vimeo. Create a password so only the festival with your private password can view your film. Online film submission is especially invaluable when you’re submitting to more than one festival. Most film festivals accept, and encourage, filmmakers to use Film Freeway. It has become the traditional (and most convenient) way to enter film festivals.

Film Freeway collects all the necessary information from you online and then inputs it into the entry forms of all the festivals you want to enter. Your information is customized to each festival’s distinct entry form. This saves you from entering the information every time on individual entry forms for each festival you want to enter.

Film Freeway enables you to do a vast search on the site to find the most suitable festival for your movie, enter multiple festivals, upload scanned publicity photos from your movie, and track your entry submissions. Using Film Freeway is free; you only pay each festival entry fee and the cost of shipping a DVD screener of your film (if you don’t upload your movie with a private link).

Film Freeway is also working on a service to provide filmmakers the ability to make their own DCP (digital cinema package). This is huge! Sign up for a free account at Film Freeway, and they will notify you with updates on their DCP news as well as keep you up to date on film festival dates and schedules.

Getting an entry-fee discount

Pretty much every film festival in the United States charges an entry or submission fee, which can range from $20 to $200. Then, if you win, some festivals charge you extra to purchase an award statuette or certificate! Some film festivals offer entry discounts to students and independent filmmakers. Calling and asking about available discounts is a good idea. Festivals know that most independent filmmakers are tight on funds, so many will consider a discount on your entry if you ask — especially if you submit early.

Many festivals reward you with an entry discount if you submit your movie early. It’s an incentive to filmmakers to not wait until the last minute. The festival judges need lots of time to sort through and review thousands of films submitted each year. The discount is usually mentioned on the entry forms or festival website and through Film Freeway’s site when you’re researching which festivals you’re thinking of entering.

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book author:

Bryan Michael Stoller is an award-winning filmmaker who has produced, written, and directed more than 100 productions from music videos and commercials to TV shows and feature films. His movie First Dog had nearly a half-million Redbox rentals, and he has directed stars such as Edward Asner, Barbra Streisand, James Earl Jones, Drew Barrymore, and Dan Aykroyd. Bryan's movies have amassed close to eighteen-million views on video on demand platforms. Learn more at

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