The Film Festival Marathon Runner!

Sara Team Living Spirit has recently been joined by Sara Morrison, as head our festival submissions co-ordinator. I was getting overwhelmed with the whole process of festival submissions and I needed someone reliable and constant to deal with it, someone who could see the process through for maybe up to a year without having to take time off to go do something else. I have been in touch with Sara, on and off for a couple of years now, as she has a very interesting screenplay which she is developing. 

Sara is also an Associate Producer on Gone Fishing, and when I asked her to bring her extraordinary research, organising skills and tenacity to the job, she jumped at the opportunity.  At the start of the process, she had very little festival experience…  Now, after maybe 100 submissions, she has it nailed! I asked her to share her thoughts and experiences with us all. Here’s what she has to say…

It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the number of festivals there are out there, as I was when I first began sifting through the seemingly never-ending list, but I soon realised that there are a number of factors that will dramatically narrow your focus.

Firstly, there are a surprisingly large percentage that are only open to the residents of that particular country.

Secondly, there are many festivals solely dedicated to particular genres of film whilst others won’t accept films already shown in festivals in the same geographical area as their own. Additionally, your film simply may not fit the technical criteria for submission in terms of runtime or available format. And then there are other factors to consider such as whether a particular festival has an established reputation – i.e. whether it has any influence inside the film industry; whether it’s an AA (Academy Award) qualifier or recognised by any other important institutions such as the British Council.

Personally, I have found the quality of the website to be a pretty reliable indicator as to the importance of the festival and how professional it is. I don’t mean how hi-tech it is or how impressive the graphics are – I mean about how easy it is to navigate. I have followed some links to websites where I can’t even find the page for the festival, let alone the submission regulations or entry form!

Some links seem to take you to regional websites which I assume have been set up by the local government for the area and then the festival is at best difficult to find, and yet other links frustratingly seem to take you to search engines rather than actual websites. When this happens, I must admit I give up immediately – unless I know for a fact (from reading testimonials for instance) that the festival is worth pursuing, as there is no point in wasting precious time on festivals that can’t be bothered to make sure their websites are user-friendly when there are so many thousands of others to check out. For me, it’s just another way of making the whole process a bit easier for myself as, owing to the sheer number of festivals out there, I am basically looking for excuses to rule individual ones out.

Of course there are exceptions to the rule and a poorly-designed website doesn’t necessarily mean a poorly-organised festival so, where possible, it’s important to check out the festival’s background on the ‘About Us’ section of the website and read their mission statement if they have one – the absence of either of these elements usually makes me suspicious.

6a00d8341e322053ef00e553db2c8e8833-800wi Another thing to take into account is the submission procedure itself. With fantastic websites like where most of the hard work is taken care of on your behalf (you can upload everything from press kit to synopsis and even pay online), it’s always a big turn-off when you encounter a festival with archaic administration that you have to apply to direct. It’s not too bad when you can at least print off the entry form and post it with your screener, but I have come across some websites that actually require you to send off for the application form itself! And then, conversely, there are those that you can actually apply to via Withoutabox, but which request ludicrous amounts of extra materials on top of those already uploaded, and which have painfully specific procedures for posting and packaging said materials – and all this even before you have confirmation that your film has been accepted. This, to me, seems to run contrary to the whole purpose of websites like Withoutabox.

When I started submitting to film festivals for the first time, I was utterly amazed at just how long it all takes. Once I had searched, researched, submitted online, got the relevant materials together and then stuck them in the post, I discovered it can take 5 hours to submit to as many festivals! And then I have had to be especially vigilant when it comes to keeping a record of which ones I’ve applied to, together with specific details including contact names. No matter how organised or efficient you are, failure to keep a record will undermine all your hard work. You may think you’ll easily remember where you’ve applied to – believe me, you won’t!

And one thing I’ve noticed is that many of the smaller festivals like to give themselves names that cause them to be easily confused with larger, more famous festivals so you end up with numerous festivals with very similar names. Keeping records will save so much confusion later on – and it’s not cheap if you mistakenly apply to a festival twice.

Finally, I would like to recommend a brilliant web resource for their  Directory of International Film and Video Festivals which is a comprehensive listing of festivals all around the world. Clicking on individual festival names brings up basic information such as submission deadline and date of festival as well as a direct link for the festival’s own website. I have found this to be the single most useful festival resource after Withoutabox, as there are many festivals which aren’t yet set up through their website.

And, of course, sometimes there is simply no way of telling whether or not a festival is worth applying to; in these instances I have followed my instincts.

Happy Festival Hunting!


If you want to see some of our festival misadventures, you can watch our video blogs here… The best is Rhode Island, second The Bahamas, and third is Oldenburg!

Onwards and upwards!

Chris Jones, Film Maker and Author

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