This will be the first in a, hopefully, long line of guest essays in the Horrible Imaginings “Present Fears” space. What makes this one interesting is that it was originally intended for another space: the “Better Festing” blog over at the film submission platform known as FilmFreeway.
For reasons of their own, FilmFreeway didn’t think this particular was a good fit for their own website. To their credit, they were transparent about their reasons and allowed its author to share his thoughts elsewhere. Rather than get into those reasons, I’d like to spotlight the author in question.
Jason Tostevin is one of the founders of Nightmares Film Festival in Columbus, Ohio. Not only has NFF quickly risen through the ranks to be one of the top North American genre film festivals in just a few shot years, but their mission and passion for exploring genre storytelling is one that we find we have a lot in common with.
Part of Jason’s mission is a rising-tides-raise-all-ships attitude of fostering collaboration, communication, and education within our creative community. Giving him a place to put this piece was a no-brainer, and any filmmaker should consider it essential reading. [Full disclosure: Jason Tostevin is also an alumnus Horrible Imaginings Filmmaker, whose short horror film “Born Again” screened back in 2017. Check it out here!]
Now, onto the essay:
THE “LOTTERY TICKET” LIE
Want to give your film or screenplay the best chance to get selected by festivals? Be selective yourself, says our #BetterFesting correspondent, Jason Tostevin, in his newest blog entry.
One of the first people I met on the circuit was a serial submitter. He had just started out with a horror comedy short, and the guy’d never met a festival he didn’t want to submit to.
When we were introduced, he said he’d already submitted his short to 400 festivals.
“It’s like the lottery,” he said to me, “and submissions are like lottery tickets. You can’t win if you don’t play.”
That was almost 10 years ago, and despite filmmakers having become savvier regarding just about every other aspect of filmmaking and fests in that time, the belief in lottery ticket submissions doesn’t seem to have changed (especially when it comes to Sundance, but that’s for another column). So many folks in independent film feel like submissions are a game of chance, and the best way to maximize their chances of being selected is to gamble more.
And the only thing that’s really wrong with that idea is … well, everything.
Because festival submissions aren’t the Lotto. They’re an invitation to partner. And they need to be approached that way. So sending more submissions that aren’t tailored to your potential partner is a good way to rack up only two things: rejection emails and wasted dollars.
Where’d this idea come from, why does it persist, and why is it the wrong way to submit your films? Let’s explore.
THE MYTH OF THE LONGSHOT
Every year, otherwise sensible, planful filmmaker friends of mine confide that they “took a flyer” on submitting to this or that prestige festival -- a $100 raffle ticket that will change their lives if their number gets called, they say.
But what they don’t say is even more telling: they don’t talk about studying the festival or its past programs. They don’t explain how the film they’ve made is the perfect fit for the festival’s mission. They’re just hoping the fest will pluck their film at random from the hopper.
But is that how festivals pick films?
It only takes half a second of considering that question, and we all know the answer. This isn’t bingo. Festivals don’t spin a wheel and choose a selection at random. All fests are selecting films for a reason; they’re looking for something particular -- their definition of “good,” sometimes. Or in the case of the very best festivals, movies and screenplays that advance their strong mission and clear brand position. Their screeners and readers and judges are hired because they help choose films that will fit. Their criteria and score cards are designed to identify films that match the vision of the festival.
At Nightmares Film Festival, which I run with my partner Chris Hamel, we have built and communicated a clear and public vision for the festival: to elevate horror and inspire horror filmmakers. From that purpose we have developed an intricate set of values, definitions, criteria and tools that our jury team is trained on by us, personally, every year.
It’s pretty nerdy, but it’s necessary. The ratings on our judging cards tie directly to that purpose. Everything is expressly assembled to consistently filter for and choose films that match the festival’s vision, not my personal taste or a judge’s idea of what’s cool this season.
I think the fests we hear about as “flyer” submissions are doing that, too. I know probably a hundred festival directors, running a variety of events from intimate to world-leading. Every one of them has their own similar system of quantifying the kind of film that fits their fest. And there’s no “sneaking” in. Even if you catch a first-round screener or reader’s attention, if your film isn’t a match for the programming filter, it’s not getting through to the end. Flyers don’t work.
Yet, filmmakers continue to approach submissions as though selections are random -- leading to a shotgun approach that’s wasting time and money for everyone involved.
AIM AT NOTHING AND YOU WILL HIT IT
“But,” you say, “what if I accidentally made something that happens to be a perfect fit!?”
That could, and I’m sure does, happen! The question is, do you want to hope you’ve accidentally found a fit once out of every 100 times? Or do you want to feel pretty sure that every one of your submissions is in the ballpark of a fit, and has an actual shot?
Acceptance rates vary by festival, but they average out somewhere in the neighborhood of five percent, give or take. Five of every 100 submitted films plays.
“Fine, I’ll play the odds,” my friend 10 years ago might say. But they’re not odds. We must change that thinking. As we saw above, this isn’t a roll of a twenty-sided die. You don’t have a flat five percent chance to get in. It’s the best fit, not the best film.
Your submission’s individual chance of being selected is on a sliding scale based on fit. Not a fit? You’re down at zero -- you’re simply not getting in, no matter how lucky you are. A perfect match for the festival’s vision and it’s program track record? Now you have a chance, increasing with a fresh perspective, tight storytelling and whatever else the fest is looking for.
THE ANSWER WAS THERE ALL ALONG
So, how do you figure out where your submission might fit? It’s easier than you might think.
Festivals themselves have already told you all you need to know, and FilmFreeway is a rich resource for quickly finding out where your film or screenplay might be beloved. Here are four specific steps to take.
Reading is fundamental. Read the festival’s website, its FilmFreeway page and its social posts. (If it doesn’t have one or more of those things, that’s a different indicator you may want to save the submission fee). You’ll see, in their own words, exactly what a festival is looking for, from overall aesthetic and subject down to runtime, production year and language.
Review winners. See what films and screenplays have won before, then check them out. Shorts often debut online within a year of their fest screenings; many indie features are available on Amazon Prime. Watch them and ask yourself: is my film similar in style, production and length? Screenplays can be harder to find on your own, but most screenwriters I know are eager to have their work read -- find them online and ask!
Straight talk. You know that network of other circuit folks you’ve been building? Ask them who’s played where, then talk to them directly about your project and its likelihood of fitting into the program. Their personal experience on the ground will be some of the most valuable insight you’ll get -- second only to …
Go to fests! Going to festivals yourself, with or without a project, is absolutely the most effective way to get into festivals. Seeing the program will inspire your work to greater heights. Meeting the other creators will spark partnerships and provide support. Meeting festival directors will give you first-hand insight into what they’re looking for … and give you a chance to prove you’re exactly the kind of person they want to invest in as a filmmaker or writer.
At the core of the lottery ticket approach is a basic misunderstanding of festivals, and about their relationship with filmmakers. Festivals aren’t the opponent, and festival selection criteria isn’t something to be circumvented or to try luck past. By learning that criteria and targeting your submissions accordingly, you can turn it into an advantage that increases your selection percentage, makes your money go farther, and, ultimately, helps you build relationships that advance your goals and the fest’s for the long term.
Jason Tostevin is “a kind of indie prophet” according to Cinema Runner, which in 2017 named him independent horror’s most influential short-film maker. In addition to his hall of fame career as a genre director, he’s also the co-founder and programmer of FilmFreeway’s top-ranked genre festival, Nightmares Film Festival — called “the Cannes of horror,” by iHorror. Find him @jasontostevin.