Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Competitions and Festivals - managing the lottery mentality

As you may or may not know, Filmmakers Alliance has been in the submission phase (thru June 19th) of a competition we are presenting called the Ultimate Filmmaker Competition.

It's been interesting witnessing a competition from the perspective of the organizer - just as I once got to witness a festival from the perspective of a festival-maker when we did "DigiDance" up in Park City in 2002.

Festivals and Competitions are a lot of work. It's tough to manage and evaluate submissions. And on top of that, festivals additionally have to create and manage screenings, panels, parties and other interesting programs/events. It is a gargantuan, overwhelming endeavor. But on an emotional level, it's also tough to manage the expectations of the entrants for both festivals and competitions. Especially since I am a filmmaker myself.

The filmmakers' expectations show up in nervous questions about why they should submit - what is the submission process, what are their odds of being selected, what are the benefits of winning, etc. They get stressed out about deadlines and whether or not their submission has everything it needs to be "picked" or if the submission was received at all by the organizers. Hope (often desperation and sometimes flat-out delusion) is the engine that drives them - and that energy is often exploited by competition and festival organizers. These "opportunities" play on the lottery mentality of filmmakers (of our current culture in general, actually) that makes them feel "If I could just win, it will mean blah, blah, blah...". That could be a big "if" depending on the size of the competition/festival. And sometimes, even if you win, it can mean absolutely nothing in the end - in terms of moving your filmmaking life forward (other than what it means for your ego).

Although I truly believe the preponderance of competitions and festivals are on the level, some clearly are not. But even the well-intentioned ones can get caught up in their own needs and grand ambitions and promise things they have no real possibility of delivering. Or, at least, they have little to offer the thousands who submit versus the handful (or single winner) that is selected.


So, why should filmmakers ever bother submitting to things? Well, there are a few key, good reasons, and two of them have nothing to do with actually winning a competition or being selected for a festival. However, winning or being selected is indeed the primary benefit. It's the old lottery-mentality adage: You can't win the race if you aren't IN the race. Or the other one: SOMEBODY's gotta win. And despite my disparaging of the lottery mentality - and as much as our hope, desperation and delusion are exploited - these adages are, nonetheless, true. If you are doing top-notch work (that is also appropriate for the goals of that competition/festival), you will always have a shot - but only if you submit that work for consideration. And if you win the right competition or get into the right festival - your hopes, desperation and delusions can be addressed with real-world and meaningful benefit. But there are so many factors involved in selection (as I know well from the "inside") that you can never be sure of winning or getting selected no matter how great or appropriate your project is. So, it then becomes a sort of numbers game. You submit to enough places and you will probably strike gold with one of them. Sadly, it's no different than trying to find a life partner. You have to kiss a lot of frogs, as they say....But you can't apply to EVERYTHING - nor do you want to. Not all competitions and festivals are worth the price of admission - or even worth your time preparing a submission. There are things to research and consider before buying that lottery ticket.

But if winning or getting selected is not the only reason to enter, what other reasons are there? Well, you need to ask of the competition/festival, "What do I get if I don't win or get selected? Is there a second place? Third place? What are those benefits? What do I get just for entering?" Frankly, most festivals offer nothing if you don't get in. But they also have multiple slots for programming, so it is not a winner-takes-all proposition. And some competitions offer a wide array of consolation prizes, that open up your chances of getting something worthwhile out of your submission. On the other hand, some competitions/festivals just take your submission fee and that's the last you hear from them. You don't even get a rejection letter. That truly sucks. So the key here is to examine each competition/festival and look at your odds of getting SOMETHING meaningful out of submitting to them. Sometimes it is just feedback - which is plenty worth it for a lot of filmmakers/screenwriters.

Aside from that, what other benefit could possibly come from submitting to a competition or festival? Well, I'll give you an example. I submitted my feature film "The Dogwalker" to the Sundance Film Festival. It didn't get in, but it was seriously considered, and, it seems, admired by at least some of the programmers who were considering it. In fact, they admired it enough to recommend it to other festivals (to which I was subsequently offered invitations to screen the film or submit it with a fee waiver). Also, it kind of put me on their radar, so when I submitted subsequent films, they were looked at as part of a body of work or an evolution of it. My next two films played at Sundance. They were short films, but those are, statistically, even harder to get into Sundance than features these days. And it was made clear to me, once I got to know the programmers, that their awareness of me from my previous submission played a part in those selections.

Of course, the point here is that you never know who is reviewing your work. Competitions often build a panel of judges drawn from successful filmmaking professionals. Festivals do, as well, for their festival awards and also often have very well-connected programmers weeding through the top-tier submissions to make their selections. These people could ultimately be champions of your work in a meaningful way even if you don't win or get selected. Sometimes, especially if you don't win or get selected. They may feel your work, then, needs support more than ever since it failed to gain the benefit of the competition or festival. Or maybe they just become fans of your work and are looking for your next project so that they can get behind it even more strongly.

As a filmmaker, I will continue to submit to festivals and competitions. Especially given how tough it is to find opportunities for emerging and/or independent filmmakers to get their films made. Any bit of support is meaningful. But I submit to these things judiciously. Although each individual submission fee will not break the bank, they add up significantly when you are doing dozens of them. So, I simply ask myself a set of questions about each competition/festival before I submit. If all or most of them can be answered to my satisfaction, then I submit. And the questions are these:

For Competitions:
Is this competition right for my project and is my project right for it? (MOST important question. Otherwise, don't bother).
What is the competition offering as a prize?
What is the submission fee versus what is at stake?
Does the competition have more than one winner?
Are there consolation awards? If so, what are they?
Do you get anything at all for just submitting?
What is the competition's level of prestige/visibility? (will a win at least look good on a resume?)
What is the competition's history and reputation? (If it is the competition's first year, what is the organizer's reputation?)
Who's evaluating and/or judging the submissions?
Does it offer other opportunities to connect with filmmakers and/or beneficial filmmaking professionals?

For Festivals:
Is this festival right for my project and is my project right for it?
What is the festival's history and reputation? (If it is the festival's first year, what is the organizer's reputation?)
What is the festival's level of prestige/visibility? (will selection at least look good on a resume?)
What is the quality of programming?
What is the submission fee?
Does the festival offer awards?
What other events/activities does the festival offer?
Does the festival attract quality filmmakers and/or filmmaking professionals?
Does it offer opportunities to connect with them without stalking them?
Where is the festival located? (Is it someplace I'd like to visit, in any case?)

Obviously, the answers to all of these questions don't have to be ridiculously fabulous. But when assessing the answers, the positives should clearly outweigh the negatives. And if they do, then I roll the dice. And I rarely lose....because I've already proven to myself that something good will come out of it.


  1. Thank you Jacques for steering me in the right direction. Your article is perfect timing for me. xo - Cathryn de Prume

  2. thanks for being honest, filmmakers should be able to exploit their own work....paying to play never seemed fair. It's a game of keeping up appearances for festivals, the engine is fueled by trend and celebrity because at the end of the day the festival wants to make a name for themselves (a brand) that sets them apart and draws in more money and popularity (lets not forget its done so all under the guises of being "indie").