Thursday, December 10, 2009

I Just Got Rejected From Sundance

Yes, I did. Apparently along with many thousands of you!! Here's what the note said:

RE: 7543-USF- My Last Day On Earth

Dear Jacques,

On behalf of our Programming staff, I would like to thank you for submitting your film to the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. Unfortunately, we are not able to include it in our program this year. We received a record 9,800 submissions this year, and many tough decisions had to be made in order to narrow the field down to under 200 films. Please know that your work was carefully considered by our team, and we viewed far more worthy films than we had room for in the program. I sincerely hope that this decision does not discourage you in any way. We wish you the best of luck with your film, and we look forward to having the opportunity to view your work in the future.


John Cooper

Director, Sundance Film Festival

Nicely direct and honest. And having programmed screenings, I completely understand how difficult it is to make decisions (nearly 10,000 submissions ?!!!) about what to program and many good (sometimes even great) films fall by the wayside. And, admittedly, it is a bit easier for me to take because I've already had two short films in the festival and it doesn't feel as much to me like some mystical Holy Grail experience. But it is an extremely fun, prestigious, ass-kicking festival that strokes your ego in a dozen different ways and does indeed carry a lot of professional clout on your resume. So, like the rest of you, I'm disappointed.

But I will go to the festival because I love it (why else would I be disappointed?) and because I need to be there for professional reasons. And I will have those hangover-bleary, ego-fueled moments sitting in a morning shorts program and thinking "WTF?!! How could they program this abomination over MY film?!!" But experiencing art is a subjective experience as is developing a festival program. We and the programmers are not the same people so we will respond to things very differently. I know a lot of the Sundance programmers, by the way, and they are, by and large, smart, lovely people with a strong film aesthetic - even if it occasionally differs from mine. Ultimately, they made the right decisions for them, not me. And since they are the festival programmers and I am not, they made the right decisions for the festival, not for me. As it should be.

So, where does that leave me in regards to me film? Well, after having my internal mini-tantrum about what fools these programmers be, I settle into resigned disappointment. From there, I turn my steely gaze to my film.

"If I'd truly made a masterpiece, they wouldn't be able to reject it, right? Even if they got 10 billion submissions! Especially since I'm a festival alumnus. And I know the programmers!! My film must suck, then!"


Well, of course, it never hurts to look at your film objectively. And the fact is, if a film is truly a masterpiece or striking/original in a profoundly compelling way, it does leap to the top of most programming lists. My film will not be universally embraced as a masterpiece - or anything close to it. Nor is it profoundly compelling in any obvious way. It is a strong, beautiful film with a rather simple, but affecting energy. It may be profoundly compelling to some, but certainly not to others. Maybe the film does suck or, conversely, maybe it is incredibly brilliant in a way that is not obvious to the current programmers. There's no way to tell which is true (mostly likely, neither) at this point. I certainly have no objectivity about it. And, anyway, a film's true quality and character, short or otherwise, must take - and stand - the test of time.

"But can there really be 200 other films that are 'better' than mine?"

Well, "better" is, of course, a subjective term. There are clearly 200 films that are better suited to the festival's programming goals/aesthetic.

"But what if I don't get into any major festival? Surely that is proof that my film sucks - or that all festival programmers are idiots!!"

Certainly, both could be true. But I wouldn't lay money on it. Regarding my film - again, time and objectivity will tell me what kind of film I have. And regarding, the programmers. Most are certainly far from idiots. Most programmers at major festivals are pretty amazingly good at what they do or it eventually wouldn't be a major festival - or they wouldn't have a job at it. I've seen many good films that just don't have that indefinable quality that gets programmers across the board excited. Or it has a definable quality that doesn't allow it to fit into a lot of festival's programming agendas. But that doesn't mean it is a bad film. Conversely, I've seen films play in nearly all the major festivals that were good, but far from great. But they had something - sometimes obvious, sometimes not - that jumped out at festival programmers in a way that other films did not. You have to remember, that festival programmers, although all individuals who are very different from each other, share some things in common - like watching thousands of films as part of their job and often watching the same ones as other festival programmers. A sort of festival programmer zeitgeist can definitely emerge as a reaction to the type of work , over-all, that was submitted to them. If your film is a sensitive, coming-of-age film, as mine is, and they end up having to watch 100 such films in one particular year, then your film will have to be so wildly distinct - not necessarily "better", but wildly distinct from the other films - to catch anyone's attention. All that said, again, it doesn't hurt to, at some point, take a cold, hard look at your film and see it for what it is...and it what it could or couldn't have been.

I feel I have enough experience as a filmmaker, film lover and film programmer (even without time and objectivity) to be confident that I achieved everything with my film that I wanted to achieve - whether or not it excites programmers at any festival. It simply might not be one of those films that generates the necessary enthusiasm in programmers of major festivals who are looking at tens of thousands of short films. I'm also confident that, more often than not, a solid film, if submitted intelligently, will play in some solid festivals. So, a good festival experience is very likely. And I'll enjoy whatever festival experience happens to emerge. But the bottom line is that I did not make the film for festivals. I made the film because I had to. Because I am a filmmaker - meaning, the insistent creative energy within me demands expression through the medium of film. I made the film because, since I am a filmmaker, I want to continue to grow as a filmmaker and I can only do that by making films. Ultimately, I made the film for no other meaningful reason than the fact that I simply love making films.

That's not to say filmmakers shouldn't allow themselves to feel disappointment. Feel it. Tear your shirt off, beat your chest and wail in the streets. Cry and moan and shake your fists at the heavens. Because, having been to Sundance with films, I can tell you it SUCKS not to be there with a film. It is truly an awesome experience (if you can divorce yourself from the "professional" expectations you lay on top of it)! But know that, if you've made a solid film, other festival experiences await you. And if they don't, keep in mind the real reason you made your film. Because you love making films. And hold in your heart the deep, deep gratitude you feel for having had the opportunity to make your film. This will definitely lessen the sting of disappointment.....and energize you as you begin the journey toward the realization of your next filmmaking project.


  1. Hey man, thank you sooo much for posting this! You should have ALOT of comments on this! I recently learned I wasn't nominated for anything at Trail Dance (a much smaller film festival in OK.) And I just got so dissapointed...I try not to put my heart so much into those things, but i unconsciously still do it. But thanx man you've really lifted my spirits! I hope your film makes it into a festival, if it hasn't already! I'd love to see it! Peace and love.

    -Nolan C. ;)

  2. I applied for a scholarship to New York Film Academy that was being given by some low-profit organization. After seeing the winners from previous years I thought that there was way I could possibly lose. I got my hopes up and apparently this year the scholarship received a lot more attention because talented filmmakers applied. I was very disappointed that I didn't put my best into that film! My video was great but it was risky and I knew that. It really discouraged me at first. You make a good point. You should never be ashamed of your film. My dad framed my first rejection letter I got for an article query. It's hard to explain why.

  3. even Peter Jackson's movies were rejected in festivals..

  4. I hope your Sundance experience as a viewer rather than a full participant this year doesn't keep you from enjoying it fully.

  5. Thank you for posting such an insightful post. I have yet to complete my first film so I can't exactly relate to your feelings. However, every experience does lead you to your next, who knows what you might come up with next and how people will perceive it. Best of luck in the future.


  6. This is a really great post - you're awesome.

  7. Great final paragraph, Jacques. If one makes films for acceptance and affirmation, they won't last long, as in any field. Like all art, the deepest joy of filmmaking lies in the process...

  8. Jacques, why don't you send your film to Salon des Refusés? We ONLY screen films rejected by other festivals and we offer full feedback to everyone who submits.