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  • Writer's pictureSam Avery

5 Tips for Successfully Submitting Your Film to Festivals

With so much competition out there, what can a filmmaker do to ensure their film gets noticed by film festivals? As filmmakers ourselves, we wish we knew the exact formula... But the reality is that all festivals have a very limited resource working against them: TIME


Q&A Session with Filmmakers at the 2022 Blackbird Film Festival
Q&A Session with Filmmakers at the 2022 Blackbird Film Festival

Hi there! My name is Sam Avery and I've been the Director of Programming at the Blackbird Film Festival since 2015 during which time I've screened over 10,000 short films (which is just as exhausting as it sounds)... At Blackbird, our programming goal is to select as many films as possible each season while maintaining the high level of quality and thematic motifs our audience has come to expect. However, we can only screen so many films in a weekend and so, inevitably, many amazingly fantastic films don't make the final cut... So the question becomes, how do film festival programmers, specifically those at Blackbird, determine official selections during the final stage of the judging process and why might we choose one film over another?


Firstly, it's important to know that Blackbird uses a Three Stage Judging process by which Festival Programmers (Third Stage) have no influence over the First and Second stages of the judging process. First and Second stage judges work independently to rank and review films based on their own preferences. However, if a film is recommended forward by both First and Second stage judges, it enters into the Final Programming stage. Once in this final stage, our programmers have the power to select any film, for any reason. It's at this stage of the process that filmmakers may have some influence over the programmer's decision. During the programming stage, the number of submissions still in consideration has been drastically reduced to approximately 300 very high-quality films and therefore, programmers are actively looking for reasons to include one film over another.


So, what are the Blackbird Film Festival programmers typically looking for?


Blackbird audience members in Cortland, New York
Blackbird audience members in Cortland, New York

#1 – THEMATIC FIT

First and foremost, Blackbird programmers actively seek out groups of films with strong thematic connections so that we can curate a 60-70 minute screening block. Over the decades, I have attended many film festivals as an Officially Selected filmmaker and have experienced a wide range of programming approaches - from festivals that half-heartedly screened their entire lineup in alphabetical order without any care given to the audiences' attention span or messaging of the films to festival programs that thoughtfully treat film screenings like a one-on-one discussion around a specific filmmaker's artistic style. If you are a filmmaker submitting to festivals, one of the most important factors to consider is HOW festivals approach their programming responsibility.


Common Festival Programming:

Genre Matching

Probably the MOST common programming approach is to put films of similar genres together. For example, curating a "Science Fiction" screening that groups together films set in space or a screening titled "Romance" that includes all the romantic-comedies... While this isn't the worst approach to programming, it can be a bit limiting to both viewers and filmmakers given the films start to blur together due to their similar narrative structures, making it difficult for filmmakers to stand out in the mix. By screening films in such a general category, the nuance of their message can be lost.

Category Matching

Style Matching

Location Matching


At Blackbird, we program screenings based on the "Thematic Fit" of a film's overarching message and how it communicates with the other films in the block. For example, in 2022 we curated a screening block titled "Material World" made up of poetic documentaries, stop-motion animations, and science fiction thrillers all focused around the THINGS that make up our world. While the genres, technical styles, and production formats were wildly different across the six selections, the films in "Material World" all addressed the idea of throw away culture in creatively unique ways, giving the audience a multitude of viewpoints to consider around a specific topic. Additionally, programming in this way allows for a more robust discussion with filmmakers after the screening given that they all have taken very different storytelling approaches.


For Blackbird, a film's Thematic Fit with the other films submitted that season is one of the most important factors our programmers consider. However, it is also the most impossible metric for filmmakers to account for given no one knows (including our programmers) what common themes may emerge each year from the submission pool. For example, during the 2021 submission cycle (Jan. 2020 - Dec. 2020) Blackbird received an unprecedented number of films about depression and suicide (Read More Here) which led to the creation of several screening blocks focused around mental health, self-love, and getting help. Over the years, Blackbird has curated screenings focused around bullying (Bullies Beware), using art to understand life (The Art of Life), accessing your inner beast (Unleash the Beast), acts of service (On The Frontlines), becoming a father (The Good Dad), reincarnation and ghosts (Dead & Gone, Sorta), caregiver burnout (The Care We Give), supporting women's rights (My Body, My Choice), and even a collection of films about dating with bathroom problems (Dating, Diddles & Dung) - just to name a few!


Again, while it is impossible for both Blackbird programmers and filmmakers to know what these screening themes will be each year, it remains one of the most important ways we amplify the voices and stories of the filmmakers by ensuring each selected film is placed appropriately within a screening block.


Grey (directed by SJ van Breda) screens at Blackbird 2019
Grey (directed by SJ van Breda) screens at Blackbird 2019

#2 – QUALITY

Next in the hierarchy is quality – not only in terms of “technical production” but, more importantly, the quality of the narrative. While a professional level of control over the film's technical execution should be apparent, every technical element of a film need not be perfect if the story arch, character development, and overall message of the film is strong. In truth, Blackbird receives many high-budget films each season with masterful cinematography, outstanding sound design, stunning special effects, and superb editing that are inevitably rejected simply because the film lacks heart, meaning and/or story. Over the years, some of the most impactful films have come from filmmakers who share a piece of themselves on screen - such as Caroline Macfarlane's 2019 documentary Falling Forward in which Caroline attempts to document an older woman but the two end up connecting over the shared loss of a brother and the film becomes a journey of grief, acceptance and healing (Read More Here). With that said, Falling Forward is not a technical masterpiece as much of the footage used in the film is material that wasn't meant to be included, however, the deeply personal connection between the two women makes it one of the most powerful films we've had the privilege to screen.


Main Quality Considerations Include:


Story and Emotion

At the end of the day, a good story is very important and an audience will forgive a lot of technical issues if the journey is meaningful. So, what makes a good story? While it's not possible to provide a specific recipe for this, we find that effective storytelling is often closely related to the level of authentic connection the filmmaker has to the narrative. For example, Adrienne Lovette's 2-minute film Little bean (2020) is a simple film shot using her phone from one perspective with several jump cuts and a voice over narration... Yet, the deeply personal story of pregnancy, miscarriage, and loss during the pandemic makes this tiny film a heartbreaking emotional journey that leaves audience members in tears. It's this level of vulnerability that makes independent filmmaking so unique and programmers are drawn to it.

Talented Actors

Sound Design

Image Control


In the end, it is important to note that high quality image and sound remain important factors. Simply put, if technical issues interrupt to the narrative flow of a film, judges will typically not recommend it to the final programming stage.


Director Stephanie Ruiz poses at the 2023 Blackbird Film Festival
Director Stephanie Ruiz poses at the 2023 Blackbird Film Festival

#3 – INCLUSION

During the final selection stage, programmers will also consider a filmmaker’s gender, sexual orientation, and/or race when making official selection decisions. Since 2018, Blackbird has committed to ensuring that at least 50% of our selected films are made by women each season. It goes without saying that the US film industry has long been (and remains) a very exclusive space where most minority voices have not been allowed to speak. Luckily, in recent decades, there seems to be a shift in this and, in our own small way, Blackbird attempts to elevate as many underrepresented and diverse voices as possible.


Unfortunately, we have received a number of disgruntled emails from male filmmakers over the years since announcing this policy. Several demanded a submission refund, accusing Blackbird of "discrimination" and "sexism" to which we happily agreed and kindly asked that they never share their work with us again... For whatever reason, these people assumed this policy meant there was some sort of sacrifice being made around submission quality and/or curation integrity. However, this could not be further from the truth. Simply factoring in demographic information allowed us to more clearly see the many amazing people sharing their wonderful stories with us at a more quantifiable level. The only time this policy has any influence over programming choices is when there are two films competing for the same slot and one film is made by an underrepresented group - that info will tip the scale. While it has never been a challenge to adhere to program a 50% line up of quality films made by women, we have found it to be a non-issue in recent years given the majority of films submitted to Blackbird are now written and/or directed by women! We'd like to think this number is a reflection of a much needed shift across the broader industry.


That being said, any filmmaker who takes issue with this particular policy not submit their film for consideration.


Director Kit Vinsick answers questions at the 2018 Blackbird Film Festival
Director Kit Vinsick answers questions at the 2018 Blackbird Film Festival

#4 – LENGTH

As mentioned above, TIME is the most limited / valuable resource for film festivals. Therefore, programmers must consider the length of a film during this stage of the selection process. As you probably heard at some point, the magic length for the festival cut of a short film is 15-minutes and we have to agree - sorta. Admittedly, Blackbird selections typically average approximately 10-minutes.


So, why is this? What's the reason? In short, engagement.

Audience Engagement

Let's face it, watching films is hard (rewarding) work and every time a film ends and the next one begins, it takes a toll on a viewer's brain to set aside the emotional journey they have just taken and embark on a new adventure. The longer the film, the longer it takes for an audience to reset for the next. For example, it would be very taxing on a viewer to program five 15-minute films back-to-back. As you probably know, a great 15-minute film can pack a real punch, taking an audience on an emotional rollercoaster! Now imagine riding that rollercoaster four more times... By the the end of the third film, you'd be spent!


For this reason, we find that screening blocks are most successful with approximately 5 to 7 short films that range in length. This way, programmers can use shorter films to help audience members transition out of one film and into another. For example, start the block with a 9-minute short, followed by a 4-minute micro, then a 12-minute film, followed by another 6-minute short with a punchy 2-minute micro immediately after and ending the block with a 17-minute powerhouse short for 50 minutes of watching and 30 minutes of Q&A. This way, the audience still has enough energy to ask engaging questions!

Filmmaker Engagement

To this end, please know that Blackbird now has a submission runtime limit of 30-minutes and no longer accepts feature films. However, while this limit works well for our programming purposes, you should not limit the length of your film for festival selection purposes. Many festivals select films of all lengths. Just be sure to do your research before submitting to ensure the festival you are sharing your work with will actually consider it.


Filmmakers from the 2021 Blackbird Film + Arts Festival
Filmmakers from the 2021 Blackbird Film + Arts Festival

#5 – ENGAGEMENT

As mentioned many times above, a filmmaker's willingness to engage and participate in the Blackbird Film Festival is a huge factor for final programming decisions. While items 1-4 outlined above are not typically negotiable, item #5 (Engagement) is where a filmmaker can make themselves known to programmers by contacting Blackbird (late December / early January) and sharing a bit about themselves, their film and their sincere interest in the festival. While we can't guarantee that this will have an impact over the final selection decisions, at least there is a good chance it will draw more attention to you and your film during an important stage of the process. With that said, one thing is certain - a film festival is not a film festival if filmmakers don't engage and participate. Letting us know that you are willing to make the trip to Blackbird and represent your film goes a long way in the final selection process. Therefore, it is important to respond to festival emails promptly and complete any questionnaires we send your way. Often, we more closely consider filmmakers who promptly reply to our emails. Not only does this show us that a filmmaker is still interested in Blackbird, but also that festival organizers will not be forced to track you down if your film is selected. Unfortunately, there are always those filmmakers we cannot reach each season simply because they haven't updated their contact information on Filmfreeway. In 2023, we were forced to adjust one of our all-time favorite Official Selections to "Not Selected" because, after two months of failed attempts trying every platform, we could not get in contact with the filmmaker... This is extremely frustrating for the Blackbird staff.


So, please be sure to UPDATE your contact information on Filmfreeway as soon as possible so that our team can reach you if your film is selected and stay in communication with us.


2019 Blackbird Festival Staff
2019 Blackbird Festival Staff

Lastly, please know that festival programming is a very tedious process, wildly subjective based on judge preference, and fundamentally flawed in its ambition. Not being selected by a film festival (Blackbird or otherwise) is no indication of whether you or your film will succeed. Inevitably, many fantastic films slip through the cracks each year and you should take what I have included in this article as suggestive ramblings. Regardless of what I have said, you should make the films you want to make and tell the stories you want to tell - festival selection status be damned!


To that end, by providing you some "behind-the-scenes" insight on our programming process, I hope you might better understand our process and decide whether submitting to the Blackbird Film Festival is right for you and your film. Additionally, I'd like to offer you a 50% Filmfreeway discount code (SUBTIPS) for Blackbird given the fact you took the time to read this lengthy article. Please feel free to contact me (sam@blackbirdfilmfest.com) at any time if you have questions or concerns.


 

SAM AVERY is an award winning filmmaker and educator based in central New York with a passion for visual storytelling. After earning his MFA in Media Arts Production, Sam joined the faculty of the State University of New York, College at Cortland in the department of Communication and Media Studies where he teaches classes in Advanced Film, Advanced Documentary, Studio Television Production and Screenwriting. Sam is also the Executive / Artistic Director of the Blackbird Film Festival, an international film and arts festival based in Cortland, NY that screens over 80 independent films each season from around the world.  

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