LEGALLY SPEAKING, IT DEPENDS: How to Pick a Film Festival

How do you go about picking a film festival? Learn how to pick a film festival that’s right for your project with entertainment attorney Christopher Schiller’s advice.


Whether you have a film to enter, a script to shop, or just want to attend a film festival to see it’s like, how do you go about picking one right for your needs?

During Labor Day weekend (for those unfamiliar with U.S. holidays, that falls around the first weekend of September) the festival push for awards-targeted films really begin. Within a few days you have three major festivals, Telluride, Venice and Toronto with New York and BFI London following at the end of September/early October. These fests and others play varying roles in distributors’ positioning their wares for best buzz heading into award show season. So it would be a good time to revisit the topic of film festivals, namely, how do you pick which festival to attend?

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Every fest is different. Some are very specifically themed, some are a hodgey-podgey mish-mash of selections. Some are huge, offering a little of everything, some are very small and intimate. Some have lots of other stuff included or associated with the fest. Some are quirky, some are serious. Festivals often take a vibe (at least one) from their festival directors, especially if it’s the same hand that’s been running them for decades. So to help in assessing what kind of fest would work for you, let’s break them down a bit.

Types of Fests

I can guarantee that someone’s favorite festival will not be listed below as it is impossible to mention them all. I am only listing a few stellar examples of each. Many more perfectly good festivals will also fall into these categories.

Prestige Fests – These fests are on everyone’s radar, regardless of your place in the industry. These big deal fests attract the most attention, can mean the most to a filmmaker’s career and do the most actual business of selling films. Examples are Cannes, Berlinale, and Sundance. If your film plays in competition in one of these fests, your reputation gets a huge boost.

These show all the elements of what it is to be a festival. Getting in is truly a feather in one’s cap. Because of their popularity, they can be extremely hard to get into even just as a film fan. Even if you get in, they are so big that it is impossible to see everything. And if you aren’t in the “in” crowd, you won’t be invited to all the parties and secret events, so, even being there might not make you feel like you’ve been there. And even if your film does well at such a large event, it is easy to get lost in the clamor.

Industry Favorites – These are the fests that might not necessarily have the public’s attention, but, tend to be able to draw year after year attendance by and respect from true industry movers and shakers. Sometimes the fest can pull off the under-the-radar vibe that makes it more attractive to attend with less paparazzi and more cinephiles with whom to discuss films. My favorite example of one of these is Telluride. (But don’t tell anyone. Keep it our secret.)

Because of their industry reputation, these fests can often scoop their bigger cousins in getting Oscar bound pictures. Good buzz from a small, respected festival can often lead to an overwhelming groundswell as the film plays bigger festivals heading toward awards time.

The downside is that if you are still looking for distribution for your film, these favorites aren’t going to be the ticket, since they aren’t set up with simultaneous markets for film sales. And as a film goer, these festivals often have a much higher cost associated with attending than the festivals that can amortize costs over lots more venues and longer time frames.

Broad Fests – My term for those film festivals that bring a huge number of film choices (of sometimes varying quality levels) to the show. Their appeal is that with numerous choices you are bound to find something you like in the mix. A prime example is Toronto, which could have been easily placed in the Prestige category (in fact, a lot of fests could have multiple listings) but is a good example of a festival with hundreds of high quality films to choose from during the run. Getting your film into one of the big name broad fests can be great for your film’s success. But being a hit in a festival with lots of them kind of muffles the impact. And having lots of films means lots of people will attend, often making for long lines and lots of people to navigate around.

Minimalist Fests – In counter-programming to the big event festivals, many fests go after fewer films and have a smaller feel all around. A good example of one that does this approach is FilmColumbia Festival. These types of festivals aim for a few quality films and you can often find a great film that started its reputation at a previous prestige festival playing at a later minimalist fest. Here you’ll encounter far fewer crowds and much easier access. Though major filmmakers often do not attend these smaller fests with their fare, often you can find those up-and-comers with their first films or short films. They are quite likely more approachable and you can delve in that “I knew them when” feeling once they make it big. These are great festivals to attend if they are in your area and shouldn’t be overlooked by filmmakers or writers who can’t get to the bigger festivals.

Thematic – Quirky film festivals have a soft spot in my heart. These are fests that focus on a small, niche market and revel in it. Take the San Francisco Silent Film Festival as an example. These are usually smaller, very purposefully target audience driven. If they happen to hit a niche you have an interest in, you can easily find other people with like interests attending. You never know what kind of professional networking might result from indulging, especially if you make the types of films the fest loves.

Regional – There are tons of festivals that play up the localities where they hold them as their selling point. Some of them, like Woodstock Film Festival, have an area attractiveness that plays right into the style of festival they run. Some show off the filmmaking abilities of the region’s own filmmakers. If you live near one of these or have always wanted to visit, this gives you a reason to check it out.

Potential Scams to Watch Out For

Because festivals of all sorts pop out of the woodwork, you need to be aware that a very few aren’t exactly what they seem. There are always reports in the trades about certain festivals or contests that haven’t lived up to their billing, or worse, have actually attempted to scam festival contestants or attendees. As always, be vigilant.

Some things to watch out for when considering entering your film or script is to make sure that it really is a festival. Some advertise themselves (in small print) as Film “awards” not fests. This could mean there is no public showing if you win. You have to ask yourself, what is truly in it for you that can justify your entry fee?

Other things to make you pause is if the festival has little or no prior history, no contacts or very difficult to connect with those involved in the festival, and if you win they require you to buy your trophy if you want it.

Some of these are technically not illegal, but, still leave a bad taste and are not beneficial to a filmmaker’s building a reputation. The crux is they need to deliver exactly what they promise, but, if they intimate more, the assumptions are yours and therefore they can get away with it. Make sure you are reading things carefully. Go in with attention to detail. If it’s not stated, ask. If you don’t like the answer (or can’t get one) consider not going.

Reputation is Important, but Not Everything

A young fest could be legit, or at least with best of intentions. Being part of a good, new festival might be a great experience. And just because they’ve been around a long time doesn’t mean they’re still what they once were. Old fests could be riding on their laurels and only a specter of their past.

Whatever your criteria, pick a fest and attend. You are guaranteed to learn something and quite likely will enjoy the experience.

In case your interested, I’ll be attending the Telluride Film Festival over Labor Day weekend and will continue a tradition I’ve done for the past few years of tweeting my “TweeView” impressions after many of the film showings I attend. They are not full reviews, mainly an initial first impression in the limited space of a tweet. Not much to go on, but, fun to do. You are welcome to follow me if you’re intrigued.

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