What To Do When Film Festivals Reject Your Film
Many years ago I made my first feature film with a budget of 16K. Frankly, I had no idea what I was doing and I thought I had something special, but in reality the movie I made was a piece of crap. It was so bad that the technician doing the color correction at Fotokem was constantly laughing… and it wasn’t a comedy; it was, well, “horror!”
The film never made it to a film festival. It never got mentioned in any Indie Film magazine or blog. It was a complete disaster and I was finished as a filmmaker… or at least that’s how I felt.
Perhaps you are in a similar situation. You spent time, money, tears and sweat making your film and now, nothing happens. Film festival after film festival rejects your film and you feel like dying and giving up. All of your dreams and hopes seem to be collapsing in front of you and you have no idea what to do.
I felt the same… and worse. I remember thinking that I just wasn’t good as a filmmaker, that I should do something else and forget this crazy business.
But I’m not writing this post to bring you down even more, just the opposite. I want to help you put things into perspective.
Let’s start with some facts. Everyone at some point in his or her careers has made a bad film. Hollywood, with all the trillion dollars they have made bad films… And they keep making them!
When you see someone winning Sundance, what they don’t tell you is how many bad films that person made. I would bet there is one or two bad “experiments” in his or her portfolio.
I met a guy once, a very rich guy, who told me “What people don’t know is how many times I failed.”
Failure is part of the process of filmmaking, just like it’s true in anything else in life… And no matter what some say, filmmaking is learnable. I’m going to repeat that: “Filmmaking is learnable,” and as you stumble you learn. And as you learn you will acquire the skills and the know-how to make decent films people will want to see. Films that will make you feel proud. And I’m no exception; I’ve made mistakes in every film I made and I’m constantly learning. It’s the only way.
But now that I’ve got your attention (or so I hope) there is something you can do with your film to give it a new light.
Realizing that my “horrible little film” was, yes, horrible, I decided to make some changes. I put aside my pride and I listened to the criticism (Gosh it was painful!). I removed a couple of scenes, improved others, re-worked the sound track, and I did a few other things. It was still a bad film, but watchable. Film Festivals still kept rejecting it, BUT something happened. A small distribution company in NY (Cinevest – no longer in the biz) bought all the rights for the film for about 50K. Not bad considering I was about to give up on the movie. The film, called “Twisted Fate,” (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0655120/) never made me into a celebrity, of course, but it did OK in the horror genre in foreign markets. I was able to recoup the money we spent and I even got a letter from the distributor saying “how much potential I had, blah, blah, blah,” which helped me land my next film.
Ok, enough talk and let’s work on your film. Let’s find out what is wrong with it and let’s fix it. At least let’s try to improve it.
This is what I want you to do:
1 – Screen your film to total strangers. This has been talked to death but rarely done right. Why? Because this is the step that most filmmakers feel terrified of doing, but it needs to be done.
Take a deep breath and have 20 total strangers watch the film for a real for a serious critique.
For this to work this is crucial:
DO NOT invite friends and family, and…
DO NOT invite people in the “industry.”
Put together a group of regular folks, totally unknown to you, whom you think represents your demographics. It makes little sense to invite 80 year old ladies to critique a coming of age, raunchy and sexy film. They are not your audience, so any critiques from people who don’t represent your demographic are a waste of time.
Have them write down specific things that they like and don’t about your film. In this process you also want to identify what works. Don’t ask generic questions but be specific. Concentrate also on the first 15 minutes. Most festivals screeners stop watching the film if the first 10~15 minutes or so suck.
It will be a hard experience. You’ll have to swallow your pride and accept the criticism as it comes, but it’ll be worth it. Some of the comments will be brutal, some no to so much, but you need to do this to fix your film and at the end of the process, you will become a better filmmaker.
Read all the comments and identify common patterns. For instance, if 3 or more people say scene xyz makes no sense, take a look at that. Maybe you need to remove it even if it’s your favorite scene. I can’t emphasize enough that you’ll need to be brave in this process and be bold; cut, re-order, cut, and even re-shoot!
Once you made all the changes, repeat the process. Get another 20 people and see if the perception of the film has changed. If it has, you’re moving in the right direction to improve your film.
2 – Is your title the right one? I was having coffee with a distributor a couple of months ago and we were discussing titles. This was in relationship with a film we are planning. He said that indie filmmakers are horrendous at coming up with titles that sell. 1) They don’t typically reflect what the movie is about, and 2) You can’t Google them. What he meant was that people need to be able find your movie easily. Let’s say you made a movie about the “flying spaghetti monster,” but you titled it “The transcendental life of Zadoor”, will you movie show up when people Google the “flying spaghetti monster”. Most likely not, unless you did some clever SEO work. Think of this, if you Google “paranormal” guess what movie will show up on top?
So think about your title, does it reflect what the movie is about? Does it have the right exciting words so people will want to watch it? Will they find it if they do a search?
This step may not help with Festivals, but it does help with Distributors and in the promotion of the film. So, go ahead and consider changing your title.
3 – Resubmit. My second film “14 ways to wear lipstick” got into Slamdance in 1999. It was even featured in Variety magazine and it went to play it in dozens of film festivals and showcases around the world. What few know is that I submitted the film to Slamdance the previous year and it was rejected. A programmer for the festival told me to “polish it up” and to resubmit it again the following year. What I did was exactly what I described to you in step 1 and the film got in.
But let’s say you do all the things I prescribed and your film is still rejected. What do you do then?
The answer is simple: Screw the film festivals! In todays world, there a million ways for you as a filmmaker to reach an audience. Film Festival audiences are not usually representative of the audiences out there anyways. Maybe your film is not a “film festival” kind of film. Maybe your film is actually decent, but not what they’re looking for.
You build a website and promo it through there. You can reach millions through Amazon, YouTube and iTunes and you can do it all yourself. You could even make it into a series and release 3 to 5 minutes episodes. There are countless of ways to get your film to the audience it deserves, and more importantly, the audience who will appreciate it.
But there is something greater here I want you to consider. If you’re ever going to grow as a filmmaker and make great movies, it’s not a bad idea to make a few really crappy ones, and this is where I’m going to make the first distinction between a Filmmaker vs. a FilmDoer. A FilmDoer approaches filmmaking in a completely different way. A filmmaker (and perhaps reasonably) may get down or discouraged: “My movie sucks, I want to die.” A FilmDoer, on the other hand will say, “My movie sucks, I need to understand what I did wrong so the next one is better!”
The point is that making a bad film, or a so so film, doesn’t mean you suck. Making a bad film is not much different from a business venture that didn’t work out as planned. What you do? You rise from the ground, look at what you did wrong, ask questions, and now you go back and make another film which shouldn’t have the same mistakes. That is a FilmDoer.
My dad, who used to be a salesman, used to tell me that for every customer who wouldn’t buy from him, he knew he was getting closer to the one who would. At the end, everything we do in life is a matter of mathematics. Do you marry the first person you meet? Most likely not, and in many cases you find that special person many years later after many failed relationships.
So I want you to look at the bigger picture. The movie you made today it’s just a stepping-stone to the big break.
This is why I decided to start this blog, because I see a lot of talented people give up too soon.
And the reasons are the most ridiculous ones, like being rejected by a stupid film festival, or because someone in the “industry” said your film sucked, and a list of idiotic reasons.
Most often filmmakers place their career on being accepted into xyz film festival. If it doesn’t happen the world comes to an end, she gets depressed, life sucks, all his or her dreams evaporate, “and who the fuck wants to live in Hollywood anyway!”
On the other hand, a FilmDoer sees a film festival as “one” venue out of many others. He or she doesn’t place all the eggs in the Film Festival Russian roulette game, but sees them as another opportunity to get their film to the place he or she wants to take it.
Let’s use this simple analogy. Imagine you have one million dollars and you go to an investment consultant and say “Please invest this wisely,” and the guy says, “Absolutely, I’ll just buy 1 million dollars of a single stock.” If you know anything about investment you shoot the bastard. So why on earth will you put your film and your whole career in the hands of film festivals only? Rather, ask yourself this question: “Who is my audience? How do I get to them? I need to diversify!”
Your film today, accepted or rejected, should be a learning experience. Of course, some of you may be saying, “Dude, I’m up to my ass on credit card debt and you’re talking about a freaking experience?” Ok, cool, maybe you should learn that credit cards are a bad idea to fund a film, so yeah, now you know. You’re learning.
Actually, it pisses me off that some authors, and even some seminars on filmmaking encourage that type of funding for a film. Not worth it man! There are better ways and I’ll show you in another post.
By now, I guess you get a glimpse of the concept of a FilmDoer vs. a Filmmaker. It’s just a frame of mind. That’s all it is… But a very powerful one.
Don’t lose hope! Go and work on your film and let me know how things works out… but never, ever, give up.