Trying to get your movie into a film festival? Here's your crash course

The festival circuit isn't the easiest world to navigate, so we're offering a few tips in doing just that.

The festival circuit isn't the easiest world to navigate, so we're offering a few tips on doing just that

Grace Jones arrives for the premiere of "Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami" at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens.

If you're trying to become a filmmaker, it's all but assured that along that path, you'll come across the often overwhelming task of navigating the world of film festivals. Unless you're Tommy Wiseau, the narrative never really goes straight from finishing a film to having it released in commercial theatres. There are usually many middle points, the most important of which is the film festival. Only thing is, "the film festival" could mean one of literally thousands of examples happening all over the world, each of which tends to vary when it comes to the films they program, the audiences they program for and the likelihood that their stamp of approval will help you get your film seen elsewhere.

In light of this potentially confusing situation, and in honour of the 30th anniversary edition of Canada's longest running LGBTQ film festival Image+Nation (which kicks off this week in Montreal), I'm devoting this edition of Queeries to a little "film festival 101." It will — as this column's mission suggests — be somewhat geared toward festivals of the LGBTQ variety, but the lessons should mostly be pretty universal. It will also be purely of my own opinion, which might make you ask yourself...what does he know? And here's my elevator pitch for you: I've experienced the film festival from pretty much all the angles. I've worked at a bunch of them (including Toronto's own TIFF and Hot Docs). I've had my own films screen at a bunch of them. And I covered them as a journalist for over a decade (essentially living at them for a few years in there). All that said, everything I say should still be taken with a grain of salt, as explained in the following first tip...

If you feel like you need to trust your gut, you should go for it...unless your gut is telling you to only apply to the Cannes Film Festival because that's the only place your $1,000-budgeted first short film deserves to screen.- Peter Knegt , writer

Trust yourself (when appropriate)

Sometimes the best advice is to not listen to anyone's advice but your own. When it comes to your work, no one knows it better than you, and even the most expert of experts might be projecting their own bias onto your query. In an extreme example, maybe they were personally scorned by a certain film festival and don't want your masterpiece of a first film to help give that festival any credit. So if you feel like you need to trust your gut, you should go for it...unless your gut is telling you to only apply to the Cannes Film Festival because that's the only place your $1,000-budgeted first short film deserves to screen. Then maybe you should trust all the people telling you that might not work out.

Understand the circuit

There is no such thing as "film festival season." Film festivals run on a neverending circuit that is generally divided into three sections, each headlined by a few fests where the vast majority of the movies that eventually make it to theatres (or Netflix or Amazon) have their world premieres. The first kicks off in January with the Sundance Film Festival, with Berlin (February), SXSW (March) and Tribeca (April) as the other big fish in that pond. The second starts in May with Cannes, leading into dozens of medium tier festivals that run through the summer. And then comes September, when Venice, Toronto and Telluride almost simultaneously bring with them first looks at films that often have their sights set on awards season (which also isn't really a season — it lasts six months). If you have even semi-realistic dreams of screening at one of those big festivals, make sure it's the first one you apply to. Most of them require your film to have its world premiere there, so you might have to wait it out a bit depending on when your film is done. Or you can consider a different strategy...

Find your niche(s)

Within the noted circuit are a bunch of wonderful specialized festivals. There's literally a film festival out for everything, certainly when it comes to LGBTQ films. There are general LGBTQ festivals, lesbian-specific festivals and transgender-specific festivals. And there are also a ton of festivals dedicated to possible intersections in your work, both in terms of form (documentaries, shorts, experimental) and representation (gender, race, religion). Not all of these festivals are going to be as glitzy and glammy as Toronto or Venice, but they are often the best place for a first-timer to get their festival feet wet — and find a sense of artistic community.

Tommy Wiseau at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival. (Rich Fury/Getty Images)

Don't send too many annoying emails to programmers

​This is key. Festival programmers are typically under extreme amounts of pressure when they are putting together a festival, often watching films on a nonstop loop for weeks on end — which means they probably don't want to spend whatever spare moments they do have responding to your anxious email asking if they've got your film. And they definitely don't want to respond to the anxious email you send after that asking if they got your first email. Just relax as best you can. If you got a confirmation that your film has been received when you sent in the application, it means it's been received.

If at first you don't succeed...

You know the drill. But seriously, do keep in mind that your competition is often insane (thousands of films are submitted to Cannes every year, for example, and only around 50 features and 30 shorts screen in competition) and that ultimately your film might just not be the right fit for that festival's program that year. Or maybe the first time around was just a learning experience, and it's time to pick up the camera again. In the end, it's better to get your first festival audience for the film that best represents your talents anyway.

Got any more questions? You can tweet me @peterknegt and let me know.

About the Author

Peter Knegt has worked for CBC Arts since 2016, writing the LGBTQ-culture column Queeries (winner of the 2019 Digital Publishing Award for best digital column in Canada) and spearheading the launch and production of series Canada's a Drag and interactive project Superqueeroes, both of which won him 2020 Canadian Screen Awards. Beyond CBC, Knegt is also the filmmaker of numerous short films and the author of the book About Canada: Queer Rights. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter with the same obvious handle: @peterknegt.


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