I’m asked a lot about film festival release strategies, and so here are my recommendations for a year one release strategy for emerging Canadian filmmakers. Eventually, as you gain more experience in the sector, you will be able to develop more specialized film festival strategies.
Screenings are important for filmmakers because it is not making work that makes you a filmmaker in Canada, but rather it is screening works to the public, on the national and world stage.
THE FILM FESTIVAL YEAR
The film festival year in Canada starts in early September with TIFF. Every other festival in Canada is positioned in the festival year in relation to when it falls after TIFF. (This is a statement of fact and not an opinion or endorsement.)
A general film festival release strategy should therefore start with TIFF and the festivals that follow immediately after it. It’s possible you might wish to by-pass submitting to TIFF, however you should still consider it the start of the festival year in Canada regardless.
You can start your release strategy earlier in the calendar year with a focus on festivals outside of Canada. Berlin, Cannes, Sundance and Ann Arbor are among the international festivals you could look at to support the start of an international release. But you should most definitely not target a Canadian film festival that falls before TIFF for a year-one release strategy, unless you work in true experimental forms, most especially short work (where a screening at TIFF is not on the spectre of reality, especially for filmmakers who live outside of the Toronto / Montreal corridor.)
Holding the line on this festival release strategy is very important for long form works, including feature films, because so many top festivals demand world, continental or national premieres, especially for more mainstream forms. There is slightly more flexibility for shorts, and even more flexibility for true experimental forms.
FESTIVAL RUN LIFESPAN
Most films will have a 1-3 year festival lifespan, and so it’s important to target the most important festival first when in the first year of your release strategy, leaving other festivals that are interesting to you for year-two (or later) submissions.
In building your own 2-3 year festival release strategy, it’s important to factor in:
- Importance / prestige of the film festival
- Restrictions on age of film (some festivals will accept works only in the first year of their release)
- Premiere requirements and what other festival submissions that might affect
- Submission fee (I would avoid submitting to festivals with formidably expensive submission fees, unless they are A-class festivals such as Berlin)
Once you have an initial strategy developed and underway, you need both patience and flexibility – patience to wait for the results of more prominent film festivals, even as this could mean receiving only rejections for the first little while; and flexibility to adjust the end of your year-one strategy and year-two strategy as you gain a better sense of the kinds of festivals that are most interested in your work.
Resist relying on submissions platform listings (such as found on Film Freeway) to dictate your film festival release strategy. They are not objective tools for you to understand the true value of a particular festival to your work and your career. Additionally, many important film festivals use their own internal submission systems and bypass the submissions platforms altogether.
At the same time, submissions platform listings can help you locate film festivals that might become very valuable to your career. I submitted my film The Space Shuttle Challenger to this human world: International Human Rights Festival only as a result of its listing in Film Freeway and it also meeting my criteria of no or low submission fees, and would go on to win a prize at the festival that consisted of a two-month artist residency in Vienna that has already affected the future direction of my art practice. (This festival has a very broad interpretation of human rights and considers all forms, including experimental ones – I would definitely recommend fitting it somewhere in your festival strategy if its mandate fits with your work).
GENERAL TIPS TO HELP BUILD YOUR STRATEGY
- One effective way to research festivals that might be a good fit for your work is to look at the screening histories of filmmakers whose work you feel resembles yours aesthetically – you can search their website or simply google their name / film title and see where they’ve screened in the recent past.
- Always ask for an entry fee waiver (which means you will not need to pay the submission fee) – many festivals will offer one on request. If you’re not sure who to email on a staff list, email a person with a programmer title.
- Never submit a work in-progress to a festival, unless it is 99% finished with only minor logistical elements remaining; if a festival requests a preview, you can ask them to wait until you’re at an advanced stage of finishing.
- Make sure you subscribe to the email newsletters of festivals you are most interested in, to ensure you do not miss their annual call for submissions or other relevant opportunities they may offer
MAKE A GREAT FILM!
This is sometimes tough to hear, but if your film isn’t getting traction on festival-play, it may be that you need to improve the quality of your filmmaking aesthetically and technically.
Every filmmaker has some films that will do better than others, but if you are consistently having problems getting screenings outside of local community events, then it’s important to do some soul-searching about your filmmaking practice and your expectations.
I know many filmmakers who are quite happy to work as community filmmakers, helping other filmmakers and making their own films to screen at home region community events. There is nothing wrong with this. If, however, you are seeking career advancement as a professional filmmaker and you are not securing screenings, you need to dare to make an intervention in your career and figure out how to become a better filmmaker somehow.
The most prestigious film festivals tend to be on the lookout for unexpected works that don’t look like other films. It’s a tall order, but many filmmakers succeed at this, some repeatedly. Programmers look for films that are memorable; films that they are still thinking about the day after having watched it. Technical quality – barring audio comprehension – isn’t a super high element on the assessment scale, unless it relates to true experimental works (most works that are labelled experimental are not actually experimental).
Neither TIFF nor HotDocs will screen short films that have already shown in Toronto, and TIFF will not screen features that have previously screened in Canada.
- TIFF (fall) – all forms / genres (BIPOC festival director)
- ImagineNATIVE (Indigenous filmmakers) (fall) – all forms / genres (BIPOC festival director)
- HotDocs (spring) – documentaries (prefers industry / mainstream forms)
- Images (spring) – experimental works
- Festival du Nouveau Cinéma (fall) – all forms / genres (not receptive to political subjects)
- RIDM: Montreal International Documentary Film Festival (fall) – documentaries (open to a wide range of styles)
- Regard (Saguenay) – shorts, all forms / genres
- FIFA: International Festival of Films on Art (spring) – all forms / genres
None of the above festivals will screen a film that has already screened in Quebec.
Other Canadian Festivals:
- Vancouver International Film Festival (fall) – more mainstream forms
- Antimatter [Media Art] (fall) – experimental
- WNDX (fall) – experimental, with a focus on prairie films (BIPOC festival director)
- DOXA (spring) – documentary
- Dawson City International Short Film Festival (spring) – all forms / genres
- St. John’s International Women’s Film Festival (spring) – more mainstream forms
- Ottawa International Animation Festival (summer) – all animation forms
- Berlin – all forms / genres
- Sundance – all forms / genres + pays special attention to Indigenous filmmakers
- International Film Festival Rotterdam – all forms / genres
- Hamburg International Short Film Festival – all forms / genres
- Ann Arbor – all forms / genres; more experimental focus
- Athens International Film and Video Festival – all forms / genres
- Visions du Réel – documentary (open to a wide range of styles)
- L’Alternativa Barcelona – all forms / genres; independent works
- Jihlava – documentary (very broad interpretation of documentary)
- Festival du Cinémas Différents et Expérimentaux – experimental only
- Winterthur – shorts (all forms / genres)
Other Festivals Friendly to Short Dramas (Live Action Works)
- Clermont-Ferrand (spring)
- SXSW (spring)
- Aspen Shorts (spring)
- VIS Vienna Shorts (spring)
- Huesca (spring)
- Drama (fall)
- Calgary Underground Film Festival (spring) ** in spite of the “underground” name, it is actually focused on independent dramas (live action works) and is not an experimental film festival
- Female Eye Film Festival (spring) ** formidably expensive submission fee – only submit early-bird!
Latin-focused Film Festivals
- Coming soon!
Other Festivals Lists
- Academy Award short film qualifying festival list
- Finish Films – Top Film Festivals in the World
- Short Film Festivals List (NZ)
- Indigenous Film Festivals List (curated by ImagineNative)
- Experimental Cinema (calls for entry)
Film Festival Submission Platforms
* There are many exceptionally-important film festivals that do not use submission platforms, so use with caution!
- Film Freeway (North American focus)
- Festhome (South America’s standard)
- Short Film Depot (Europe focused)