How To Spend $10,000 on Film Festival Submissions…

…and how bogus festivals exploit an aspirational culture (the top fests too)

Heads up, the “Earlybird Deadline” for next year’s Golden Gate International Film Festival is January 18, 2022. If you’re submitting a feature film with a budget over $250, 000USD, the “earlybird” submission fee is $180.00, or just $162.00 with your FilmFreeway Gold membership ($10.99/month). If your production budget is under 250K, the submission fee to the Golden Gate International Film Festival, 2022, is $150.00. Again, you save a few bucks with a FilmFreeway Gold membership. If your feature film was produced on a “shoestring” budget, which according to Golden Gate is less than 25K, well, you can submit this feature film for a mere $120.00 (which may be more than the actual budget of your production, if you had a budget). If you are submitting a feature-length documentary to the 2022 Golden Gate International Film Festival, before the “earlybird” deadline, that’s also $120.00, the same amount as the submission fee for an “LGBT Feature.” A short film (under, precisely, 31 minutes), can be submitted to Golden Gate 2022 for ninety bucks, if you’re an “earlybird.”

If not, no worries, there is also the “Regular Deadline” (April 18), the “Late Deadline” (July 18), the “Extended Deadline” (August 18) and the “FINAL Deadline” (September 18, upper case emphasis courtesy Golden Gate IFF). Submission fees for the 2022 edition of the Golden Gate International Film Festival range from $90.00 to $360.00 (for an “Extra Long Feature/Doc (Over 120 minutes)” submitted on the “FINAL” deadline). I guess they pay their programmers by the minute, assuming the Golden Gate International Film Festival has programmers. I’ve never met one, nor was I aware of this prestigious event, typically held over three days in November at an AMC in San Jose. In fact, while submissions for next year’s GGIFF are already open, you can check out this year’s festival starting Friday, from anywhere in the world. GGIFF ’21 is, like many festivals these days, “virtual.” And their “virtual festival” seems to be as dubious, from a rights holder perspective, as the call for submissions.

In its promo trailer, GGIFF claims “1000+ submissions from over 60 countries.” There are 44 productions selected for this year’s Festival, including a TV pilot and some music videos, spread over nineteen slots. If I were an investigative journalist, the business model of the Golden Gate International Film Festival, and its parent company Net Effect Media, could raise questions. But, I’ve neither the time nor inclination to delve deeper into the potentially predatory shit-show which is GGIFF. I’m too busy browsing FilmFreeway, dropping a few grand trying to get a film, five years in the making, into some international film festivals. Because, this week, there are deadlines for the Vancouver Independent Film Festival (featuring over fifty “best” categories, at $40.00 - $50.00 per category), Los Angeles Lift-Off Film Festival (also with many categories, and deadlines each month), Close: Up Reykjavik Film Festival (one of several “Close:Up” festivals, each with monthly deadlines), Unrestricted View Film Festivals (oh, again, the monthly deadline red flag), Angeles Documentaries (monthly deadlines, 48 awards, no “Los”) and on and on one doom scrolls the weekly deadlines.

In any given week, on FilmFreeway and other submission platforms, there are hundreds of deadlines to consider for festivals and their myriad permutations and facsimiles. It gets expensive and confusing, and most of it has no material benefit to a film production. Yet, there is the opportunity for priceless intangibles like jpegs of laurels from bogus film festivals and vigorous upper case “FEEDBACK” (at $100.00 per submission), including at Los Angeles FEEDBACK Film & Screenplay Festival, FEEDBACK Romance Film & Screenplay Festival, and Toronto Feedback Female Film Festival (lower case feedback must be kinder). The latter two of these events, as well as the monthly WILDsound FEEDBACK Film & Writing Festival and other such branded entities, are, according to FilmFreeway, operated by one Matthew Toffolo, apparently based in my fair city of Toronto. Again, such “festivals” are worthy of further investigation, but not now. I have deadlines to hit, submission money to spend. I’ve got the fever, Film Festival Fever.

My first job at a big-time film festival was managing submissions for the Toronto International Film Festival. I did that for two years before becoming tiff’s first documentary programmer. There were no submission fees way back then, but we were starting to be overwhelmed with, yup, VHS tapes. This was the late 1990’s and Sundance had been charging submission fees for a few years. We started discussing doing the same at tiff. The argument for fees was that it would help pay for the admin costs of operating a submissions department (because we were being paid $2/hour, CDN), whilst also lowering the number of submissions. Charging twenty-five bucks (at the time) to submit a film to the festival would be a barrier for the “amateurs,” we thought. We were so wrong. The argument against fees (my position) was that it was a tax on the poor and unconnected. We’d waive the fee for anybody that we knew (ie. most of the industry), or who had the temerity to ask (ie. already privileged people or their agents, mostly). In fact, actually paying a fee would indicate that a lowly unsolicited submission was not to be seriously considered. Who were these interlopers? To some extent, this still applies, in practice if not stated policy. Yeah, yeah, “we watch them all.”

For its 2020 festival, the Sundance Film Festival received approximately 15, 000 submissions, total. The median submission fee was $72.50. My ballpark math suggests that Sundance generates about $1,000,000.00 from submission revenues. Selection rates at Sundance, again approximate (but generously so), seem to be 2-4% of total submissions. Festivals like GFIFF, and the others mentioned above, are easy marks for criticism, snark and shaming. However, in the context of an aspirational culture in which the vast majority of unsolicited submissions have approximately zero chance of being selected - to Sundance, or sxsw, or Tribeca, or tiff, or Berlin, or Telluride, or any of the major and credible second/third tier film festivals (most with fees over $100.00) - submission fees, and the entire “open call” approach, is no less exploitative and shameful. The top of the festival food chain feasts on submission fees. These festivals have deep industry networks, do extensive tracking of productions, and actively solicit works for their events. At the major festivals and most credible film festivals, submission fees remain a tax on the outsiders and unsolicited entries are merely revenue-generating fodder.

Film festivals need to address this problem, starting at the top. And the many established, credible, decent, worthy international film festivals doing business on FilmFreeway need to start insisting that the company, recently acquired by Backstage, clean up and apply basic standards and ethics to all events soliciting on the platform.

And while we all wait for that, I offer you, the independent filmmaker, some quick “Do and Don’ts” to help save you time, money, and heartache when submitting your film to festivals.

Do…

… know your film and the festivals for which it is most appropriate (ie. be real about your work, do the research, get input beyond friends/family)

…have a submissions budget and the discipline to stick to it (you’ll need at least 1K to test the waters, and up to 10K for the “saturation” approach…not that I advise that, but I’ve seen it)

… set a three-month (ish) “premiere” window, prioritizing selective festivals where premieres matter (yes, the “premiere” hornet’s nest…another time for that topic)

… after three months (or so) cast a wider submissions net, still being selective and vetting festivals, but more broadly so (ie. it’s time for the regional/local circuit, as well as thematic and identity festivals)

… practice non-attachment…if it’s been six months, and 20+ festivals have declined your film, it might be time for self-reflection and a hug from a friend….perhaps yours is not a “festival film” (don't ask, because I don’t know the answer)… don’t cling to it, there are other paths to your audience, many of them more effective than film festivals

Do not…

… spend food or rent money on film festival submission fees

…submit to festivals that haven’t had at least three editions, or five to be safe

… submit to any “festival” featuring “FEEDBACK” or “Lift-Off” or “Close: Up” or “Awards/Competition” in their name

… submit to festivals that email a discount offer on submission fees (credible festivals don’t do that…if they request a submission, they waive the fee, fully)

And, as those festival pros (ie. French people) say, Bon Festival!

Sean Farnel