Notes from a Festival Programmer: Listing Awards and Fests Played When Emailing Festivals

As a programmer for the Atlanta Film Festival, we get many, many emails every week, if not every day, during submission time. It's an expected part of the job. What's a little bit irksome isn't the amount of emails, it's more often the lack of useful information. Take this as an example:

I'm a **********student living in ******************* and have completed a short, which has won a couple of awards and has been official selections in international film festivals recently.

There is more to the email, however, none of it mentions which festivals the filmmaker has played or what awards they've won. Why bring it up and not say what festivals? It's either a sign the filmmaker thinks the festivals aren't worthy of  including, which makes referring to them moot. Or the filmmaker believes just a vague allusion is enough to entice a programmer. A third option is they didn't put more thought into it at all. As in most things in life, you've got one shot to make a first impression, so make it a good one.

As for my personal philosophy, I'm honestly never that excited about festivals and awards won if I'm not interested in the film itself on its own--which leads to a followup I'll add further down.

People don't come to a festival to see filmmakers walk around with awards pinned to their chest, they come for the films. Story, content and quality matters first and foremost.

That being said, listing out the festivals played in an email can do three things:

  1. Most festivals are vested in supporting filmmakers on the rise. A power of festivals is that with each additional selection a film gets the more it can add credibility that this is a filmmaker and film you want to check out. For many festivals, programming a film now becomes a means of investing in a filmmaker so that they can continue their journey. While premieres are important, having a short or feature that's got momentum is just as meaningful.
  2. Programmers and festivals often look to other programmers and festivals that share their programming philosophies and interests. When you're trying to find the right fit, knowing a film played a festival you as a programmer or festival vibe with, the film instantly stands out. A good idea is to ask festivals you've been accepted into, or played, about the fests they share programming with.
  3. A variety of festivals can highlight how many diverse audiences your film has reached, or reinforce it's specific audiences. If you're playing mostly Christian festivals and you're submitting to a Christian fest, you can sure bet that you'll draw the attention of the programmers. If you have a film set in the South featuring a skateboarding teacher, dripping with dialects and regional touches, that's played Seattle, New York, San Francisco and Nashville, it's easy to surmise that you have a film that's universal, or, has many audiences.

What it doesn't do:

  1. Being programmed in a festival, or lots of festivals, does not mean everyone will like your film too. Sorry. It doesn't. Even Sundance programs films that ultimately receive not only overwhelmingly negative reviews from critics, the films fail to find an audience. Every festival and programmer sees something in at least a film or two, or a few dozen, that no one else does. That's the beauty of film and art in general. If no one else champions your film, take to heart that if you can reach one or more festivals, then with your next project you might be able to reach a dozen more festivals and a larger audience.
  2. It does not guarantee that anyone will be as interested in your next project. Every project can build on the previous on, however each new work has to be just as strong and INTERESTING as the one before it. While your past festival success can instantly open doors, it by no measure means it will keep those doors open if your next film isn't compelling or unique. Again don't take that to heart. Every year, you're competing with new films, new emerging directors and returning filmmakers with their own history. Don't rest on your laurels--pun not intended. You have to keep pushing.
  3. It will not override the programming philosophy of most festivals. Implicit or explicit, there is a mission that drives most fests. Don't take it personal if a festival doesn't select your film. Every festival is different. You'll rarely find two festivals that share nearly identical programming.

If you're going to include festival's played, it's best to insert that at the END of the email, with a few of the major awards first (especially the ones that highlight the outstanding aspects of the film: directing, cinematography, etc.), then the list of festivals played.

I stress that the info should go near the end, because what the email should always include first is the name of the film, the director's name, and a short synopsis. I can't repeat this enough (yes, this is the followup), most festivals and specifically festival programmers have films that they gravitate towards. No number of awards will budge most programmers from that. Leading with a description of your film in your introduction is speaking to your recipient as a programmer and not a marketer. For 95 percent of arts events, programming is marketing.

If you don't have a strong synopsis, please read my previous Notes from a Festival Programmer post on that.