In 2011, I was finishing my final semester at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and one of my last projects was to film the school’s production of "Twelfth Night" by William Shakespeare. I was tasked with capturing the process from auditions to final presentation. Not only was I a film student, but I was also working towards a B.A. in Theatre Performance, having performed as Alceste in my senior production of "The Misanthrope" just a few months prior. I’ll never forget sitting on the other side of auditions for the first time. Getting to observe rather than sweat and stress about making a good impression on the faculty and directors. As student after student came up, introduced themselves, gave their best shot at a Shakespearean monologue, I started to notice trends in what worked well and, more importantly, what did not. As each prospective Orsino walked up on stage, I could feel the energy around me, the directors wanted to be surprised, to enjoy the audition, to watch someone bring ease and focus to these monologues. It was blatantly apparent, however, when nerves or lack of preparation got in the way. The most surprising thing to me was even actors who “messed up” or “failed” but still brought charisma to the stage left a lasting impact on the directors and faculty. This is all to say, this inside perspective changed how I looked at acting and, in particular, auditioning. Now, you might be thinking, that’s cool and all, but what the hell does this have to do with film festivals and filmmaking? I’m getting there, I promise!
When I moved back to El Dorado, Arkansas in the spring of 2014, I had no idea that a very similar epiphany was on the horizon. I was asked to participate in the inaugural El Dorado Film Festival, founded as part of the South Arkansas Arts Center’s 50th anniversary celebration. My good friend Laura Barrow approached me with questions about the film festival circuit (I had some very mild success with my thesis film, Love, At Last) and took notes as I talked about what I liked and disliked about various film festival experiences. By the end of the conversation, she asked me to help her produce the first El Dorado Film Festival. It sounded daunting. It sounded fun. It sounded like a resounding “Hell yes!” in my head. Next thing I knew, I was pulling up our Withoutabox account and sifting through submission after submission of short and feature-length films. Narratives and documentaries. I was on the other side of auditions again. As a filmmaker, I submit to numerous festivals regularly and used to take it so personally when I received a rejection letter. I saw it as a reflection of the quality of my work and, in turn, me as a human being. It never occurred to me that my films just might not fit what the festival was looking for.
Let’s get some things out of the way early on. If you’ve finished making a film, whether it’s a short or a music video or an indie feature, it’s a huge accomplishment. You should take a few seconds to feel proud of the fact that you brought a team together and made something that you can call your own. It’s such a cool feeling to craft a project into existence and say, “We made this. This is ours.” I remember shooting crappy videos in my backyard and learning how to get MiniDV footage onto a computer and making cuts for the first time… I felt like I tapped into some kind of magic. That said, however, there are films that should be shared at a competitive level and there are films that should not. Seeking out critical feedback is the most valuable tool in your arsenal. Stop protecting your baby and put it out in the world. Don’t seek praise. Seek honesty. (This blog post is the amalgamation of notes and feedback from several colleagues as well as my grandpa.) Don’t let your ego get in the way of hearing the things you don’t want to hear. But also know whose opinions to trust. Learn, grow, rinse, repeat. Rejection is 99% of the game. Now, onto the festival circuit:
Programming a festival (and curation in general) is so subjective and very much like piecing together a puzzle you don’t have the layout for. Submitting a film to a festival is also about much more than creating a piece of work and shipping it off: it’s about packaging, presentation, standing out, and telling the narrative of why a festival should play your film. Like the Twelfth Night auditions, I started seeing things that filmmakers did really well and things that annoyed me to no end as a programmer. (Tip: when you get rejected, don’t e-mail a festival and tell them they need new programmers because your film won such and such award at such and such festival. Yup. That happened.) I started communicating with festivals that I submitted to in a way that I felt like I would want to be communicated with. I gave them information that I thought was pertinent (a local connection, a named actor in the cast, or a premiere status) and tried to be helpful rather than a burden. I’ve learned that “Don’t be a dick” is generally a good principle to live by when it comes to these things. Like theatrical auditions, we as festival programmers genuinely want your film to blow us away! We are cheering for you. We want to be mesmerized and excited and advocates for your movie. We love watching films and we love championing indie filmmakers and, another true cliché from the dreaded rejection letter, we absolutely do hate sending out those e-mails. It may sound phony, but there are films we adore that end up not making the cut. It sucks, yes, but it’s part of it. The Academy Award-winning short film Stutterer was turned down by Sundance but won a freaking Oscar! It happens. And it happens to everyone. Good. Bad. Great. Terrible. Everyone.
When it came time to make my award-winning short film, The Bespoke Tailoring of Mister Bellamy, I knew I wanted to make something that would grab the attention of programmers. I turned first to the Louisiana Film Prize and created the film specifically for their amazing competition/festival in Shreveport, Louisiana. The rules of the competition: shoot your film in Shreveport, Louisiana or the surrounding area, turn in the rough cut by a certain date, premiere your film at their festival in October, and hope to sway audiences in voting for you to win $50,000. A festival just two hours away from my front door was offering the largest cash prize for a short film in the world, and I was amazed that every filmmaker in the United States wasn’t jumping at this opportunity. I knew I had to, at the very least, try.
My friend Paul Petersen penned the script for “Bespoke,” and together we worked on creating an uplifting story that we hoped people wouldn’t be able to look away from. Watching hundreds of shorts for the El Dorado Film Festival, I saw several films that tried to jam too much story into a short amount of time, leaving the audience unsatisfied and confused. I also saw films that I felt did not have enough substance to engage an audience for 12-15 minutes. With “Bespoke,” I wanted the main character to focus on a simple task, driving him from beginning to end of the film. Admittedly, tailoring is not the simplest of goals, but it gave Mister Bellamy a tangible objective and a deadline that I hoped the audience would connect with. A big lesson that I learned from programming the El Dorado Film Festival was the importance of casting. Too many times I saw otherwise great movies suffer from a dull performance or a miscast actor. It was not necessarily a direct reflection of the filmmaker’s ability, but a poor choice that brought the film down in an unfortunate way. I turned to the best actor I knew, my good friend and former professor, Stan Brown. The gods of fortune smiled upon the film when he read the script and liked it. He agreed to do the film. He was the film. He brought life to our main character and lifted up the supporting cast.
With a huge stroke of luck, we ended up winning the Louisiana Film Prize and started our long journey towards the Academy awards. Spoiler alert: we did not receive a nomination, but we were in the running. As I started submitting “Bespoke” to festivals after the Film Prize, I was armed with the knowledge that rejection would not be a direct reflection of the work. I knew we had a good film, but I also knew it might not be for everybody. With hundreds (if not thousands) of festivals out there, there is bound to be a difference of opinions. Again, I learned to not take rejection personally. With the first batch of festivals we heard back from, we received a surprising number of selections. It was intoxicating! Those e-mails that I rarely received started coming on the regular. It was weird. We stacked up twenty or so festival laurels, with the occasional rejection of course, and even won some audience and jury awards around the states. Then, as we got later into our submission process, we started receiving rejection after rejection. I was brought back down to Earth, but I reminded myself: this is not a reflection of the film. I reminded myself of sitting in the programmer’s chair making tough decisions. There were better films, or there were films that were better suited to the festival. We won an award at the Academy-qualifying Cleveland International Film Festival, screened at the Academy-qualifying New Orleans Film Festival, won best director and a few other awards at the Breckenridge Film Festival, and I considered us very lucky to have the run that we did, despite ultimately receiving more rejection letters than selections in the end.
As part of winning the Louisiana Film Prize, we received a distribution deal through Shorts HD. Our Shorts HD representative, Linda Olszewski, helped us run “Bespoke” in theatres in Los Angeles county for one week to qualify the film for the 2017 Academy awards. It was such a cool experience sitting in front of the Academy website and filling out the application to be a contender. I couldn’t believe that we were one of only 137 short films from around the world to be screened in front of Academy members for their critique. As I said earlier, we did not end up making the next round, but I also was mesmerized with how far we made it. I attribute this success to so many people and circumstances, but I firmly believe that the experience of running a film festival gave me a perspective as a filmmaker that I needed to take the next step forward in making a good film. It helped demystify the process for me and allowed me to focus on the craft and learn from the mistakes of others.
There isn’t a one-size-fits-all film for every festival out there. You must automatically assume that there will be people who just don’t like your film. Probably more than people who will love it. Not only is this not a bad thing, it’s actually a fantastic thing. The subjectivity of programming creates a film culture across the world that can showcase a broad range of works. How boring would it be if every festival showed the same fifty films? Sure, we may feel slighted from time to time, but think broader than that. If you can’t find the audience for your film or you are receiving nothing but rejection e-mails, look at your project again critically. Could it be better? Could you tell the same story in less time? Is there a scene that just needs to go? Look at your festival submission strategy. Are you sending your film off randomly, or have you researched the festival and think the film will be a good fit? Elicit more feedback. Work any connection you might have. You may know all of these things already, which makes you way smarter than me and puts you in a small percentile of filmmakers submitting to the festival circuit.
Not long ago, I sat in front of Withoutabox and FilmFreeway dumbfounded, looking at all of the options and costs, not having a clue how to proceed. I hope this post helps you learn from my ignorance and experience so you don’t have to be as confused about the whole ordeal as I was. At the very least, I hope you can get a glance inside the selection process and not see programmers as your mortal enemy. I firmly believe that this shift in perspective continues to make me a better filmmaker.
Alexander Jeffery is the Executive Director of the El Dorado Film Festival and director of award-winning short films, The Bespoke Tailoring of Mister Bellamy and Memoir.