Fine points on Festivals

George Rush August 17, 2009

If you’re an independent filmmaker, odds are your plan is to submit to a major film festival in the hope of getting discovered. Festivals are a good way to have your film discovered by distributors, to build buzz and to build an audience. But as all filmmakers know, you’re probably going to get rejected from more festivals than not.

Thousands of films are submitted to festivals that are marketplaces for American independents, festivals such as Sundance and South by Southwest. These festivals largely have their choice of the best films. Other major festivals may send their programmers to these festivals so they choose films for their own. That leaves fewer and fewer slots for your film if it did not get into one of the majors.

Most people I know submit to the major fests, and then when rejections come in, start submitting to smaller festivals. Most film festivals are interested in screening world premieres if they can, so if you’ve only received rejections, hang in there; odds are there’s a festival for you. The frustrating thing is the cycle of submitting to the majors can take up to a year before you’ve received rejections. A lot of filmmakers I know get frustrated as they wait for word from the major festivals and will blow their premiere on a smaller fest that no buyers will attend. This generally is a mistake because the festivals are the gatekeepers. By accepting your film, a major festival will instantly validate it as being at a certain level of quality. That doesn’t mean that a distributor will buy the film because it’s in Sundance, but it does mean that they know it is a quality film worth considering. If you can’t wait and premiere your film at a no-name film festival (the first annual George M. Rush, Jr. College Football Film Festival), those other major festivals will most likely reject your film and it will only play at similarly tiered festivals.

Another thing to keep in mind is that it is very rare that a great film slips through the cracks. Most films, whether Hollywood or independent, aren’t good. When I think of the memorable films I’ve seen this past year, it’s not a long list. They exist, but film is one of the hardest media in which to make something exceptional. There are too many pieces, and people, involved: All you need is one screw up, which inevitably occurs.

Still, since your film is your baby, you—like a good parent—have a duty to find it a home. But if your film is not getting into festivals, don’t get overly defensive. The likelihood is there is something flawed with your film. That’s a tough pill to swallow, but it’s better to learn from your mistakes than play the blame game. Trust me—when my film The Milkman got rejected from every film festival on earth, I blamed programmers for being a bunch of pretentious stuffed shirts. It took me a while to realize that my film had major problems, but that realization has been a fantastic learning experience.

Quite often filmmakers come to me with a certain level of paranoia regarding submitting to film festivals. They’ll ask if they should send a non-disclosure agreement to the festival before they submit, and they’ll request that their submitted screener be sent back if their film is rejected. I understand all too well the risks of piracy, but generally, this is a low-risk area. The film festivals also have a vested interest in keeping your film confidential. SXSW head Janet Pierson said she doesn’t recommend non-disclosure agreements for festival submissions, "just based on the hassle of the administration alone." In other words, if you send a non-disclosure agreement first, you are mostly likely going to be flagged as a pain in the ass. Additionally, most festivals have their own rules and guidelines, which are available on their websites. As far as getting your film back, most film festivals just destroy them. This is something that is usually addressed in a festival’s regulations. However, if you send a self-addressed stamped envelope, most fests will send back your screener if it gets rejected.

Also, with film festivals, it is very reputation based. Almost all film festivals want to avoid angering filmmakers. If you are truly worried about what is going to happen to your film, talk to other filmmakers about their experience at a particular festival. Also, if there is a brand new festival that promises distribution and there is no one you’ve ever heard of involved, be very wary. There are fests that promise Sundance-like opportunities, but are nothing more than excuses to charge you high fees.

Something I’ve addressed in previous columns, but need to stress again: All copyrighted material needs to be cleared in your film. Just because your film is accepted to a film festival doesn’t mean that they accepted your uncleared film. Film festivals are assuming that what you have submitted is cleared to be shown at festivals, and most festivals, as part of their rules and regulations, will have you vouch for the legality of your film. That normally means that everything is cleared and you do not defame anyone. The fact that you’re not getting paid for your screening does not make a difference as far as copyright violation.

The fact that you’re not getting paid for your screening does not make a difference in terms of defamation, either. You should be aware that being a filmmaker does not give you license to defame someone. For example, I could make a documentary on why I think Notre Dame football fans are annoying, citing countless examples of their delusional faded grandeur. I could not bolster my argument with false information that has no basis in fact (like saying Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis was behind Michael Jackson’s death after a lovers quarrel). There is a different standard if one is a public figure (say, George W. Bush) and if one is a private citizen (my neighbor). That being said, the bar for who is a public figure is somewhat low. My father, the football coach at City College of San Francisco, is considered a public figure. I doubt many reading this column have ever heard of him, except that we share the same name. (I’m a Junior). For defamation of a public figure, you must be acting with actual malice—that is, knowingly presenting false information. With a private figure, the standard is whether you are portraying them in a negative light.

Often, with very high-profile subjects, they are hesitant to sue for defamation because it just brings more attention to an issue. Filmmakers need to be aware that when they are building a thesis, the supporting material has to be hard fact. I’m a firm believer in pushing the envelope as far as one can, but the limit of the pushing is the law. When programming documentaries, festival programmers are cognizant of this. Said SXSW’s Janet Pierson, "I don’t think you can just show anything. Or, rather, you can show anything you’re comfortable showing. We have to trust the filmmaker—but we have to make judgments about which filmmakers we trust."

George Rush can be reached at SXSW is now accepting submissions for 2010 at (An aside, Janet Pierson is really doing a fantastic job since taking the helm at SXSW—one of my favorite festivals just gets better.)

(As you may have gathered from this column, I am jonesing for football season—less than a month away! I wake up a night thinking I heard a whistle and swearing to my wife that I smell fresh cut grass! If you’ve made it this far in this column, here is the payoff—my 2009 accurate football predictions—NFL: This is the year of the Dolphins, and their unstoppable safety Gibril Wilson, my little brother!; NCAA Football/BCS National Championship: Cal Golden Bears—pretty sure they will not give up a single score; Junior College Football: CCSF and their unstoppable coach, George Rush, Sr.. Phew! Using all that psychic energy just wore me out. Better recharge my crystals for the next column.)