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by Susan Royal

One of the most popular seminars held at the recent American Film Market in Santa Monica was entitled, "Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Film Festivals." In his opening remarks, Jonathan Wolf, Managing Director of the AFM, noted that the line of attendees ran across the courtyard of Le Marigot Hotel, up the stairs and back through the hotel lobby.

Produced by Women in Film International, the panel included senior film fest programmers from AFI Fest, Sundance, Venice, Santa Barbara, South By Southwest and the Los Angeles Film Festival. Also on the panel was David Straus, CEO of, a company assisting filmmakers with their online submissions to film festivals.

Moderator June Shelley asked each festival programmer to give an overview of their festival and to describe the type of films they invite to their festivals.

Matt Dentler (South By Southwest – SXSW) said that being located in Austin, Texas, had a major influence their festival. Austin is a sophisticated, music- and movie-loving city — home to several filmmakers, including Robert Rodriguez and Richard Linklater. SXSW requires that films in competition be either world or North American premieres.

"We are a small, curated competition – eight narrative films and eight documentaries," said Dentler. "We probably will not invite a film that has been on the festival circuit over a year."

Jeremy Platt (Santa Barbara International Film Festival – SBIFF) noted that their festival is held right after Sundance, "but Sundance can't accept everything. We show 170 films in ten days. We focus a lot on foreign films and since Santa Barbara is associated with Latin culture, we have a large Latin section as part of that. We harvest a lot of our films from Toronto."

The timing of the Santa Barbara festival is shortly after the Oscar nominations have been announced – a time when the nominees are highly motivated to get out and promote their films. This, coupled with the town's proximity to L.A., enables the fest to usually get all five writing, directing and producing nominees to take part in the festival panels. The presence of the Oscar nominees draws press to the festival, thereby getting better exposure for the SBIFF's films.

Nancy Collet (AFI Fest) said, "Los Angeles has a large international population – particularly Asian and Latin – and we try to showcase the best of films from around the world." AFI Fest is known for screening a number of the Official Selections for Best Foreign Language Oscar and this year they programmed eleven of those films, including Pedro Almodovar's Volver (from Spain) and Zhang Yimou's The Ciurse of the Golden Flower (from China).

AFI Fest has three international competitions: narrative films, documentaries and shorts. For features, they regularly want at least the U.S. premiere and want first or second time filmmakers. "For our showcases and galas we don't require premieres," said Collet, "but we are more likely to select premieres."

Rachel Rosen (Los Angeles Film Festival – LAFF) described her festival which is put on by Film Independent and held in Westwood in June. "We like a wide spectrum of films and viewpoints. Our only requirement is we won't screen anything that has already screened in Los Angeles, which includes Orange County for our purposes." Although they have a small competition section – only 8 to 12 films – they have two great prizes – the Target Filmmaker Award (for narrative features) and the Target Documentary Award which both award $50,000 to the winning filmmakers.

Caroline Libresco (Sundance Film Festival) explained that Sundance was designed to be a "discovery festival, introducing brand new voices," and therefore they want first or second time filmmakers.

"We have a premieres section for directors making their third of fourth films. For competing international films we want the U.S. premieres. For competing U.S. films we want the world premiere. But in our non-competitive sections we are much more open-minded." Libresco, and the other programmers, said they don't require premieres of shorts and recommended that filmmakers play them wherever they can get them accepted.

"Most importantly we want to discover films and then use the industry and the press as a conduit to the opinion makers of the world," said Libresco.

Elenora Granata (Venice Film Festival) described her festival's program as "very little – we only screen 68 films, and that's including the documentaries and shorts. However, this allows us to focus more attention on each of those 68 films." In terms of requirements, she continued, "We want international premieres and we don't show films that screened at Berlin or Cannes."

All programmers agreed that they recommend films to each other. Sundance's Caroline Libresco explained, "There are so many films being made and we can't select all the great ones. Right now at Sundance we are looking at some 900 documentaries, over a thousand narrative films and 4500 shorts. We can only choose 16 from each for our competition. But there are many other great venues outside of Sundance."

Matt warned that film festival programmers comprise a small world and filmmakers should never try to play one festival off another. "We all know and all talk to each other. One filmmaker told me I needed to decide quickly because Tribeca had invited his film there. In only the time it took me to email my friend there I found out it wasn't true."

When discussing the submission process, several programmers said they welcomed's assistance to filmmakers and that the online submission process had made their jobs a lot easier. Nancy Collet said half of the submissions to AFI Fest came via and Rachel Rosen called it "an incredible tool for us which saves us thousands of hours of data entry." CEO David Straus said they had expanded the services offered to filmmakers by bringing Film Finders on board in July.

When asked to describe the selection process, virtually every programmer described the process in this way: Every film submitted gets written coverage and gets looked at twice by members of staff and/or expert volunteers. (These volunteers can be writers, directors, savvy cinephiles or sometimes film studies grads.) The films that pass through this process are then sent to the programmers. From that point on the programmers lobby for and debate each other's favorites until a program is agreed upon. According to Libresco, this process can be quite lively. "The most interesting work is usually the most strongly disputed."

Does it help to have a representative lobby the programmers? Rosen thinks not. "It's a common misconception that it's a disadvantage not to have an agent or sales rep call us." Libresco agreed, chuckling, "We've started to not listen to agents."

Dentler weighed in, adding, "We prefer to discover and fall in love with a film. That requires no pedigree or affiliation." He further advised approaching a film festival "the way you would with any new relationship. Don't come on too strong. Don't send an elaborate press kit or include six packs of beer and cigarettes, which just go to the volunteers and never make it to the programmers, anyway."

What if you're lucky enough to get into an important film festival yet don't obtain a distribution deal? According to Sundance's Libresco, this is the wrong measure of success. "Most films don't get a deal. Maybe 30 out of 120 available features at Sundance will get bought. You should measure your success in other ways. Who did you meet? Did you get some great press? Did you get an international sale? Did you get an agent or manager? That's a success."

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