Read Hank and Jilann’s Sundance Film Festival blog,

written as they went through the rollercoaster experience of premiering a film at this world-renown documentary film competition for the first time.





SilverDocs Report - Panel on Film Festivals

I had the opportunity to present a workshop on Crowdfunding at SilverDocs this past week. It was a fantastic experience and I encourage all doc makers to attend if you can next year. The programming is outstanding, both in films and panel and workshop content.

I find that many times attending panels can be a frustrating experience with panelists who are less than generous with their information, or are too pessimistic, but I found the opposite to be true at SilverDocs. Every panel that I was able to attend was excellent. I'll be posting a few blogs on panels that I attended.



Thom Powers – Toronto Int’l Film Festival, DOCNYC, Miami Film Fest, Stranger Than Fiction
Basil Tsiokos – Documentary Programmer 
Sadie Tillery - Director of Programming, Full Frame Film Festival
David Wilson – Co-Director, True/False Film Festival
Sean Farnel – formerly Director of Programming, HotDocs

The panel began with the programmers concurring on what Sean called the “tyranny of volume’ of submissions, which really gave me a window into the programmer’s world – that deluge of material that slams them at deadline time. We think of them as the steely gatekeepers and they are, but they have feelings too! To put it into perspective, SilverDocs received 2200 submissions this year. Full Frame received 1200 submissions for 60 slots. HotDocs programmed 200 films this past April, and Toronto has only 25-35 slots for documentary features.

From here, the moderator, Liz Ogilvy, posed several pertinent topics:

On your Premiere:
Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and Toronto are the most important premiere spots. To get a feature doc into those festivals, it really has to be a premiere (At least a U.S. premiere in Sundance’s case). Don’t let a festival bully you into a premiere. For example, if you’re waiting to hear on Sundance and a festival is pressuring you to say yes, don’t cave in. If they really want your film they’ll show it anyway. Programmers know that most audiences don’t care if it’s a premiere or not, but they like to have a lot of premieres for their press releases! Tillery added that Full Frame doesn’t give any priority to premieres. They’re just trying to program a fresh mix of films.

If you’re premiering at a top level festival where business is being done (those mentioned above, plus LAFF, SXSW and a few others), then all suggested that you have a sales rep to help you navigate the business side of things.

On Submission Deadlines:

All panelists agreed that you can get extensions on deadlines if you ask nicely and in advance, but they don’t necessarily recommend doing so. Deadlines guarantee that someone will screen your film. If you get an extension, there’s no guarantee that it will get looked at. Tillery: “Tell us why you need an extension. We encourage you submitting as final a version as possible.”

Submitting a Cut that’s not quite a finished film:

All agreed that submitting a film that’s not completely finished is a delicate business. “There’s an art to knowing when a film is ready to be shown,” said Farnel. Basil remarked that “We know how to watch rough cuts, but are you the filmmaker comfortable with us seeing this work?” First impressions are important and if the film is really not ready to be shown, you can blow your chance with the programmers. Wilson said “I can watch a film that’s 90% done, but I don’t have the skills past that to judge a film in progress. If the film’s sound is not mixed yet or the graphics are temp, that’s okay”. And all warned that in that case, you should put a card at the top of the film explaining that you haven’t yet mixed sound, done color correction, etc…

In the case of submitting a revised cut after the deadline, it can easily get lost in the shuffle and not be the version that gets screened. “The place holder stuff doesn’t work for us” said Tillery.

On Screening Fees:

All the panelists agreed that in some cases they might pay the filmmaker a small fee to screen a film, but this is rare. Wilson offered that they pay a fee “only when the film already has some kind of distribution and we really love it”. Wilson has a short film on the festival circuit and said that as a filmmaker, he sometimes receives between $25 and $50 for his film to screen.

True/False pays for travel expenses for all feature doc makers. And in relationship to fees, David said “we think we have something to offer that’s worth more than that (a fee)”. Basil suggested that niche festivals will be much more likely to pay fees if they feel they need a film in their line up, and that if your film is hot, they may be willing. Toronto pays travel and accommodations. DOCNYC however, will pay a fee and the filmmaker can put that towards travel or keep the fee if they do not travel. Stranger Than Fiction pays a $250 screening fee, and Miami will pay for travel. Full Frame covers hotel, hospitality and a fest pass. Occasionally for invited programs that are not in competition, they will provide fees.

What to do when you get in:

Thom stressed the need to be savvy and ask questions when you receive the call that you’ve been selected to show in a festival. Sean added that it’s important to do this before you say “Yes” to being in the fest. “It’s a business transaction when you accept and you can negotiate a bit.”

This might be your only time to query the festival staff and determine your position in the line-up. Ask when and where your film will be scheduled, and how often it will be shown. They may not know yet, but you’ll signal that you do care about where your film is placed in the fest. Make sure to ask at this time what they’ll do for travel. You can also ask them how they see your film fitting into their festival. This gives you the opportunity to share how you can help with publicity – for example, can one of your film’s subjects come to the screenings? This will help attract press and audience. Ask them for other ways that you can help get people in the seats.

Festival Publicists:

Don’t expect that they’ll be working to get press for your film. They’re there to get press for the festival itself. But you can ask them if they’d send a press release that you’ve written about your film to their list. The best bet you have of getting good publicity through the festival office is that you have amazing publicity stills and/or artwork that is eye-catching. Then you’re more likely to get featured or noticed.

On Shorts:
Most agreed that they consider films less than 50 minutes to be “shorts”. But the ideal length for a festival short is between 15 and 20 minutes. Shorts that are longer than that are harder to pair with a feature and therefore harder to program. Sean said that HotDocs is becoming more flexible about programming shorts that are already online. But a feature cannot have been or be online. It’s statistically harder to get a short into Sundance than a feature. TIFF only shows Canadian shorts.

Festival Submisison Do’s:

-Label your film simply, legibly right on the disc. (Do not use sticker labels on the DVD’s)
-Read the submission guidelines very carefully. Some fests sneakily get you to agree in advance to be in the fest if you’re selected in the fine print of your submission form.
-Do ask if the festival can waive the submission fee if you really can’t afford it.
-When you’re accepted to a big festival, do have fun! Don’t be so wrapped up in your nerves that you can’t enjoy the experience. (Again, it helps to have a sales rep on your side.)

Festival Submission Don’ts:

-Don’t call! Don’t email! (after you’ve submitted) “There’s a myth circulating that you need to call the programmers and form a relationship with them,” said Tsiokos. Tillery: “Email updates about your film are not productive, unless you’re updating us on the film’s premiere status.”

-Don’t send tchockes (gimmicky gifts)! Sean said, “like a hula hoop, though I still have that one. I gave it to my daughter”. (Sadie nodded her head and smiled, indicating she must have received the same hula hoop.) Gifts do not enhance your chances of getting in.

-Don’t send elaborate packaging or press materials. It all just gets thrown away by the staff that opens the packages.

-Don’t project your anger and frustration towards the programmers. Don’t be a jerk – the programmers are friends with each other and talk and share info. Basil put it directly: “We remember these people a lot!” Thom added, “ 90% of our job is saying ‘no’, but we all got into this work because we like to support filmmakers.”


For more advice from one of the top documentary film festival programmers, listen to the archived Doc Talks interview with Caroline Libresco, Senior Programmer Sundance Film Festival in the DocuMentors members area.