FILMCRAFT: Navigating the Film Festival World with Thomas Ethan Harris

Thomas Ethan Harris smaller - FILMCRAFT: Navigating the Film Festival World with Thomas Ethan Harris

Film consultant Thomas Ethan Harris shed light on the film festival world, providing tips to students on best practices, must-have materials and guidelines for choosing the right festival for their short films. As a former festival programmer (LA Film Festival, Palm Springs ShortsFest), Harris also gave an insider’s point of view on how to create a great submission and what gets a festival programmer’s attention.

Every Film Festival is Not the Same
When it comes to choosing festivals, Thomas stressed the importance of distinguishing between mainstream festivals and genre or community festivals. Mainstream festivals such as Sundance or Tribeca will tend to favor auteur-driven films with high production values and an artistic vision. Genre festivals are content-specific and community festivals can be more open to edgier or experimental films and may offer a smaller pool of competition.  For strategic purposes, if a genre or community festival is in the same city as a mainstream festival, it’s worth it to try for the mainstream one first and see what happens. Ultimately, mainstream festivals can do more for you but they won’t select your film if you play a local genre festival first. If the mainstream festivals pass, then go ahead and hit the other festivals in that area.

While submitting shorts to mainstream festivals can be a long shot, Thomas encouraged students to submit to Sundance anyway, if for no other reason than to get into their database of filmmakers. However, the best thing to do is to target shorts-specific festivals such as the Palm Springs International ShortFest. Thomas also recommends focusing on North American festivals, simply because, from a financial standpoint, it is more feasible that you’ll be able to attend them. Thomas also rates South by Southwest (SXSW) high on his list for short filmmakers.

“Always ask yourself what you or your film will gain by playing a festival before you spend the money on submission fees,” said Thomas. “Just have an incentive to submit – whatever that is – besides feeding your ego. Is there a festival in your hometown or in a city where you’d like to film your next project? Those are great reasons to attend and make those important contacts.”

When and How to Submit
Thomas also gave valuable tips about the timing of your submission. You don’t want to wait until the last minute when the festival programmer’s concentration is tapped out and you don’t want to submit too early and be forgotten at selection time. Although it can be a challenge financially, submitting within two weeks of the festival’s final deadline is best. Don’t go by the late/extended dates on Withoutabox – they’ll only hurt your chances.

Some students expressed concern about premiere status but Thomas assured them that it’s not an issue for shorts. In fact, “if a festival requires your short to have world premiere status, that’s definitely a bad sign and doesn’t make any sense. Just avoid that festival altogether.” You only need to worry about premiere status if it’s between two festivals in the same city because they do compete with one another for “bragging rights” and there is a hierarchy (especially in LA and NYC).

He also stressed the importance of staying true to your film. Yes, many shorts festivals prefer the 10-15 minute length but if you have a longer format (20-30 minute) don’t cut your film length just to tailor a festival’s requirement and potentially ruin what you’re trying to express. It may limit your options to have a longer film but it doesn’t knock you out of the running. He also warned about sending comedies to international festivals since they tend to be more dialogue heavy and don’t often translate well. It’s important to research any festival you want to submit to and note how the programmers build their schedule.

Once You Get In
Once your film has been accepted to a festival, it’s time to start assembling your promotional materials. The three must-haves on any filmmaker’s press kit list should be: a short film synopsis (25 words or less), a longer film synopsis (50-100 words) and two to three film stills and have these items ready at the time of submission. If they accept your film, they’re going to want these items ASAP and it will make you look that much better to be ahead of the pack. Additional press kit items that are good to have include a director’s bio, website contact information and cover/poster art for your film.  A film trailer or teaser is optional for short films.

Thomas added, “A great film still is a tight shot (close up or medium – remember, it will be reduced in size for their catalog) that is about the protagonist and matches the synopsis. A still should be interesting, have energy, and be something that comes alive to the viewer. Believe it or not, most great stills are found in the first third of your film.”

Always end your bio with a sentence that states you’re currently in pre-production on your next project and be prepared to talk about it if someone asks what you’re working on next. It’s the number one, most important sentence that every bio should have because they want to see that you’re always working.”

Most festival publicity is focused on the features, but that doesn’t mean shorts are ignored entirely. When you arrive at the festival, check in with the publicity office as soon as possible. Introduce yourself and let them know that you’re available for interviews and happy to do them any time it is convenient for them, and be sure to stick to it. Be available at all times, especially early morning. It could make all the difference in getting your film noticed and sites like Indiewire won’t shy away from covering short films. An interview is also something you can use for future publicity purposes. Have plenty of business cards and postcards on hand to distribute to potential audience members and industry folks and put your screening times on them.

Students came prepared with so many questions about the festival market that we could have spent several hours hearing all of Thomas’ great advice on the subject. In closing, he encouraged filmmakers not to get obsessed with themselves and their egos when they attend festivals. “Remember, you’re part of the festival community and the festival is about a group of artists coming together. Meet the other filmmakers and support them by going to see their films.”

Thomas Ethan Harris’ Top Festival Picks (click on the festival name to go to their website)

Top 10 North American Festivals
1.  Toronto International Film Festival (only Canadian financed shorts)
2.  Sundance Film Festival (auteur-driven, high production values)
3.  South by Southwest (SXSW) – appreciates grittier, edgy, realism
4.  Telluride Film Festival
5.  New York Film Festival / New Directors New Filmmakers
6.  Tribeca Film Festival
7.  Chicago International Film Festival
8.  Los Angeles Film Festival
9.  San Francisco International Film Festival / Mill Valley Film Festival
10. Cleveland International Film Festival

Top International Festivals
Cannes Film Festival
Toronto International Film Festival
Berlin International Film Festival
Sundance Film Festival
Venice Film Festival
Edinburgh International Film Festival
Busan International Film Festival
San Sebastian International Film Festival
Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

Top Community Festivals
Ann Arbor Film Festival
Ashland Independent Film Festival
Austin Film Festival
Dallas International Film Festival
Florida Film Festival
Hamptons International Film Festival
Heartland Film Festival
Nantucket Film Festival
Nashville Film Festival
Savannah Film Festival
St. Louis International Film Festival
Williamstown Film Festival

Top Documentary Festivals
International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam
Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival
Sheffield Doc/Fest
London International Documentary Film Festival
AFI Docs (formerly Silverdocs)
Full Frame Documentary Film Festival
Margaret Mead Film Festival
Encounters Documentary Festival

Top Shorts Festivals
Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival
Oberhausen International Short Film Festival
Palm Springs International ShortFest
Tampere International Short Film Festival
Flickerfest International Short Film Festival
Sapporo International Short Film Festival and Market
Uppsala International Short Film Festival
Cinema Jove Valencia Film Festival
São Paulo International Short Film Festival

Harris’ Picks: Top Animation Festivals
Annecy International Animated Film Festival
SIGGRAPH Computer Animation Festival
Ottawa International Animation Festival
Trick Animation Film Festival
Hiroshima International Animation Festival

Harris’ Picks: TV Festivals
New Media Film Festival – Los Angeles
New York Television Festival
Guardian Edinburgh International Television Festival
Atlanta Television Festival
Monte-Carlo Television Festival

Harris’ Picks: Women’s Festivals
International Women’s Film Festival in Seoul
The St. John’s International Women’s Film Festival – Canada
Créteil International Women’s Film Festival – France
Barcelona International Film Festival