Panel offers tips on submitting work to film festivals

To guide today’s aspiring filmmakers, LMU has been hosting Life After Film School, a four-part series showcasing the many ways to succeed in film. On February 12, 2020 in Mayer Theater, the school presented a panel of top-level industry professionals giving advice on how to succeed on the festival circuit.

The panel included Jacqueline Lyanga, Film Independent’s art director; Clay Pruitt, head of acquisitions and programming at Seed&Spark; and Dilcia Barrera, a Sundance programmer who was recently recognized on IndieWire’s list of “20 Latin Americans Making a Difference for Latin Independent Film Today.”

“You will get rejected from many festivals,” Pruitt said. “That’s just the nature of the industry. Don’t be a jerk if you’re rejected. Your next project might be exactly what the organizers want, but they’ll remember that you were really nasty last year. Be kind and move on.”

The panel did not disappoint the crowd of current students and alumni. They encouraged students to be aware of where they posted their content before submitting, as many festivals do no accept features or shorts that have already made an online debut. Students were also encouraged to seek out international film festivals for both travel experience and the possibility of a cash prize.

Practical advice was paired with important guidance. The panel encouraged everyone to research smaller film festivals prior to applying. Doing so can ensure you understand the content a certain festival prefers, and that the festival is not scamming young filmmakers for money. A telltale sign of a scam, they noted, are festivals that require both an application fee and a fee to screen the film. Attending and networking at festivals is highly advised, panelists added, since media and entertainment is such a “who you know” business.

Giving advice on actual filmmaking, the panel emphasized individuality. Programmers often watch between 600 to 800 films a year and want to see as much new storytelling as they can. “You start to recognize a lot of repetitive things,” Lyanga said. “Often in the first 30 minutes, you can know what the story and plot points will be. You can recognize a character type and guess what’s going to happen. As a programmer, you want to be moved by something emotionally, whether it’s fear, laughter or joy.”

However, the panelists said the question of how to make your film stand out is not easy to answer, except to say that the story must truly come from within filmmakers themselves. “I encourage everyone to never make a film that impresses me or impresses a film festival,” Barrera said. “You should be making a film that you want to make, a story that you have to tell.”

Film festivals are, of course, a way for filmmakers to connect and for larger corporations to take note of up-and-coming talent. But Barrera finds a much deeper connection to the material too. “My personal purpose is the celebration of cinema,” Barrera said. “To me, it’s like nutrition—almost like getting a B12 shot in life. When I leave some film festivals, I feel alive again.”

Reporter Saffy Laurio is a first-year screenwriting major at SFTV.