To Festival or Not to Festival...

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2013 welcomes the release of my lastest short film, Yellow Sticky Notes | Canadian Anijam (watch trailer here:

With the release of a new film comes preparing a distribution strategy.  Should you do the film festival circuit or just put it online.  What are the benefits of going the festival route?  Prestige, accolades, building your brand, networking, smoozing, boozing!  Pretty much all of the above.  Some filmmakers do both and put their film online and also do the film festival circuit...but having your film online can disqualify you from some of the bigger festivals and qualifying for an Oscar.  

I love film festivals and consider myself a bit of a film festival junky!  I have been fortunate that over 10 years of filmmaking, I have screened my films in over 200 film festivals...and I have attended at least 80 of them.  Although, as the years have progressed, I've noticed a huge rise in the amount of film festivals around the world.  It seems every town and city in the world has their own film festival.  I heard that Toronto has over 60 to 70 film festivals a year.  That's more than one a weekend!  

So with the crazy amount of film festivals out there, how do you know which ones are any good and which ones you should attend.  Planning your festival strategy is very important.  Especially because almost all North American film festivals have entry fees.  With Yellow Sticky Notes | Canadian Anijam, I've already spent over a $1000 on entry fees for just this spring round of festivals.  Although, how did I decide on which festivals to enter.  Well, I basically only applied to what I considered to be the top tier international film festivals.  Of course there's Sundance and Berlin coming up...but there's also the Oscar qualifying film festivals.  These are film festivals where if you win the top short film or short animation award, you automatically qualify for the Academy Awards.  You can also qualify a short film by paying to four-wall a theatre in LA to an empty audience but what's the fun in that.  

I downloaded a qualifying festival list from:

Check out the list and then go out and apply to as many as you can afford.  I did most of the applying through Withoutabox (   It's a convenient way to apply to a bunch of North American festivals without having to fill out multiple entry forms...but it does get expensive.  Always try to apply to a festival before the early deadline for the cheapest entry fee.  Also applying early actually helps increase your odds of getting in because the longer you wait the more films have already been selected making the odds harder to get in.  

As well to keep costs down, you can try asking festivals for entry fee waivers...but in this day and age with festival funding in the toilet, it's a long shot that any festival will grant a fee waiver.  Trust me, they have hundreds of filmmakers emailing them with the same story about how their film was made with a zero dollar budget and there's no money for festival fees.  Although, if you know the programmer personally or if you have screened at that festival with a previous film, you can sometimes request a waiver.  I was able to do that with Tribeca this year as an alumni of the fest and saved the $30 entry fee just by emailing the programmer personally. 

Also, look into submitting an online screener.  It saves having to mail out a ton of screeners and multiple trips to the post better for the environment.  As well, if you want to apply to European film festivals check out Short Film Depot (  and Reelport (  The great thing about these entry systems is that most of their film festivals are free or relatively cheap to enter.  As well, they have online screeners you can again no shipping! 

The other reason to apply to top tier film festivals first is that most of these festivals require some kind of premiere could be a World, European, North American, US, or just the city premiere that the festival is in.  Also, it's good to try to get into these festivals because there are usually more festival programers and distributors who attend these festivals.  So it's a good way to get your screener into the hands of programmers in person or get your film programmed just by having a programmer watch your film at one of these festivals.  This will help save some entry fees and get you into some other smaller festivals.  As well, it's easier to win awards at some of the smaller festivals since there's less competition so its a good way to build some accolades and maybe take home some prize money to help with paying for festival entry fees.

Also, very very important...Don't get discouraged from getting rejected.  Ya, it sucked when my film was rejected from Sundance this year but you have to remember it's a crapshoot.  I really thought this was my year but Sundance received 12,146 entries and could only program 170 films this year.  That means the odds of being selected were 1.4%.  I bet my film didn't even make it to a senior programmer.  Remember that most festivals have junior programmers who filter the films first and if your film is about a breakup and that programmer just broke up with her boyfriend...chances are you're not getting in!  So don't be too hard on yourself or think you've made a bad film just because you couldn't get into a particular film festival.  I've learned that there is always a programmer out there who really loves your just need to apply to the right festival!   Also, a lot of festivals program short films in thematic blocks so it might just be that your film didn't fit in with some other themes that were chosen.  

Most importantly stay positive.  I receive way more rejections than I receive acceptance letters.  Sometimes I'm baffled as to why my film wasn't chosen but I don't sweat it anymore.  Yes its sucks my $80 Sundance submission fee and $60 shipping fee for the screener didn't amount to anything but you always have to matter the odds.  One day you never could will get your Sundance or Cannes moment.  But if you continue to find yourself not getting into those top tier film festivals, switch your focus and find those festivals you think your film would fit in and apply.  If your film is a horror film, find some genre festivals.  If you're an Asian American filmmaker or feature an Asian American lead actor in the film, apply to some Asian American film festivals.  There's usually less competition and much more enthusiastic audiences who will really appreciate your work.  

So far, Yellow Sticky Notes | Canadian Anijam has been accepted to the 28th Santa Barbara International Film Festival for its World Premiere.  Followed up by the 23rd Cinequest Film Festival in San Jose.  Both festivals are Academy Award qualifiers so here's hopin'!  I plan on attending the Santa Barbara Int'l Film Festival this year so I will make sure to blog about my experiences.  

Keep posted to my blog and subscribe for updates..I'll be doing more film festival strategy how to promote your film once you're at the festival and how to navigate the most out of your film festival experience.  

Also, next week I will be posting a 4 part series on how I made my multi-award winning 2007 short film, Yellow Sticky Notes and how I was able to brand and promote the film on the film festival circuit!   Watch Yellow Sticky Notes here: 

At the 2005 Maui Film Festival with Jake Gyllenhaal...Film festivals aren't always business so make sure to take some time to enjoy the parties and galas!  

About the author


Jeff Chiba Stearns is an Emmy® nominated and Webby award winning animation and documentary filmmaker. Born in Kelowna, BC, of Japanese and European heritage, he graduated from the Emily Carr University of Art and Design with a degree in Film Animation in 2001. Soon after he founded Meditating Bunny Studio…

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