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Making the Cut

By Tom Isler

If you had a film rejected by a major documentary film festival last year, you’re in good company. The Full Frame Documentary Festival in Durham, North Carolina, Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival in Toronto, and Silverdocs/AFI Discover Channel Documentary Festival in Silver Spring, Maryland each receive approximately 2,000 submissions annually and program only between five and seven percent of those films.

“It’s a puzzle and there are too many pieces,” says Sean Farnel, director of programming for Hot Docs. “At the end of the day, a lot of good work doesn’t get shown.”

Sky Sitney, director of programming for Silverdocs, calls the mounting ratio of documentaries to festival screening slots a “crisis.” “There’s more product than there are consumers for it,” she laments, adding that she hopes her festival doesn’t receive a greater number of submissions this year. “Quite frankly, that’s about as much as we can handle.”

Few are more qualified to assess the current state of documentary filmmaking than festival programmers, if only because they see the genre unfiltered. Programmers end up reviewing hundreds of films that don't make it aonto the festival schedules, and, in some cases, films that never receive a public audience at all. Programmers are divided over whether the increase in quantity of documentaries in recent years has come at the expense of overall quality, but are in agreement on why so many films fail, and they believe filmmakers stand to learn a great deal from the work that doesn’t make the cut. The most prevalent complaint from programmers is that filmmakers lack a crystallized vision of the stories they’re trying to tell.

“The single biggest flaw, the most consistent I see, is that films that we’re kind of interested in fall out of consideration because they haven’t quite found their shape and form,” says Farnel. “It’s really tricky in documentary to do that, and that’s why so many films fail, in a sense. You have to get a good editor.”

Films with charismatic subjects or superior technical elements often suffer from muddy, unfocused narratives or structural problems that detract from the stories. “Filmmakers have to find the right balance of story and storytelling,” says Matt Dentler, producer of the South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Conference and Festival in Austin, Texas. “Films with the most compelling subjects can overcome technical deficiencies, but the rest require clarity of vision and purpose.”

Usually, these faults translate to overlong films, a ubiquitous gripe of programmers. “It’s a truism among programmers that all documentaries are 10 minutes too long,” says David Wilson, co-director of the True/False Film Festival in Columbia, Missouri. He says he tends to see the best work in documentaries that run between 70 and 85 minutes.

“I see films with three different endings,” adds Nancy Buirski, who recently stepped down as artistic director of Full Frame. “The film ends and then comes back with more and then it ends again and comes back again. I can’t tell you how often that happens.”

Too many films simply don’t undergo a rigorous editing process, which not only results in extraneous minutes but also unnecessary repetition of themes or rhetorical points, according to Linda Blackaby, director of programming for the San Francisco Film Society, which produces the San Francisco International Film Festival. “Sometimes, you get it, and you get it really soon. At some point you have to ask, what’s the value per minute?”

Length is both an artistic and programming challenge. A 50-minute film is too long to be a short, but too short to warrant its own feature slot, and must be paired with a complementary short film. The inability to find a good match could eliminate the 50-minute film from consideration. Similarly, short documentaries, which by definition can be up to 40 minutes long, have a much better chance of being selected if they are half that length, programmers advise.

“A 35-minute film is very hard to program,” says Nancy Schafer, co-executive director of New York City’s Tribeca Film Festival. “Twenty minutes or below gives it a much better chance of getting in. Under 15 minutes is even better. If you’re at 35 minutes, you have to ask, ‘What story are you telling? Are you telling too many stories? What’s happening?’ Thirty-five minutes is a weird length.”

Festival programmers are also prejudiced against documentaries that feel like television shows, or that don’t seem inherently cinematic. Farnel, who is reluctant to discuss stylistic preferences, admits he doesn’t like the television convention of opening with a two-minute teaser, a preview of what is to come. Others point out that film is a visual medium, and filmmakers can hurt their chances if they rely on narration to tell their story, especially if it sounds like a news broadcast, or if the film offers viewers nothing more than a magazine article on the subject would.

Submissions also fall short because the essence of the film simply isn’t articulated on camera, Sitney says. “You may have an extraordinary subject in theory, but the characters might not be charismatic on screen, or you may not be in the right place at the right time.”

Another major reason why some films get overlooked is that they are up against stronger, similar submissions. Programmers each have their own a list of sub-genres—children in competitions, guys starting up a garage band, patients with terminal illnesses—that have been mined successfully to the point where new films have to meet a higher standard. “Programmers become unresponsive to a certain subject after seeing it a lot,” Farnel says. Adds Schafer, “If you’re exposing something new, the road is a little easier.” But she’s been surprised before. Last year, just when she thought she’d seen everything that could be done about the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Schafer came across Beyond Belief, Beth Murphy’s film about 9/11 widows who commit to helping their counterparts in Afghanistan, and was startled at how fresh the film felt, despite covering a well-trod topic.

Buirkski says the key is to find subjects that open people’s eyes. A worthwhile guiding question, she suggests, is, “Does this tell us something about the human condition?”

Festival submissions can be similar in more than subject matter. Farnel says that programmers want to create festivals “with as many hues and nooks and crannies as possible” and might rule out a film that is too similar in tone to the rest of the schedule. “I totally believe in the social mission of the documentary form,” he says. But he also knows he can count on having too many serious, hard-hitting films than holes in the schedule, and he often finds himself searching for films that will offer “ventilation” to audiences via lighter entertainment. “One thing we don’t see enough of is humor,” he says. “If you’re showing films in a cinema, there’s got to be some entertainment in there as well.”

From a logistical standpoint, filmmakers can also hurt their chances at certain festivals depending on how they handle the submission process. One factor that can work against a film is if it does not qualify as a premiere. Programmers say non-premiere status rarely disqualifies a film from a festival outright, but it may limit the possible slots available to the film. In most cases, being able to claim a film as some kind of premiere—World, North American, US, East Coast, West Coast—acts as a tie-breaker in the film’s favor.

But not always. Tribeca requires films in competition to be North American premieres; others need not apply. Full Frame insists its opening night film be a US premiere, and major festivals universally will eliminate any films that have already shown in the local area. Thus, filmmakers have to prioritize their submissions and screenings, and should be realistic about their chances at festivals with premiere requirements, lest they pass on another festival that might be a better fit, programmers suggest.

Sometimes, filmmakers have to withdraw a film from consideration at a festival in order for it to be screened as a premiere at another festival. Buirski says those can be “very uncomfortable” situations, leaving programmers scrambling to fill spots at the last minute, yet overlapping deadlines often make this unavoidable. In general, premiere status only affects good films; great films will claim spots at festivals regardless.

There are other tricks to the submission process. According to Dentler and Sitney, good films sometimes miss the cut because they are submitted too late. “Don’t rush post-production to meet a deadline, because that ends up doing the film somewhat of a disservice,” Dentler says, but getting the film in by the middle of the call for entry can significantly help its shot at selection. Earlier on, it’s easier for programmers to commit to a film based on its own merits, Sitney says. Later in the process, program balance becomes a much larger factor.

In some cases, films are eliminated because DVD screeners don’t work. Festival staff usually will attempt to procure another copy, but programmers warn against making screening committee members work harder than necessary to watch submissions.

Sending T-shirts or hats of the film with the entry won’t help, though that alone wouldn’t be a reason to reject a film, programmers say. Sending the film in packaging that reflects the aesthetic of the film won’t help set the film apart, either.

Nor will lobbying from other festivals. “A good word from other programmers only goes so far,” Wilson says. “We’re all looking for great work. It’s nice when someone you trust says, ‘Hey, check this out, it’s really good.’ But we want to see for ourselves.”

The final piece of advice from Sitney might be the most important. “I say this sincerely, even though it sounds strange: Make a good film in the first place.”


Tom Isler is a writer and filmmaker in New York.