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Why didn't I get into Sundance? Revisited.

Park City postersThe Sundance Film Festival announces its slate today. I know a lot of filmmakers who submitted to the festival this year. For their sake and mine I don't really go into the nitty-gritty numbers of how few films – no matter how good – get into this most coveted of festivals. Now that most of them have heard a yes or now, however, it might actually help their spirits to know the truth. (Last year I wrote a kind of pep talk piece on this subject that you're welcome to read.)

Let's do some back-of-the-napkin calculations here. According to what a Sundance programmer told me last year when I was writing Film Festival Secrets (the book), about 8,000 titles were submitted to Sundance last year, and that number could have gone as high as nine or ten thousand this year. Let's use the conservative 9,000 for now. Checking out last year's program guide reveals that Sundance programs fewer than 200 films total, including shorts. So 200/9000 = .022. Fewer than two percent of the films submitted get into the Sundance Film Festival.

As John Cooper, Director of the Sundance Film Festival put it in a tweet earlier today: "3724 features submitted and we can only invite 113. So many tough choices. For me, a very good news-bad news day."

The numbers aren't really much better at any other large-to-medium festival, though – I estimate that acceptance rates hover between 3% and 8%. This isn't a criticism of these festivals, merely a statement of the way it is. There are more films being made and submitted than ever before, and the large, well-known festivals can't grow their programs fast enough to keep up. The selection process at a festival like Sundance isn't about finding great films – it's about figuring out which great films you want to show. As I told a client just the other day: "I think you made a film that's good enough for Sundance, but whether it's the kind of film that Sundance is in the mood for right now is the real question."

The good news is that there are now more small-to-medium sized festivals than ever before, and that the number of really great festival-worthy films hasn't kept up with that growth either. So while it may be a programmer's market at the top of the heap, there are plenty of festivals further down on the pyramid who are hungry for quality movies that haven't yet had their world or national premieres. Sure, it would be great to premiere at Sundance or AFI Fest or Berlin. The trick is to stay in the game long enough – and to keep making movies good enough – that you're in the right place when your right time comes along.

4 comments:

Michelle said...

Directors from all around the world look forward to this film festival. This is where small budget films, with low profile actors and actresses, are submitted. This event focuses on the independent side of the big screen and it's all about uniqueness and quality.

Michelle Pendlelton

Mike Chandon said...

Hi, I'm doing research on film festival economics (with emphasis on short films), and if I may just add:

Michelle, this event may focus on the independent side of the screen, but there's also a disproportionate amount of perceived favoritism towards filmmakers with ties to the Sundance festival. Look at the 2012 lineup (in particular: US narrative short films). As mentioned in the article, fewer than 2% of all submitted films get accepted, but a back-of-the-napkin calculation shows that if you have a personal/business relation to someone at Sundance (look at the filmmaker's imdb page or Sundance bio sheet, or do a quick google search), their film's chances of getting in is much higher, coming in at 31%. Keep in mind this is a conservative estimate. So with short film submission fees at $50 (regular deadline), I would have a hard time persuading any indie filmmaker that Sundance is worth their effort and money.

Eric said...

Sundance (like Tribeca) is not a real film festival - it's a corporate boondoggle - the films they take aren't truly independent but micro-budget partnership films or all out studio films. They are looking for the movies that will sell the most tix and that's a fact. It's a disgusting fact. If you want to get screened, don't waste your money submitting to these big festivals - wait for them to invite you. In the meantime, submit locally, or to a screening series (NYC has several).

Jackie O'Brien said...

3-8%?! That doesn't seem like a very high number. But there are few traditional avenues into the film business besides festivals. I still haven't seen the high production value indie online revolution people keep talking about (until we see independent features on youtube/vimeo with great viewing numbers I doubt it will happen), but hopefully local video production (like in Boston) and local festivals will help some independent films get awareness. Nice post!