As one of the founders of Asians On Film, I have supported our mission to support and promote the Asian-American film industry and part of that is helping Asian-American filmmakers get their films seen by as many people as possible. The best way for independent filmmakers to get exposure is to have their films screened at film festivals, which is why it is personally painful when filmmakers come to me year after year stating that they can’t understand why their film didn’t get in to a certain festival. Some even argue that they have received awards at other festivals and positive reviews from critics, but were still denied the coveted spot of an official festival selection. Time and again I have explained to discouraged filmmakers the nature of film festivals and why non-selection is not a reflection of the quality of their film. The first Cinematographer I ever worked with, Pierre Chemaly, had worked for Paramount studios for 20+ years and told me he finally quit to do is own thing because he realized he had “a job” and was not having fun or being a filmmaker, specifically making his art whatever that was and whatever people may think about it. His words of advice to me are words I now live by as a filmmaker. He told me, “No matter what you make there will be people who will love it and people who will hate it, so in the end YOU have to be happy with it.” That is what filmmaking is all about, a creative vision that has subjective views about what is creative and “good.” This basic idea is also true with film festivals and those who program film festivals. That said, of course filmmakers want people to see their work and be recognized for their abilities and I am going to hopefully give some insight into how film festivals generally operate that might explain why some great films aren’t being selected for screening.
I’ll use the 2013 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival (LAAPFF) as an example throughout this article to help illustrate the inner workings of a festival. I’m choosing this particular festival because it has the biggest crowds of Asian-Asian-American festivals in the USA in the place with the largest Asian-American population, Los Angeles. Since we focus on the Asian-American film industry it’s also the festival that I get the most questions about when it comes to films not being selected. There is nothing more rewarding for a filmmaker than recognition among your peers and if you are an Asian-American filmmaker, this is one of the “big” prizes for being selected for a screening. I will attempt to shed some light on what goes into programming a film festival in hopes of helping filmmakers understand that non-selection does not mean their film was bad, it just didn’t get selected.
THE FIRST THING to understand is the size of a film festival. Large festivals, like LAAPFF, will have a ton of submissions, way beyond what it could possibly schedule for its festival run (and keep in mind that LAAPFF runs for 10 days!). I once read an article that said for well established film festivals, the acceptance rate is about 5 – 6%, which is a number that is probably shocking to most. But remember, digital cameras have allowed filmmakers to flourish everywhere, and because it’s so much easier to make a film, the number of films submitted to film festivals has increased every year. The odds aren’t in favor of your film being an official festival selection simply based on numbers alone. Just to use round numbers, let’s say this festival gets 1000 submissions, and let’s say 10% are accepted for screening at LAAPFF. That equates to only 100 films out of 1000 earning a spot, or the other way around 900 films won’t get selected.
THE SECOND THING to understand is that just about all film festivals have programmers and programming ideas or themes that can have an impact on some films being more favored or less favored than others. While not necessarily a bad idea, my personal opinion is that it ends up diminishing the overall quality of films selected because they will be straying from objective parameters of “good/bad” and add in “necessary/not necessary” for their theme and/or “part of my agenda/not part of my agenda” for programming . People already insert their personal opinions, agendas and tastes to start and that combined with a programmer’s agenda or things they personally want to showcase can lead to compromising the integrity of a festival by deviating from its mission statement. In our festival example, LAAPFF, they tout themselves as “the premier showcase for the best and brightest of Asian American and Asian International cinema.” Over the last three years of working alongside LAAPFF, providing news coverage and promotion via Asians On Film, I’ve noticed that the festival is prone to showcasing everything of Filipino/Pacific Islander origin, including directors, actors, stories and documentaries. The three main people who organize and run the festival are Filipino, so emphasis on everything Filipino/Pacific Islander, i.e. directors, films, actors, makes sense knowing this information. Looking at the recent two years of festival programming for LAAPFF, 35% of narrative feature films screened in 2012 featured either Filipino/Pacific Islander directors, Filipino/Pacific Islander actors or Filipino/Pacific Islander subject matter. That percentage dropped slightly in 2013 to 24%. For short film programming, 33% of films in the 2012 season showcased Filipino/Pacific Islander talent/stories, and that number grew to 50% in 2013. Documentary features had similar results with 29% of films in 2012 featuring Filipino/Pacific Islander subject matter and 23% in 2013. In this case, by emphasizing Filipino/Pacific Islander films, LAAPFF increases the chances for some filmmakers to have their films screened while diminishing it for others. Going back to our 1000 submission example, in the first part we narrowed the selected films to 100. Let’s assume for example that 30% of these films are gonna be connected in some way to Filipino/Pacific Islander films or talent. If you fall in that category, the chances of your film being screened increased, but for every other filmmaker your odds have decreased. It’s safe to say that the majority of submissions probably aren’t related to the Filipino/Pacific Islander theme. Those filmmakers without some Filipino/Pacific Islander connection statistically are only gonna get 70 slots at the festival.
THE THIRD THING to understand is that some festivals have scholarship programs or other funding they use to support filmmakers. This is truly great for the few filmmakers who receive some type of financial aid to make a film, but naturally a film festival is going to want to showcase at their own festival the films that they have helped fund. We can again use LAAPFF as an example because they have a program called Armed With a Camera that provides funding to a group of selected filmmakers and their films are screened each year at the festival. These are films not even competing, but selected automatically because of where they came from not because of their content. Those types of funded films represented 29% of all films screened in 2012 and 23% in 2013 at LAPFF. Look back at our 70 film slots (non-Filipino/Pacific Islander) that filmmakers are vying for at LAPFF, this number is further reduced to provide space for the funded film projects. We will pick 25% for our example which reduces the number of available spots down to 52.
THE FOUTH THING to understand is other selection factors that are often overlooked by filmmakers, alumni, sponsors and contributors. Festivals love to showcase alumni especially if they feel instrumental in introducing them to audiences previously. When it comes to the monetary contributors, they are what make the non-profit sector go ‘round. Sometimes a particular film will be selected and screened at a festival simply because it’s being supported financially. Both of these considerations further reduce the amount of screening opportunities available to outside applicants. There is no way to know how many films fall in these categories at LAAPFF, but I personally am aware of a few. As an example let’s just say it’s only 5%. Our 52 remaining slots for “outside” filmmakers have now been further reduced to 50.
THE FIFTH THING to understand is the type genre your film fits into. While each festival has its very own feel and some have very specific content such as horror, family films or comedy, my general experience with Asian-American film festivals is that they tend to be conservative in their film selections and keep them more PG and less R in feel. Back to our LAAPFF example, it follows this pattern of being much more focused on screening films that would be available to wider audiences (that also benefits the bottom line of ticket sales). In general, horror and sci-fi films tend to be very popular with the public, but LAAPFF screens very few films in those genres, and when it comes to sexual content, the festival screens even less. Looking at LAAPFF’s 2012 programming, only 2% of short films were classified as horror and that number decreased to 1% in 2013. For the action/adventure genre, the 2012 season saw a festival share of 8% with a decrease to only 3% in 2013. Sex/erotic films saw only a 1% representation in 2012 with a slight increase to 2% in 2013. There were zero sci-fi films in 2012 and a 3% showing in 2013. Grouping all these genre’s together and looking at LAAPFF in 2013, they only accounted for 9% of the films. Our last count was 50 films slots out of 1000 and let’s assume you as an “outside” filmmaker made a horror film, action/adventure film, sex/erotic film, or a sci-fi film which are all very popular with audiences. For LAAPFF programming purposes they are not popular and if you made this kind of film out of 1000 submission slots, only 4 films are likely to be selected.
WHAT DOES THIS ALL MEAN? It means that you have to know the festival that you’re submitting to and make sure that your film is the right fit. For the purposes of this article, if you make a horror film outside of a scholarship program with no sponsorship backing, no big-name stars, and no Filipino/Pacific Islander connection, you can be pretty confident that it won’t be an official selection of the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival regardless of how good you think your movie is because statistically its chances are only 0.004% of being accepted. If you made a drama it still only has a 4.6% chance of being accepted. Neither are very good odds.
Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival is not some anomaly, it’s simply the festival that I’ve chosen to use an example for this article. As a filmmaker myself who makes Asian-American films I also want my peers to see my films and I live in Los Angeles. I have released 7 short films for screening and all of them have won awards, some multiple awards. Yet none of those films has ever been screened at LAAPFF and since my films to date have no Filipino/Pacific Islander actors, are sexual, graphic, and/or violent and have disturbing subject matters my chances of being screened according to the above analysis is 0.004% chance. In fact, one of the programmers once said to me I should make “nicer” films. But I still submit every film because I hope that one day I’m that rare exception and more importantly, I hope someday Asian-American audiences (my peers) can see my films.
We could go through this exercise with any festival and end up with similar results. The Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival has done wonders for increasing the visibility of Asian-American cinema and based on the types of films I make I could argue it does suffer from programming flaws. Someone else could argue just the opposite and this could be done with most festivals. In the end programmers of all festivals, including LAAPFF, are entitled to run their festival however they see fit. It is, afterall, their festival! And we end up back where we started which is the moral of the story: Don’t let film festival acceptance or non-acceptance dictate whether your film is good or not because in the end YOU just have to be happy with it.
Scott Eriksson, Co-founder Asians On Film