Fall means festivals. Maybe you’ve attended several of the Washington film fests underway this September and October, or you’re busy submitting your own film to any number of calls to enter. In that spirit, Washington Filmworks invited Kathleen McInnis to pen a guest post designed to help filmmakers think strategically about working the film festival circuit.

McInnis has guided films through their festival premieres at Toronto, Sundance, Berlin, Cannes, Karlovy Vary, Galway and San Sebastian film festivals among many others. She has been a festival programmer and director at such festivals as Seattle, Slamdance and Palm Springs ShortFest. Her films have won major awards at Toronto, Sundance and Berlin, and have been featured in media such as the New York Times, LA Times, Filmmaker Magazine, Variety, and Screen International. McInnis continues to sit on festival juries and panels around the globe. She teaches festival strategies at UCLA and NYU Tisch/Asia.

Fall is definitely the start of our Film Festival season. Toronto, Telluride, Venice, San Sebastian, Busan, London, Vancouver, New York and Hamptons are a sampling of the top tier festivals that make August-October such vital months for the global film festival circuit. Now add to this list of events a who’s who of major festival submission deadlines (Sundance, Rotterdam, Gotebörg, Berlin, Palm Springs, SXSW…) and independent filmmakers around the world start to sweat with the sheer enormity of decisions expected of them on behalf of their films.

There are between 3,000-5,000 film festivals worldwide, depending on whose calculations you reference. The “trades” (Variety, Screen Int’l, IndieWire, and Hollywood Reporter) will tell you there are really only 50 that matter. Of course, none of them claim the same 50. And none of them define “matter” exactly the same.

FIPRESCI (The International Federation of Film Critics) rules for the inclusion of their film critics on festival juries ends up, by default, governing a number of A-list festivals around the world. FIAPF (International Federation of Film Producers Association) was created specifically with the goal of regulating international film festivals and currently counts just over 50 major festivals as full members…not necessarily the same 50 festivals touted by the trades as those that matter, however.

Still, while overall only a small number of festivals are officially FIPRESCI or FIAPF festivals, the rules imposed by those organizations have shaped the global film festival experience for over 80 years. But are those festivals the only ones worth applying to? Are those festivals the best for your film? For your career? For your money? And how to do you assess each of the possibilities ahead of you?

I prefer to challenge filmmakers to think about their festival choices in ways much different than they are used to doing.

In our new-world film industry, filmmakers are expected to do the heavy lifting with regards to the health and welfare of their films. It is no longer enough to play your film at a festival and simply wait by the phone. Those days, by the way, have been long over although I still find myself having to disavow some emerging filmmakers of the idea when we first talk about the concept of strategizing their festival play.

I recommend filmmakers instead make a list of goals and expectations for their festival play. Are you looking for acquisition, press, awards, industry attention, ability to network, audience, a way to repay your cast and crew? Yes, I know you’ll start by answering yes to all of the above, but now realistically make this list again and this time prioritize what you want the most first.

Next, make a list of festivals that can deliver on your goals. For example, if you have a feature and really need that trade review, then you have to look to festivals that have trade journalists attending and covering. Those last two words are important: AND COVERING. It’s great if a festival brings out a Variety critic to sit on a panel, but is that critic also reviewing? How do you tell? You look at the reviews out of that festival over the past few years to find a history of coverage.

What if you didn’t make a film that will find a home at the major festivals but is likely to be welcome at smaller festivals—how then do you evaluate each event? I look for a number of things to help me frame a picture of a smaller festival I might not be familiar with: a) how old are they; b) what sort of audience and audience award do they have; c) how current are they programming (in other words, are the films new on the circuit or old); d) what do they offer the filmmaker?

I also look at the festival’s profile in the media—how do others talk about them? Withoutabox has a great chat room where filmmakers can give feedback on their festival experience: I think more filmmakers should be using this interactive service. There are festivals that are horrible, charge outrageous (by my opinion) submission fees, treat their filmmakers like crap and even hold prints hostage after the festival is over. Why do filmmakers continue to support these festivals that have such bad reputations? Because new filmmakers don’t often enough do their homework and previous filmmakers won’t share their experiences as much as they should.

When we talk about choosing and evaluating festivals for submission, we have to also talk numbers. Of the more than 6500 short film submissions Sundance received last year, they took about 70. Of the 3500 or so feature submissions, they took 110. If you read those numbers again, you’ll note it’s quite likely Sundance isn’t for you. Of course, that won’t stop any filmmaker from trying. But I hope it also tells filmmakers not to look at any one festival as the only opportunity.

Think instead of approaching your festivals submission choices in bite sized pieces. Look at the submission calendar for three months ahead; pick your best choices and see how the response is. For example, if you apply to Sundance, Slamdance, Palm Springs, Rotterdam and Berlin in the fall, you’ll know by the third week of November if you are in. If not, you can re-evaluate and still make the January submission deadlines for the next round of top festivals such as Seattle, Tribeca, Los Angeles, and Munich.

Additionally, find a way to learn what kind of a film you really have. No, this doesn’t mean asking friends or fellow filmmakers. And it certainly doesn’t mean you making your own evaluation. It does mean getting people who go to films to watch yours and tell you what they think. Yep, I advocate test screenings. But only very specific kinds—you need unbiased, movie-goers to watch your film.

This is easier with short films—I often recommend taking your film on your laptop or tablet to a theater with a long ticket line and asking people to watch while they are waiting and then give you feedback. These people are a controlled target—movie lovers by definition (why else would they be in line and say yes to your request) and unknown by you.

It’s harder with feature films, but not impossible: Craig’s List, Facebook friends of friends, university students—all present possible and probably avenues for putting together a dozen people who have no vested interest to watch your film and give you feedback. People are often excited by this prospect, you just have to ask.

Filmmakers also need to do more of their own homework. This means looking at the kinds of films programmed at your top pick festival over the past years. Look for trends, traits, similarities or commonalities. Will your film help continue that festival’s brand or tradition? Did you imprint your unique voice onto your visual storytelling? Can the festival “discover” you?

And of course an even bigger question is: are you ready to submit? Not only is the film ready and at its best final version (which is rarely accomplished by rushing for any single festival’s deadline), but are your materials ready? Your iconic imagery? Your production notes, press materials, deliverables? If you are hoping to springboard from your festival participation to industry attention, are you ready with the next project, the next script?

There are festivals that can help sell your film (true and defacto markets such as Berlin, Cannes, Toronto, Sundance); festivals that can help sell you (prestige festivals such as Sundance, Cannes, Venice, Telluride); festivals that can bring you important audiences (Seattle ranks extremely high with over 60,000 votes cast for the Golden Space Needle Audience Award) and festivals that can showcase you in front of Oscar voters (Palm Springs has more Academy members per capita than anywhere else).

By making decisions about what you want from your festival experience first; what you have in hand to make your festival experience count, and how much time, money and energy you have to engage in the submission process, you can streamline your choices and (hopefully) increase your rate of return.