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Production Strategies for International Film Festival Success


Internationalising China’s Digital Media Education: a Western Perspective          Back to E-Learning

 Ian Lang © 2012

Production Strategies for International Film Festival Success

‘A Grade’ Festivals

China already has an impressive record of success at the world’s three most influential film festivals: Cannes, Venice and Berlin. Currently, China’s total number of first prizes at these ‘A Grade’ festivals over the last thirty years is around equal to France and Germany – an impressive achievement – but only one-third of the USA, currently ranked first in the world.

This chapter looks at strategies to increase China’s share of Grade A Festival prizes that offer maximum world media impact. There is a separate analysis of B, C and D Grade festivals later under the headings Festival Selection describing the different benefits and strategies required for each lower grade.

The aim of all these strategies is to examine how the impact of China’s cultural engagement with the world can be increased to equal China’s economic impact, through films that reflect China accurately without foreign stereotyping.

A Grade festivals are in some ways like a cultural Olympics. Originally intended to showcase the talents of individuals, they have over time become a contest between countries for cultural prestige.

Like training Olympic athletes, educating media-makers to produce award-winning films for international competition requires specialist strategies not suitable for general media education. Unlike commercial films designed for mass audiences, A Grade festival films are designed purely for a very small audience of international judges.

But while only a small number of people may ever see these films, a first place prize at Cannes, Venice or Berlin, guarantees the winning country of front page news and television fame for its makers in almost every country of the world. This prestige cannot be bought, and there is no magic or scientific formula for success, but there are practical steps to increase the chances of winning. These steps have come from my graduates who have been nominated for, or won, eighteen A Grade festival prizes for short-films over the last six years (full list at  end of chapter: Note 1).

Listed in prestige order, the major A Grade festival prizes for feature films are:         

1. Cannes Film Festival: Palme d’Or, Grand Prix, Jury Prize.                                          

2. Berlin Film Festival: Golden Bear Best Motion Picture, Honorary Golden  Bear for Lifetime Achievement, Silver Bear Jury Grand Prix, Silver Bear  Best Director (and so on for other creative and technical categories).

3. Venice Film Festival: Golden Lion for Best Film, Silver Lion (given irregularly for second place films and technical categories), Special Jury prize.


China already has the skills required to increase its A Grade prizes, mainly in its famous schools the Beijing Film Academy, Communications University of China, and the Central Academy of Drama as Table 1 demonstrates, listing China’s recent A Grade achievements.  But with over three hundred universities in China now teaching media production, talent can come from anywhere. It important that talent is recognised early wherever it is found, and developed to its maximum potential.


Table 1           

A Grade Film Festival Prizes, Nominations, and Notable Screenings for Chinese Feature Films 1984-2011           

1984:  Chen Kaige (dir), Zhang Yimou (cine), Yellow Earth, no major festival awards, but     beginning of China’s modern international fame.

1988:  Zhang Yimou, Red Sorghum, Golden Bear award at Berlin.

1989: Wu Ziniu, Evening Bell, Silver Bear Special Jury prize at Berlin.

1990:  Zhang Yimou, Ju Dou, nominated for Palme D’Or at Cannes, and nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at Academy Award (USA)

1991: Zhang Yimou,  Raise the Red Lantern, Silver Lion Best Director award at Venice; nominated for Gold Lion at Venice; nominated for Best International Foreign Language Film at Academy Awards (USA)

1992:  Zhang Yimou, The Story of Qui Ju, Golden Lion award at Venice

1993:  Xie Fie, Woman Sesame Oil Maker, Golden Bear at Berlin.

1993:  Chen Kaige, Farewell My Concubine (霸王别姬),  Palme d’Or at Cannes; nominated for two Academy Awards (USA).

1994: Zhang Yimou, To Live, Jury prize at Cannes

1997: Chen Kaige (Hong Kong SAR), Emperor and the Assassin, Technical Grand Prize at Cannes, nominated for Palme d’Or at Cannes.

1999:  Zhang Yimou, Not One Less, Golden Lion at Venice [controversial rejection by Cannes in 1998]

2000: Zhang Yimou, The Road Home, Silver Bear Jury Grand Prix at Berlin,  nominated for Golden Bear at Berlin.

2000: Jiang Wen , Guizi Lai Le (Devils on the Doorstep), Grand Prix at Cannes, nominated for Palme d’Or at Cannes [controversial].

2001: Wang Xiaoshuai, Beijing Bicycle, Silver Bear Jury Grand Prix at Berlin [controversial]

2003: Wang Xiaoshuai, Drifters, nominated for Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes.

2005: Gu Changwei, Peacock, Silver Bear Jury Grand Prix at Berlin.

2005:  Wang Xiaoshuai, Shanghai Dreams, Jury Prize at Cannes [tough but not controversial like earlier neo-realist inspired Beijing Bicycle)

2006: Jia Zhangke, Still Life, Golden Lion at Venice.

2007: Wong Kar-wai (Hong Kong) , My Blueberry Nights, opening night film at Cannes (English language and American themes).

2007: Wong Quan’an, Tuya’s Marriage, Golden Bear at Berlin.         

2007: Li Yang, Blind Mountain, nominated Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes [controversial]

2007: Johnnie To, Mad Detective, in competition for Golden Lion at Venice.

2008: Wang Xiaoshuai, In Love We Trust (aka Left Right), Silver Bear for Best Screenplay prize at Berlin, nominated for Golden Bear at Berlin.

2009: Lou Ye, Spring Fever, nominated for Palme d’Or at Cannes [controversial]

2010: Jia Zhangke, I wish I knew, nominated for Un Certain Regard at Cannes.

2010: Wong Quan’an, Apart Together, Silver Bear Best Screenplay Award at Berlin.

                                                      Data sources: Canne/Venice/Berlin Film Festival web sites 2011

From a recent history view, the tally of total international first tier awards won by China begins with the Fifth Generation’s successes with Zhang Yimou’s Golden Bear for Red Sorghum at Berlin from 1984. Although these table extend to 2011 – China’s record practically ends with Sixth Generation director Wang Quan’an’s Tuya’s Marriage in 2007.


The following table puts China’s screen-culture achievements in a world perspective, placing China in a close secondary group of major screen producing nations including the UK, France and Germany.


Table 2

Total A Grade Feature Film Festival First Prizes Ranked by All Competing Nations 1984-2011

27 countries                   

Note: Some years have joint winners. Former East Germany and West Germany counted together as Germany. Soviet Union and Russia counted together. Former Yugoslavia counted together with Croatia, Serbia Slovenia, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Former Czechoslovakia counted as Czech Republic and Slovakia. For simplicity list counts 2007 Gold Lion “Lust, Caution’ directed by Ang Lee as a primarily US/US-financed film with minor Chinese elements.

                                                      Data sources: Canne/Venice/Berlin Film Festival web sites 2011

Analysis, Tables 1-2.

The history of every film’s production and distribution is unique, but some trends can be observed. At face value, China’s world ranking of 4th with seven first-prizes in A Grade festivals over the sample period indicates strong comparative performance against very strong European performers France at 3rd place with nine first-prizes, and Germany at 5th with 5 first prizes.

The USA’s winning first-place world ranking in these top-three European-centric festivals is powerful, with an almost 20% first-prize success rate for every American film in competition leading to twenty-three wins over the sample period. These results make it difficult to criticise all USA productions as simply ‘Hollywood formula’ films – and indeed, leading Los Angeles producers now even question if the ‘Hollywood film’ now exists at all, under currently internationalised funding methods necessary to bankroll most Western productions made even more difficult since the 2009 world financial crisis and 2011 American stock market crash.

The United State’s performance is more than twice as strong as the world’s second ranked nation, the United Kingdom, with a 9.2% first-prize win rate from 11 total wins over the sample period. This too is an impressive performance, from a country whose film industry was widely believed to be in decline since the 1990s, whilst its television industry was on the ascent. The combination of both America and the UK’s success rate nearing almost 30% of A Grade awards, indicates that English language films predominate in foreign festivals, although French cultural values have greater prestige, indicated by France’s place ranking at 7.5%.

China ranks fourth place with a success rate of 5.9%, clustering only a short way from France and leading the larger group of equal fifth-ranked countries Germany, Italy, Ireland, Taiwan, and the former Yugoslavian countries at 4.2% each. In terms of population and current economic power, China’s total first-prize tally from grade A festivals is relatively low however, but understandable because of its considerable development since 1976, and should see further improvement from planned international cultural and national educational initiatives noted in the 12th five year plan.

Noting the long development time for producing education-intensive projects such as internationally competitive film festival prize-winners, and building on China’s substantial record in doing so, it is quite possible that China should aim to double the number of first-place Grade A festival wins over the next five to seven years, to a 12-15% success rate, and second place world ranking in parity with its economic power.

Over the next 10 years it is also possible that a Chinese B Grade festival such as Shanghai, may be able to attain A Grade status, and in time even Beijing, but the long histories of the existing ‘top three’ are considerable, with judge’s viewing tastes changing slowly over the years if at all. Everything depends on the quality of the films and the persuasive tastes of juries, that will change slightly as more and more accomplished Chinese film makers and actors join them over the coming years.

A number of film producing countries are notably absent from the winners list of Table 2, including South Korea with a very dynamic industry, Australia although it has a strong international short-film record; and in the Americas: Canada with its strong documentary tradition, Mexico, Argentina and Columbia; in Asia: Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Vietnam; and in Europe: Sweden, Switzerland, Spain, Bulgaria, Hungary, Portugal, Finland and Norway. Many other developed and developing nations have not won a Grade A festival film in the last thirty years, making China’s performance even more noteworthy in this time.


Future Implications It has been said by film historians that the best films from Hollywood with the highest audience attendances were during the Great Depression in America from 1929 to the mid 1930s. Some say the movie business works best during tough times, as people turn to cinema for low-cost stress relief, making the movies ‘depression-proof’. Increased demand for screen content from 3G and mobile digital devices continues to support media makers during the West’s currrent financial crisis.

If economic conditions in the USA do not improve greatly, it is possible that once again, movie attendance will increase as perhaps consumer spending on larger items falls. Similar conditions may affect Europe. Under these conditions, it is likely that as countries lose their economic power, they will work even harder to increase their cultural power to compensate externally, and to encourage their own citizens internally. This may lead to even greater competition in A Grade film festivals, as well as greater competition for mass markets in China from commercial American and European content providers who may be increasingly seeking not just export profits for their works, but production capital through joint ventures.

Such joint ventures may provide useful production capital, but may also dilute Chinese influence in the productions if a partner nation seeks to maintain their own national values strongly. Partners may attempt to limit distribution of Chinese-backed content in their own markets as a result. Therefore, the strongest negotiation position may come for China to makes sure it has both high-end festival strategies in place to retain cultural authority and simultaneously demonstrate international sensitivity. Competition prizes, plus successful mass-market product will help familiarise foreign audiences to real rather than stereotype Chinese values, and create better balance between partners.


Festival Selection

There are three major reasons for Chinese filmmakers to continuously enter established foreign A and B Grade film festivals:

           1. World Media

To maximise positive foreign world media attention about China.

2. Audience-Feedback

To obtain immediate foreign-expert feedback abou the quality of the work, and in turn, build China’s own expertise about current international tastes.           

            3. Fine Tuning Through Frequency

To lift the chances of future success by fine-tuning new projects on the basis of the largest possible feedbeek  data-set from previous entries. Films that fail to win awards can still provide valuable data – no entry is ever wasted if its results are carefully analysed to inform new productions.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, it is better to start at the top festival and work down, rather  than try work up starting with smaller festivals and then moving to bigger festivals.

This is because once made, any film has at most a nine-to-twelve month festival shelf-life before another crop of entries comes on to market. The specific shelf-life of a film in months can depend on the time of year of its completion. For film-school films this may vary from northern hemisphere school calendars ending in June each year that suit European festival deadlines better than southern hemisphere academic calendars, finishing in November each year that break for the southern summer.

Every film has only one chance of having a world premiere screening. Every festival tries to be the first to discover fresh new films, and stage the world premiere of a film that will astonish audiences. The stakes are high for both filmmaker and festival, in choosing who should partner who for a particular work.

The next highest level of screening value comes with a national premiere, or sometimes even better for major festivals selectors, a local festival ‘preview’ out of competition, that does not stop the work being advertised as a ‘world premiere’ later.

Once shown in an international competition, a film’s premiere or ‘purity’ value decreases quickly. The scale of value may look like this:

            1. World Premiere (greatest value and highest prize chances)

2. European or North American Premiere (first screening for all of Europe,  or all of the USA plus Canada plus South America, lowered prize chances)

3. City Premieres (worthless for real competition films, but useful for testing new directors and styles, and attracting A Grade selectors)


Grading Festivals by Media-Impact

Any festival website is able to describe the prizes it gives, but is unlikely to rank itself internationally. The number of festivals around the world continues to grow at a great rate. Media schools and producers therefore need a useful tool to grade festivals to determine the ones they will enter. 

The first and simplest way to grade festivals is not to examine the size of the prize a film may win, but rather, to measure the number of unpaid media reports that a film prize generates around the world. This can be done by the usual web-research methods of measuring the number of web-search hits that a prize-winning film generates, and by counting the number of international news agencies that carry material about any festival win. It is not an exact science, but statistical evidence can demonstrate powerful patterns over time about the relative media performance of harder-to-separate lower-grade B, C and D festivals.

The second test is qualitative and has two parts. The first qualitative test assesses the impact of media reports in generating further media discussion downstream generating TV news, then magazine news, then further TV talk show interviews etc.

The second qualitative test describes whether media generated by a festival award is about the film, or about side issues. If the media is about the film, it does not matter if the news is good or bad, it helps start a conversation about cultural issues that leads to further downstream media reporting. Not everyone can agree about a film’s quality. The most important thing is that they talk about the film. Most media from A Grade festival prizes fall into this category

If however, the media focuses only on side-issues raised by the film’s content, the decision to enter competition in the first place becomes more complicated. Ideological and strategic judgements must be made before entry. By the time any film passess pre-selection stage, it is usually too late to pull it out from competition without suffering media damage. As China learns more about international tatstes and China becomes better understood by foreigners, greater risk can be taken leading to greater rewards.

A Grade festivals are unlikely to generate side-issue media from prize winning films, but depending on the quality and news-worthiness of all entrants in a particular year, it may be possible that films that are in competition but do not win prizes will be used to generate side-issue stories to create interest if there is not enough other exciting news.

Side-issues tend to be either strongly positive, or very negative in terms of national prestige – but the risk of negative reporting usually outweighs the possibility of good news.

Some smaller countries have used a negative side-issue strategy to generate media interest when they know they are unlikely to win a major award in their own right. These films may concern sexual or violent themes for example, that would be very unacceptable in mass media, but are sometimes used by festival selectors as well as the reporting media to create sensational news coverage. If these  sensationalist films are banned either at a festival or in another country, it creates only more media reporting.

A Grade festivals do not have explicit festival themes or curation. They simply choose to reward what their juries believe to be cinematic excellence. Lower grade festivals may use themes to follow social or political issues, such as ‘Effects of Post-Colonialism’, or ‘Climate Change Impact on the World’s Poor’. Strongly themed festivals tend towards a reductionist bi-polar dialectic of good vs. evil, that is more likely to trade on side-issues than cinematic quality.


B Grade Festivals: International and Specialist

B Grade festivals with international reputations generate a much smaller amount of world media hits than A Grade festivals. In many cases B Grade festval also have strong film markets attached.  Most unpaid news is generated in specialist and professional media rather than mass media.

B Grade Festivals are important though in building national and individual filmmaker prestige in specific countries, and can be used to build profile that will then create greater opportunities in A Grade festivals. B and C Grade ‘city’ festivals can also be used to try new work and to convert sometimes hostile audiences and judges in a relatively controlled media environment. Issue-based films work better at B and C Grade festivals rather than in A Grade.

Some B Grade festivals would like to join the A Grade. This is unlikely because they are structurally different. Both Shanghai and Pusan are excellent B Grade festivals, and in time Beijing itself may be one too. Hong Kong is a good B Grade Festival, judging by the attendance on international selectors from other festivals. Realistically, if China’s cultural impact matches in economic impact as predicted over the next twenty years, and if European economic power and associated cultural authority continues to slide over some time, it may be possible for China to develop an A Grade festival. This will depend on the degree of  trust between China and Western countries.

B Grade festivals also include specialist genre programs at the highest standard, including for example, the Annecy Animation Festival in France, Hot Docs in Canada for documentaries, and Sundance Film Festival in the USA for independent feature dramas with strong a strong emphasis on quality acting and directing rather than special effects.

A useful way of determining a festival's grade, is finding out how many filmmakers have been paid by the festival to attend, and how many filmmakers have paid for their own tickets to attend.  B Grade festivals attract more filmmakers willing to pay themselves because of the prestige of the awards, and chance to meet powerful people. C Grade festivals need strong government sponsorship to provide paid invitations to international professionals. This funding can be regarded as an investment in future media industry productivity.

From a marketing view it is important to recognise that after Chinese first and English second, Spanish is the world’s third most widely spoken language. Spain’s San Sebastien International Film Festival has enormous influence amongst the Spanish speaking world, helping it provide a bridge between Europe and South America. Non-Spanish films are accepted with sub-titles.

South America’s B Grade festival is Sao Paulo International Film Festival, held in Brazil, with a strong Spanish language and cultural emphasis.

In North America (including Canada, USA and South America) the Toronto Film Festival, and increasingly the Sundance  Film Festival in the USA for independent films from around the world would be included.

A new festival in New York called the Tribeca Film Festival was started by famous American film star Robert de Niro after the 2001 terrorist attacks there to bring life back into that city. It has been growing well with a mixture of Hollywood and independent feature films and shorts. Of similar stature in the USA is the Palm Springs Film Festival.

Specialist B Grade Festivals may include the Annecy International Animation Festival in France, and for documentary, and Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival held in Toronto, and the Sheffield International Documentary Festival in the UK.

For short films only, the Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival in France qualifies as an B Grade festival, with a film market attached.  There are many equally impressive short film festivals, widely described in web sites from the cinema production agencies of different countries.

The International Film Festival Rotterdam is an important festival held in Europe with an increasing focus on new media.

Perhaps surprisingly from a filmmakers view, the main purpose of winning any festival prize is not to just promote a winning film and perhaps attract international distribution. Rather, it is to attract investment for the next film, so it particularly important that on being selected into competition, the filmmaker has at least one or more interesting project to pitch, when asked by journalists and investors, “what film are you making next?”.

A more complete list of B grade festivals can be found in the appendix at the end of this book.


Award-Only Competitions

A separate category somewhere between A and B grade festivals includes award-only competitions, where no festival actually occurs. The Academy Awards held in Hollywood, USA, is not a film festival, but an awards-only celebration, designed primarily to market American film product. Different countries attempt to develop similar models, including several in Asia, that are cheaper to run than full film festivals.

Few though may ever be as successful as the Academy Award ‘Oscars’ that are difficult to beat in terms of global media impact and in essence the Oscars are a demonstration of the power of global television as much as they are of ‘the movies’. For China, an important mile-stone to measure cultural soft-power will be when a Chinese production competes not in the Foreign Film section, but as Best Film in its own rights. By the time this happens however, it may be that US films will seek the same treatment in Chinese awards.


C Grade Festivals: Capital City and State Sponsored

There are too many C Grade festivals to list, with most countries offering at least one festival in a major city, and often more. Although most C Grade festival describe themselves as international, their audiences are strongly local, and they generate little international or even national unpaid media coverage.  Only the most dedicated audiences will travel from another city to attend. Foreign filmmakers will usually only attend if they are paid for travel and to give talks, or if they feel confident of winning a prize.

Programming usually reflects local tastes, with funding from a mixture of national and state or provincial governments. C Grade festival are often held in winter to increase tourism during the quiet season, and support the local media production industry.

Selectors from A Grade festivals are very unlikely to screen materials that have been screened at a B Grade festival first, but they are likely to watch for future works from makers who have been identified at C and sometimes D Grade festivals.

In addition to symbolic prizes, C Grade festivals may also grant cash prizes for some awards, and commonly, offer in-kind awards donated by media production companies of services such as editing facilities or studio hire. Theses awards are designed to attract future production to the host city, and are not particularly useful to most international filmmakers.

C Grade festivals are useful however, in building national and individual city audiences for interesting new work that does not meet A grade selection requirements. As noted however, C Grade festivals may attempt to win greater media coverage through including some sensational programming, that may be as much to win local funding for further festivals as it is to stimulate debate.

If A Grade festivals trade in the cutting edge of world cinema, C Grade festivals could be said to excel in providing a critical historical context for competing nations’ films to be seen in a more critical way. Attendance at C Grade festivals can provide foreign country selectors with a useful understanding of historic trends less possible at A and B Grade festivals. To maintain their relevance, C Grade festivals increasingly use live events featuring creative workers from films to attract audiences. Therefore, C Grade festivals can be useful to help train directors how to understand and speak to foreign audiences.

C Grade international festivals include for example, the London International Film Festival, Australia’s Melbourne International Film Festival and the Sydney Film Festival, the San Sebastien International Film Festival, the Singapore International Film Festival, and Tokyo Filmex specialising in Asian independent features.

Many festivals may also have strong film markets attached to them, and these are listed in more detail in Chapter 3 on Producing. Well known markets include the American Film Market (AFM) in the USA in November each year, and MIP in France, not to forget the Cannes own A Grade market attached to that festival, where all sorts of television programming is sold as well as one-off films. In past years, these markets were also important places for filmmakers to attempt to raise finance from film distributors (called ‘distribution guarantees’ for films, and ‘pre-sales’ for TV) for their next projects, based on a previous film, current script or a filmed pilot episode. Thus type of funding has dried up as number of screen platforms has increased to include IP TV, cable and pay TV as well.

Increasingly however, D Grade festivals have turned to commissioning and investing in new films themselves to ensure they have fresh and exclusive product that cannot be shown in rival festivals first, and also to encourage production in their state. This happens successfully in the Adelaide Arts Festival in Australia for example, which promotes a small film program as part of a broader performing arts festival.


D Grade Festivals: Local City and Alternative Film Festivals

D Grade Local Festivals are usually funded by city or regional governments, or sometimes even by enthusiastic film goers and makers themselves. They generate very little mass media, but can be a great place to spot new talent. Because of the limited territorial release and small audience sizes, competitive A Grade selectors are more likely to attend D Grade festivals–often anonymously–to pick new directors and films.

If new talent has used up their ‘world-premiere’ claim to a C grade festival, it may be still be possible for an A Grade festival to pick up the work if it is strong enough from a D Grade festival, and is still relatively unknown. C Grade entry can be a dangerous strategy for the filmmaker however with new product that needs to preserve the ‘purity’ of the film for recognition from a Grade A or highest B festival if possible.

D Grade festivals provide encouragement for the filmmaker, often with strong local pressure from organisers for local applicants to enter. D grade entry can be a good choice for films that have failed to perform at higher levels particularly in raising funds for future projects from local investors.

D Grade screenings can also be useful for films that have achieved A, B or C grade success and are now past their shelf-life. The number of people who may actually see a film in an A, B, or C grade festival is very small ­– usually just a few thousand people, and usually foreigners. D Grade festivals allow home audiences to see new work for the first time themselves.

In addition small boutique festivals–usually in pleasant tourist destinations– tend to be better suited to media makers establishing useful partnerships with other creative makers and distributors, in a relaxed environment not always found in the more competitive B and hyper-competitive A grade festivals.

D Grade festivals and some boutique festivals are also sometimes started to inject new life into smaller regional cities. For example, the international boutique documentary festival dokumentART, brings tourist attention in the winter to the small city of Neubrandenburg in former East Germany. This well organised festival specialises in documentary films from formerly communist East Europe, and is likely to become particularly interested in documentary and arts films from China in the future.

Yunfest in Kunming is a good example of local Chinese D Grade festival, showing new documentary with strong anthropological themes. Its audience is mainly made up of filmmakers, who learn new techniques from each other. The festival is attractive to a small but growing number of foreign media professionals because the festival is driven by filmmaker sincerely committed to their craft rather than for commercial reasons.                                

In some cases D Grade boutique festivals become fashionable, leaping C Grade status and becoming  B Grade events. The Sundance Festival in the mountainous and snowy state of Utah in the USA is a good example. It was started by a famous American film star, Robert Redford, to encourage new independent filmmakers with creative workshops as well as screenings. With few other festivals in the USA that support independents, film distributors and investors soon discovered Sundance, inspiring a range of similar rival D Grade festivals nearby including ‘Slamdance’ in the USA, and in England (with good humour) ‘Raindance’.


Festival Entry Strategy: A, B, C or D?

Many media schools wish to test the effectiveness of their teaching programs and quality of students by entering their films into as many festivals as possible. A strategy to target selected festivals that suit the characteristics of each film is more effective than sending films to the many thousands of festivals that seem to grow each year. Hower, for almost all schools, competition in short-films rather than feature length works is practical.

For China’s Tier 1 media schools: the Beijing Film Academy, the Communications University of China, and the Central Academy of Drama; there is considerable flexibility in the choice of festival, with excellent works being able to enter Grade A Festivals. B and C Grade festivals may be entered for more specialist works, or works that have stronger national than international appeal. Entry to B Grade festival in China applies to films that require sophisticated local knowledge to appreciate, that international audiences may lack.

For Tier 2 media programs such as: the Shanghai Theatre Academy (STA), the Shanghai Institute of Visual Arts (SIVA), the Chongqing Meishi Film Academy (CMFA), the Zhejiang University of Media and Communication (ZUMC), Sun Yat Sen University (SYSU), and the Beijing University of Post and Telecommunications (BUPC) amongst many others and as examples only; it is still possible to try for A Grade competition. There is a good argument however, that Tier 2 and even Tier 3 schools, may create more competitive works if exceptionally talented students and productions are mentored by Tier 1 professors before entry to overseas festivals. Less exceptional or more specialist works, for example anthropological documentaries or children’s animation, must be treated on their own merits. In many cases a C Grade national award will help build the careers of the makers, and identify them as candidates for possible mentoring to produce competitive A Grade works in the future.

Although these comments apply especially to long films from unknown makers entering competition for the first time, they apply equally to short works, although as noted, directors who are already known to an audience will often be given a better chance by audiences. France particularly welcomes Chinese media makers in the auteur model where the director’s vision is central to the film. Once an A or B Grade European festival finds a talented director, they will allow the director to make a less successful film or two without being rejected, as these works are signs of an experimental creativity, and part of a life-long oeuvre or collection of works that ultimately reward audiences with depth.

This strategy makes the first award at a major European festival more difficult, but subsequent entries slightly easier. For first discovery, festivals often look to traditionally successful filmschools.


Attend Filmschool or Learn by Yourself?

Whilst there are now well over one hundred filmschools in the world that meet the standards of the international association of film schools CILECT (Center International de Liaison des Écoles de Cinema et de Television), some of the most established schools will be directly targeted by festival selectors and include for example, in the UK– the National Film and Television School, in France–La Fémis, in Poland at Lodz–PWSFTviT, and in the USA–UCLA for dramatic shorts, and Stanford for documentary shorts.  There are many other schools and countries that should be included in this list. Amongst many others, Israel, Australia, Hungary, India, South Korea, and Iran have all consistently produced award-winning student films.

It is of course equally possible to achieve festival success without attending filmschool, and there are many self-help books in the West that suggest this. They sometimes overlook the peer-networking that takes place under the accelerated group development possible in a well designed and delivered educational program, and the initial advantage of having being associated with a school profile when submitting to festivals. Once submitted however, no association with a school can take the place of a well made film, or replace talent itself.

For extremely talented and self-reliant young filmmakers, attending a filmschool may be restrictive, and unnecessary. For the rest of us, film school can provide a way to go further, faster. Film schools are more about access to the right people, rather than simply access to professional equipment.


Understand the Judges

Often a beginning filmmaker will make films to express only themselves, with a passion so strong there is no room for the filmmaker to think about the audience who has to watch the work.  Perhaps the most useful effect of any festival judging process, is forcing a creative maker to consider the needs of the audience as well as their own.

Judges for A Grade festivals are drawn from the ranks of industry including celebrity actors and directors. International students film festivals often use visiting international film academics as judges as well as local directors.

In most cases, film festival jury members from foreign countries only attend for the judging of films that have already been shortlisted for screening in the festival. In some cases, festival juries may review and shortlist all films entered. In high profile festivals however, it is more common for festival staff to pre-select films, so that the jury has a manageable group of films to work with. With high profile festival juries involving famous stars and directors, there is often very little time to see many films.

Preselection will always be coordinated by the festival’s director or creative director, who will look for thematic connections and certain minimum technical standards. The work involved can take many thousands of hours, and even in the most famous festivals, will be done by festival volunteers and some paid staff for the first cut. Where each entry is accompanied by an entry fee, a popular and high profile festival can generate enough income from entry fees to cover the extensive administration costs required to pre-assess each entry. This work effectively continues all year long, as festival staff begin negotiating with filmmakers and distributors for next year’s films often before their current festival is even over.

Are these judges more expert in film assessment than other filmmakers, professors and critics? This is an impossible questions to answer. It is more important to know what sort of films individual festival judges seem to like. International festival directors, or their creative directors or curators, can be trusted to have an extensive knowledge of film history, and sensitivity to the needs of their own festival audiences. Volunteer jurors can vary widely in their skill levels however, particularly if they have been appointed for celebrity value. Experienced  festival director try to balance the twin needs for publicity that celebrities bring, with well educated cinema assessment skills that professional media workers and academics bring.


Showing Off  Often in test conditions, people feel more comfortable criticising rather than praising work. Even amongst professional judges, there is a tendency to publicly criticise works that in in private may not cause comment – as a way of judges establishing their own expertise in front of the other judges. This can occur particularly when international jurors who do not know each other are assembled for the first and sometimes only time, and there is an unconscious but very real fight between jurors to exert authority.

Celebrity jurors without strong education may fee insecure when faced with internationally famous jury directors and critics, and may be prone to unpredictable behaviour under judging conditions. Whilst it has long been the case that well-known actors and directors in China would be likely to have received a strong tertiary education at a national academy, in many Western countries, actors and also filmmakers, may have moved straight from secondary school to work as an apprentice ­ to learn on the job. Early success can often make it difficult for some actors and makers to re-enter higher education, sometimes limiting the duration and types of career choices available to them. Celebrities who may be insecure about their own education may be led by stronger personalities on the jury, rather than by the wisest opinion, or even become distracted by personal political causes of their own. Effective festival directors try to balance the jury and provide fair leadership to ensure everyone’s view holds equal weight, while still keeping the glamour that celebrity guests bring.

Nevertheless, under all circumstances, producers and directors should carefully study the background of each judge, and estimate how this may affect a jury’s final assessment.


The Smallest Bell Rings Loudest

The first task for media makers then, is to make sure their film has no obvious flaws that cause immediate rejection. Obvious technical flaws include poor or unclear sound, unintentionally bad cinematography, and more commonly, unreadable titles and sub-titles.

Many preselection juries of around three or more selectors, use a simple bell system to stop viewing such a technically flawed film, if before more than three minutes has passed, a majority of selectors has rung their little bell. Even after three minutes, a majority of bell ringing will stop any film that the selectors find boring, derivative, or in any way not up to the standard of international competition. If the judges have many hundreds of films to assess in a limited time, the bell may ring more often than filmmakers would hope.

The way that individual juries decide whether to ring or not, is their secret decision for ever. No jury member is ever allowed to publicly discuss how they came to their decision, although general impressions of an annual crop of film may be made to the press, usually in positive terms to encourage marketing and not discourage future entries.

Filmmakers may feel that juries do not understand their work properly if their film is not selected, or that the jury members were at odds with world judging standards. Research (Petkovic et al, 2011) and wide judging experience suggests the opposite however. Experienced filmschool professors, and their industry and government counterparts, often show remarkably consistent opinions in determining which films are able eligible to compete, and which are rejects. This common standard seems to exist even where jurors have widely different cultural and language sets, provided each has been working with screen media for some time. This preselection process may remove between 50-80% of the first entries.

Therefore for filmmakers, it is critical that the first minutes of their film be so well made that no-one rings their little bell. Saving your best scene for last is not a good strategy.


Make Content Compelling At international levels of competition, it is assumed that any entry will be technically accomplished. Beyond this, certain films will manage to stand out from others for a variety of reasons that critics and teachers struggle to define precisely, but that as professional story-tellers we must attempt to express in any case.


Confident Start The film’s beauty, or drama, or comedy, will be clear and often stunning within the first minute. This makes the audience confident in the filmmaker. The film’s narrative set-up, genre, or memorable stylistic feature should be clear and unconfused. In car terms, if the film is fast and stylish, everything about it should look, sound and feel like a Ferrari – not a hybrid between a slow and tough army truck combined with a sports car –that does neither job well.


Universality with Unique Local Authenticity . Whether the setting is science fiction set in the future, or set long ago in the past, in a war or deep in the ocean, the film’s total mise en scene will be entirely credible, and further, reveal something universally true about humanity that invites an audience to immediately and personally connect with the story. The film’s story will automatically generate conflict between a social good, and a problematic local situation. For festival films rather than large scale commercial films, this means that small personal stories told well often have a better chance of winning festival prizes than epic adventure films. In this sense, A and B Grade Festivals clearly favour ‘hand-made’ works over anything that feels like a mass-produced or committee-authored film. The work should also be unique in two separate senses. First, the work should help the audience experience a unique local world with great authenticity. This world need not be polished or beautiful, but must feel real even if it a fantasy. Secondly, the film should be unique, and only available to be experienced at a film festival. An Internet leaks will kill the chances of A and B Grade festival awards.


Audience Novelty. Festival judges have high cinema-literacy and low boredom- thresholds. Art-house films in China and the West often move too slowly for experienced judges, and will not be tolerated unless the film is from an already famous director. ‘Novelty’ is a way of describing how the media maker take sometimes a very common or well understood situation that an audience can quickly relate to, and then quickly turns it around to reveal a fresh new side to the situation, before an audience gets bored.

In order to understand what may be novel for a foreign audience, it is important to develop a cross-cultural understanding of how foreign people live. Understanding foreigners helps you see your own culture from an their perspective. For example, what are the differences between how German people may drive a car, go to the bathroom, or act in meetings at work, compared to their Chinese equivalents? An Italian film about how housewives maintain community links as they do their clothes washing together at a village well may say more about changing European culture than an epic war-film – and win more prizes. Sometimes the best ideas are sitting right in front of you, just waiting for you to see them.


Brevity. Not only should the film begin quickly, it should end before the audience wants it too. It is difficult to imagine any experienced film assessor saying a film would be better if it had only been ten minutes longer.

A sure way to ensure your work does not become overly egotistical, is to ensure you show the work to test groups regularly during the editing, and listen to criticisms calmly and without defence.


Cinematic Quality Collectively, the characteristics above are sometime described as the quality of succinct visual-storytelling, or simply, description of a work being ‘cinematic’. For professional production purposes however these terms can be too passive. By treating the essential narrative of a film or media work as its ‘engine’-that is, the machine that drives everything else, you can consider an A Grade festival film to be close in design to a racing car. Every part of the design of the film will be stripped back to the minimum required to have maximum effect. There will be no waste. Every  decision made by all production crew from director to writer, editor to actor, will serve only one purpose- to tell the story as efficiently as possible.

To achieve a good quality of visual storytelling, there should be minimal dialogue, and preferably no dialogue used for critical plot points or to explain any back-story to the film. Great shorts do not need explanation.

To go beyond good visual storytelling and achieve competition standards of cinematic quality, it may be necessary to rethink all dialogue as sound effect only, to be used (in musical terms) as a contrapuntal layer set against the main storyline to add depth or irony. For example, two bank-robbers telling people to put their hands up during a robbery is obvious. But two robbers arguing about whether one had remembered to take to take their dog for a walk from their flat before the robbery, will add story interest, and even allow an audience to empathise with the characters.

The festival competition film is a highly specialist form of filmmaking, where the difference between winning and losing can be measured in the smallest details of performance. At all times, the creative team working to produce award winning work must continuously ask one quality-control question whenever a new suggestion is made, “will this suggestion increase cinematic efficiency and power?”. Within competitive filmmaking, it is often not the director and producer’s job to create everything – but rather, their often shared but different mission to decide which creative suggestions from any source are useful. Big egos can have no part in this selection.


Originality? The reason that this point has a question mark, is that some debate exists about the real importance of originality in making works to international festival standards.

One school of thinking, described in Western terms as the ancient Greek drama model, suggests that there are really only a very limited number of truly original story ideas (different writers and historians suggest different numbers from 14 to 40 and any number in between).

Within Chinese literature, there are four classical novels, each with countless episodes, so here again, it is difficult to tell how many ‘original’ stories may be involved. It may be more useful to think of festival films in the same way we may think of fine restaurant dishes. Most dishes will use ingredients that are known to us before eating, yet they will be arranged together in a creative way with special and sometimes surprising local ingredients that tell the diner the food is both original, yet authentic in its cultural history.

Perhaps the simplest way of  assessing originality when considering any film title, character, plot, or story is to simply use the key terms and check an internet search engine like Youku or Baidu. Judging originality may be more a matter of degree than an absolute, when even the most specific search can provide many thousands of results.

‘Original interpretation’ is perhaps a more useful way of approaching existing stories, provided that the filmmaker develops and trusts their own sensitivity to the story, even if the media maker is still young. If  directed with skill, the fresh perception of the first time filmmaker can be just as valuable as expression borne from long experience.


Commercial/Art-House Reductions

Perhaps the most frequent amateur differentiation of films that concern festival competition is between works that are perceived as primarily designed for non-critical audience entertainment, and those designed to win critical peer acclaim. Although some think art-house films – their slowness, obscurity, very long-takes, and humourless themes – are also characteristic of award winning competition films, they are not.

In practice, festival films ruthlessly take the most efficient characteristics of commercial ‘movie’ design, with the most powerful elements of art-house ‘cinema’, to create a competition-ready hybrid product with a maximum world shelf life of less than one year.

For competition purposes, the intent of a filmmaking idea, whether commercial or art-house is irrelevant – all that matters is the idea’s suitability for competition. In critical analysis of  cinema and art more broadly, there are convincing arguments that the intent of any artist is not only irrelevant to the worth of a creative work, but an impossible abstraction for later consumers to determine of the artist’s work, and a distraction for the audience from the work’s immediate impact on them.

Practical experience demonstrates that the number of filmmakers capable of producing genuinely competitive, disciplined works is very limited, and that festivals have a great annual appetite for works of the highest quality.

In any year, a festival competition film does not compete against a fixed standard of quality, or even try to beat some sort of timed world record like a sporting race. Each year’s crop of competition films simply competes with that year’s others to win the favour of jurors whose judgement cannot be easily guessed. 

Even when a filmmaker produces a cinematic masterpiece, the external influences of world political events, natural catastrophes, or other significant external forces can influence a group of jurors to favour a lesser filmed work that they feel responds to these external themes.

German academics refer to this as the artist’s ability to respond to the zeitgeist or changing mood of the times. It is sometimes pure chance, or perhaps remarkable intuition, that allows creative media-makers from very different parts of the world to create works that tackle similar international issues from unique national perspectives.  Even without set themes or curation, festivals often seem to program similar works thematically yet spontaneously in ways that festival directors may never be able to predict before the festival. In any case, audiences and juries will always competitively compare films with similar themes. One film will always be judged the best. This can be the penalty for responding to major world issues in competition films.

The explanation for thematic emergence between entries may be as simple to explain as the conscious and unconscious influence of global media on media-makers wherever they live both.  Or the explanation may be more mysterious, and even give weight to the existence of ‘collective unconscious’ made famous by 19th century European psychologist Carl Jung, that says we all think together under the surface.

Within many media schools, it is common at times for very different students to make very similar films without apparently copying from each other, almost in response to wider social events or trends. In some cases these coincidentally themed films create conflict between makers, that need to be managed quickly and effectively in order to protect both student and school.


Programming. Festival films are programmed in groups and rarely screened in isolation. Festival juries are no different from other audience members when the sheer number of powerful images and stories being offered to them overloads them. Very often, audiences will completely forget a less powerful film, or confuse one films’ characters into the story of another film when judging. Short film festivals where up to twelve or more shorts are shown one after the other are very hard for audiences to remember. In these cases, it is almost impossible to compare the films in anything but the simplest way.

Therefore the first consideration is how to make your film stand out from the others in a crowded schedule. Back-to-back sessions of multiple films usually favour either very short, funny films with a simple ‘punch line’ that is easy to remember, or extremely dramatic and stylishly simple works, that again are easy to remember.

Complicated story lines and beautiful but boring scenes will be quickly forgotten. ‘Average’, ordinary people doing ordinary things will be also be forgotten quickly. Depressing films about depressing characters may quickly slip through memory even if very poetic. Action, surprise, and multi-dimensionality will be remembered. If two or three films have similar topics, it seems to be human nature that audiences will want to automatically rank them for effectiveness, and then only remember the most effective version.

In competition festival conditions, it may be true to say that although general audience members may attend to see works that impress them, professional assessors need to adopt a more negative attitude to surviving the screening of so many works. This often means a professional or experienced juror will be looking for faults in works that allow the work to be quickly dismissed, to quickly cut the field of entrants down to a size that can be mentally managed.

Research experience from specialist food-tasting professionals is instructive.


Experience shows that untrained food tasters can effectively only directly compare one sample directly to another, and usually in very simplistic terms such as ‘too salty’, ‘a little bit sweeter’, ‘not sweet enough compared to the first one’. Any more than three samples will usually confuse amateur assessment. Comparison becomes even more difficult when assessors attempt to rank emotional responses to various products where sampling is separated by long periods of time and multiple products. In these cases, either the first or last product is often remembered, but everything between forgotten.

So if your film is programmed in a large group of films, try to go first or last if you are allowed to decide.

Assessment of a festival film begins from the moment it is first described by it its maker at script stage, and improved upon step by step until final entry.

You cannot know how your film will be programmed when it is accepted, or what group of films will surround your own work to distract from it. Therefore, ensure your work is memorable. Instinct and a good idea is not enough to win an A grade festival. The work must be sharpened like a knife to a scalpel edge.


Programming Wholesale Sites. Traditionally, film-festival selectors travel to other film festivals to discover new films and filmmakers. Human interaction makes it possible to gauge trends and dig deeper than press releases.

However a new form of third-party web-based talent agents are emerging, that enable registered film festival selectors to watch streamed festival-style films on-line for subscription fees. Festival programs can now be largely selected on-line with little travel to other festivals. Several major B and C Grade festival are already doing this.

On-line festival agencies offer increased convenience for festival selectors and filmmakers, but can raise concerns for producers of competitive festival films who may be concerned about uploading any new content to the web. By inserting themselves between makers and selectors, third-party agents may effectively limit the range of titles that less energetic festival directors may have to choose from to those titles simply available from the agent’s site.

Like any information aggregation web site, there is great temptation for busy festival staff to cut costs by previewing materials on-line.  The danger of  limiting selector choices can effectively turn major festivals into resellers of works, with works that may have already been leaked to key judges on-line before competition.

New filmmakers with cutting edge work designed for A grade competition will not want to jeopardise their film’s impact by leaking it to audiences anywhere before submission to a peak A or B grade festival. However, submission to an aggregation site immediately after festival competition is a reasonable strategy for producers looking to increased the downstream shelf life of their films.

As aggregation-site collections grow, so will their usefulness in assisting festival selectors develop retrospective and specialist historical programs within festivals, and also provide film scholars with research materials that are sometimes impossible to obtain through other sources.

Some festivals that use the services of third-party festival agent sites require filmmakers to allow their films to be automatically put on-line as a condition of entry. It is it vital the producer checks the terms and conditions of entry to any festival before submitting, and not submit or withdraw if the festival imposes further distribution conditions that may not suit the producer’s own marketing and distribution strategy.

For A and B Grade festivals, special security measures need to be taken to make sure unfinished edit materials and final cuts do not leak onto the net before or during competition.


Test Screenings. Although routinely conducted by Hollywood studios on almost every commercial film released in the last fifty years, independent filmmakers and media schools are sometimes reluctant to engage in this simple but powerful form of performance improvement.

If a filmmaker is genuinely a genius, they probably do not need to go to film school and do test screenings. For everyone else though, there is great advantage in doing so.

Test screenings should be conducted in cinema theatres with a big screen and not in edit suites, using projection and sound facilities as close to cinema standard as possible. The smaller a screen, the faster an audience reads an image, yet often misses subtle details in the visuals that help storytelling.  Film should be edited so that they work best for the big screen, where audiences take longer to read an image, and are more willing to explore the complexity of wide shots with high levels of detail that would otherwise be lost on small screens. Watching films on a wide screen with good sound is the only way to professionally assess a work.  In addition, watching films with an audience is a very different and more valuable experience than watching a work alone.

An invited audience of ‘friendly strangers’ should be asked in who will be honest in their responses. If the film is designed for foreign festivals, a few foreigners should be included in the audience. Close friends, family and production crewmembers are not suitable.

The director, producer, and sometimes the editor should attend, and say little to introduce the film, and try not to influence the audience in any way. The film material should start as soon as possible, with director and producer sitting in the middle of the audience but to one side, so they can sense and see the reaction of the audience to individual scenes. The director, producer and editor should try not to watch the film, but watch the audience instead. The producer in particular, should write down any strong reactions from the audience as they happen, and just as importantly, note a lack of audience reactions to scenes or shots where a reaction was expected such as a joke or dramatic moment.

If possible the film should be as complete as possible so that no explanation, and especially no apologies are given before hand for components that are missing. This applies particularly to music tracks. It is almost impossible for audiences, and even trained professionals, to measure the effect that final music will have upon the feel and rhythm of a screen production without actually hearing it. But it can be a mistake to use temporary music of the final music is not ready too. Once an audience has heard and seen a film for the first time with a temporary track, they may never feel comfortable with the final track – and it will be difficult to obtain accurate feedback about the film from this group for research purposes.

During editing, the use of temporary tracks–often taken from popular copyrighted music simply to provide a sense of rhythm for editing- can also become so associated with a scene or scenes in a film during post-production, that a director, producer or editor will be unable to consider any other music. For entry into any festival, it is a legal requirement that the producing school or filmmaker has the rights to use any music in the film, and unless the film rights are held for every piece of music used and signed off in writing on the application form, a festival will not accept the entry. For this reason, it is almost always easier for the final music to be especially written and recorded for the film. Alternatively, international copyright agencies can be used to pay for license fees for popular pieces to be used, but these can be very expensive.

To assist the composer during editing, it is advisable although perhaps not as satisfying to use the recording of a metronome clicking at the exact rhythm of beats per minute that will be used by the composer for the final music. It is the number of beats and not the melody that is useful for editing picture to sound. For example, an average of 60 beats per minute will provide a calming influence, whilst 120 will create a sense of urgency.

As soon as the screening has completed, audience members should be discouraged from talking, and instead be given a short set of questions and a pen. Market research companies in the USA have done a great deal of research on the exact wording of questions, but there are no secrets to this. Simply ask questions that any filmmaker needs clear answers to. It can be best not to develop complicated statistics from these answers although some are useful, as the process is more an art than a science.


Sample Test Screening Questions


Film Title:____________Date: ______________Name (optional): _______________


1. Circle how much you like the film.


0%            10%            20%            30%            40%            50%             60%            70%            80%            90%            100%


2. What part did you like best about the film? Why?



3. What other film is this like, and is this film as good?




4. What is the worst part of the film? Why?




5. What character doesn’t ‘work’ in the film? Why?




6. What feeling did you have at the end?




8. What was the most boring part?




9. What mistakes did you notice?




10. What will make this film better?


Before testing, the producer or test facilitator should instruct the audience to answer the questions as honestly as possible to help ensure the results are of greatest use to the film’s makers. It does not help the filmmakers if the audience tries to say only nice things to spare the filmmakers feelings. The questions can be changed easily, although it is more helpful if the questions are ‘open’– to stimulate interesting responses, rather than ‘closed’ questions, that lead to ‘yes’ or ‘no’ type of answers.

Simple questions allow the producer to make sophisticated analysis later. Complicated questions can create confusion.

Question 6 Most answers to each question are self-explanatory, and will help direct you to improving overall performance. Question 6 that asks “what feeling did you have at the end?” is more important to judge total impact.

If the answers to Question 6 are simple negative feeling such as ‘unhappy’, ‘guilty’, or ‘unsatisfied’, or simple positive feelings like “happy”, “satisfied”, or “comfortable” there is a strong chance the film will not win awards. The film may be too obvious, and not challenge viewers enough.

If the answers are more emotional, but still negative such as “angry”, or “tragic”, or positive such as “uplifting”, or “gives me hope”, there is a slightly better chance of winning. It is possible that this sort of film is selected by a festival because of ideological rather than quality reasons. It may compete to add sensational interest to the festival program, but will probably not win a major prize at an A or B Grade level.

If the answers are complex and positive, such as “makes me feel even the weakest person can achieve great things in a difficult world”, or “I was surprised I felt sorry for the evil character”,  there is a good chance the film will win awards.

Festival juries and test audiences tend to reward films that examine complex moral issues and have a bittersweet ending. Too sweet, or too bitter, is not a popular taste. The film’s theme should not become more dominant than the story. Symbolism should always serve the story and be used lightly to not overpower the film’s flavour.

After the audience have answered these questions in silence, the producer should lead an informal discussion with audience members to see if common criticisms emerge from the group. The producer should listen with defending the film.


From this discussion and the written answers, it will be possible for the producer to understand if the film meets more complex requirements of thematic integrity, stylistic integrity, and ideological balance. For the best results, a more formal simulation jury can be set up with international visitors, to see if the film communicates strong universal appeal with local authenticity.

The sample questions for the test screening above are mainly negative. Again, this is a diagnostic approach intended to identify weaknesses in the project, so that the filmmakers may correct them. It is a tough method really only suitable for working with high performance projects.

These questions are also designed to show if a film is too similar to other festival films. It can be useful to show three films for testing at the same time, rather than just one film, to achieve more consistent data. More than three films should be avoided however, as it is then difficult for most audiences to remember the details necessary for accurate responses.

It is also useful to use the one same film in a screening set of three films, over a number of test sessions with different audiences. This one film then can be a benchmark test that helps provide an estimate of the consistency of responses between groups.

A test screening can be a confronting experience for creative team members. If the director is too sensitive or subjectively attached to the project, it may be better for only the producer to attend test screenings.

While this testing is also suitable for general media production classes, the sample questions should be more positive for use in early years. Teachers need to ensure the student is able to cope with  the ‘bad news’ by an equal amount of ‘good news’. Creativity can be easily crushed forever if too much pressure is applied too soon.

It may be useful to conduct two or three test screenings before a competition film is judged ready for festival submissions. The creative team must be prepared for possibly confusing suggestions coming from this process, and be ready to discuss and even argue for what is best for the project and the clarity of its storytelling. There is no room in the film for the most beautiful extra shot or even whole extra scenes, if they do not drive the story forward without waste.

After twenty-five years in creative classrooms, sometimes my most creative students seemed least interested in assessing other people’s work. At the same time, students who were the best critics of others’ film, often had only modest creative talent themselves. This seems to be mainly the case in classes with students aged between 20 to 28 years old, in undergraduate programs. The effect is less noticeable amongst older graduate students, who are perhaps more comfortable with seeing their own work in the context of others.

In addition to testing the film itself, it is just as important for preliminary selection that the film’s principal marketing image and title are as interesting as possible. Image and title should combine to communicate the film’s essence as seductively and powerfully as possible to international audiences and jurors. Hard decisions need to be made about which language-meaning will be most effective.  Images must be strong yet simple enough to survive viewing in postage-stamp sizes on-line and in festival catalogues.


Preview Screenings

It may be useful to conduct two or three test screenings before a film is judged ready for festival submissions. However, the creative team must be prepared for possibly confusing suggestions from this process, and be ready to discuss and even argue amongst the creative team what is best for the project.

 Non-advertised ‘preview’ screenings are a useful way of testing audience reaction at C and D Grade festivals, without usually breaching ‘world-premiere’ definition used by A Grade Festivals. These screenings can be a good way of generating profile for a film that will excite festival selectors, and also act as text-screenings if the producers are active in discussing the film with the audience afterwards.


Story Selection and Development

In most countries, scriptwriters feel their role is not respected enough compared to auteur directors who are often celebrated in A Grade festivals. Improving scripts remains the single most challenging, yet relatively cheapest process to winning festival prizes – and more broadly – to making effective digital media.

While Chapter 3 contains a more detailed analysis of scriptwriting, an experienced Australian screenwriter had this to say about writing that applies very well to competition grade works:

If they say they are going to write a novel “one day” or a screenplay “when the grant comes through” then you’re not dealing with a writer but a wannabe. So write. Try different forms. Find good mentors. Film school screenwriting courses can be useful but they may not be for everyone. Many of the films you like best were written by people who never attended a film school, never read a screenwriting guru book, never made their work conform to someone else’s rules. Be wary of the seductions of the auteur theory as taught in many of our film schools. Writing and directing are very different skills, and it’s a very rare person who can do both equally well. Write from life, not from other films, respect your audience, and follow your heart.

                                    Tony Morphett, (Screenwriter, Dungog Film Festival, Australia, 2011)


Sub-titles and Translations

In general, English language sub-titles take around 30-40% more screen space than their equivalent Chinese language subtitles. Sometimes, a film will have both English and Chinese sub-title on screen simultaneously, crowding out the visual appeal of the work. Great care needs to be taken in dialogue-heavy films to keep the sub-titling as brief as possible, and to match each title with the appropriate shot. At any time, subtitles should occupy one line at the bottom of screen, per language. Longer subtitles over two lines will quickly interfere with an audience’s ability to understand and enjoy a film.

Depending on dialogue for story telling will hurt a film’s chances of winning an A grade festival prize, and explains why so many competition films are effectively dialogue-free, silent-movies with music. For competition films, it is better to think of dialogue as a sound effect rather than as explanation.

Almost all festivals require films to be subtitled in the host’s language. For example, the Cannes festival requires all foreign dialogue to be sub-titled in French. As always, accurate but cinema friendly translation is required. It is always useful to ask a skilled native speaker to translate or at least check the subtitles before they are added to the film. Importantly, sound effects and music should not be described on screen or explained in brackets, as is sometimes done on local DVD copies.


Dubbed Dialogue (Automatic Dialogue Replacement)

Most films post-produced in China will have dialogue added in the studio after location filming has taken place, with actors dubbing their lines to the finished picture track. In the USA, this process is common too, and called ADR or Automatic Dialogue Replacement. In other Western countries, it is sometimes called post-syncing.

If experienced bi-lingual actors are available, it can be useful to shoot two separate language versions of the film, one Chinese and the other usually English, although French, Spanish, Korean, Japanese, Italian, Cantonese, and German may all be useful depending on the festival strategy and commercial distribution strategy.

In some cases where there is not too much dialogue, it is possible to work with a single language field footage, and in post-production produce both Chinese and foreign language versions of the film, provided that the translations are excellent, and mouth synchronisation works. China has some of the best dubbing skills in the world with the Shanghai Film Dubbing Studio as an example.

In general, European festival audiences and jurors are comfortable with limited sub-titling and prefer this to dubbed dialogue, however, American audiences are not, and it is better to dub the dialogue in films for USA festivals.


Hi-Definition Vs. 35mm

Most C and B Grade festivals accept hi-definition video for competition, whilst most A grade festivals still prefer to screen 35mm films prints.

For large national film programs like the Beijing Film Academy, 35mm printing from hi-definition digital video masters is common although still expensive. Selected projects may be shot on 35mm for aesthetic reasons, and then copied to film by a telecine film-to-tape transfer process for digital post-production.

For smaller schools and independent producers however, the cost of converting from camera 35mm film, or converting final films to film prints, can be prohibitively expensive and complex. The cost of conversion depends on total running time, and is itself an important technical reason why films would be kept as short as possible.

Although A Grade festivals are happy to pre-select films from digital DVDs, they will demand a 35mm print with foreign subtitles if necessary.

Because festivals that allow digital entry receive vastly more digital entries than 35mm prints, B and C grade festivals often favour 35mm films for competition. Sometimes in order for one festival to keep an edge over another festival showing the same film, one festival office may ‘delay’ sending their 35mm print onto the next festival, even forcing the film out of the next competition. This is not ethical, but has happened because the soft-power value of the awards can be so high.  To make sure your film is seen by the festival audiences you want and not delayed between festivals, it is sometimes necessary to have a number of 35mm copies made, all with subtitles in different languages. This can become very expensive.

With good digital projection that is now becoming available in many cinemas, there are few technical and increasingly fewer aesthetic reasons to separate the experience of viewing a film in either digital or 35mm print formats. In either case, the aesthetic qualities of the film will be more strongly influenced by the cinematographer’s skilled use of lighting and exposure, and director’s understanding of what the French call mise en scéne (how everything fits visually in the scene).


Universal and National Themes

Descriptive, rather than prescriptive, examples of serious universal themes that commonly underpin competition festival films may include as examples only: the importance of family and personal sacrifice over individual gain; finding and treasuring beauty in the midst of terrible times, the inevitability of death lightened through the hope of new birth, discovery that happiness cannot be bought but may be given, and that all life seems inexplicably connected. In addition, most types of personal redemption stories have universal resonance, especially where broader historical metaphors may be inferred.

If Hollywood films are about ‘extraordinary people doing extraordinary things’, perhaps the most common character trait of festival style films is ‘ordinary people showing extraordinary courage under extraordinary circumstances’.


Differences in Constructing Chinese and Foreign Narrative Themes

Unpacking cultural difference between nations in critical hindsight is a complex and endless task. When faced with the task of developing a creative work from a blank sheet of paper that is destined for international judging however, is it possible for film maker to describe in the broadest terms some key differences in the way narrative constructions reflect cultural assumptions of the deepest and often most unconscious kind?

Where nations effectively compete for trans-national endorsement of their culture, it is in the producer’s most pressing interest to at least attempt to establish in their own mind how their world view of thematic assumptions may differ from the jurors’, and having proposed these assumptive differences, be able to test them convincingly and articulately in cinematic form. A truly and assured trans-national film may even be able to play off one culture’s thematic assumptions against another’s, to promote complex trans-national polyphonies that may be of arresting appeal to sophisticated juries.

A filmmaker has great advantage if they have lived for some time in a foreign country, or have a background with strong cultural diversity. A personal experience of hardship and sacrifice helps if this has made the filmmaker a stronger person. This main thing is for the filmmaker to not just understand the foreign view, but to see the Chinese view from a foreign perspective. Sociologists describe this challenge, as ‘a goldfish trying to describe water in the goldfish bowl’ – difficult from the inside, easier from the outside.

National foundation themes seem to reflect historically aspirational ‘scripts’ for entire nations, made complex yet unspoken by the imperfections of their current outcome.

So in a very Western sense, ideals from the French Revolution in 1789 of liberty, equality, and fraternity for example, are able to underpin European filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski’s famous Red, White, and Blue  (1993) trilogy of films – designed specifically by the filmmaker for competition in the ‘big three’ A grade festivals – Berlin, Cannes, and Venice.

Kieslowski earns the juror’s profound respect by cinematically counterpointing the west’s most treasured historical ‘script’ of civility, with the complicating problems of modernity – variously social alienation, personal loss, and the Zen-line exploration of the temporality of all human possessions as ‘traps’ including even human relationships.


Teaching How to win 1

Three Colours Trilogy: Blue, White, Red, 1993, (Trois Couleurs: Bleu, Blanc, Rouge)

Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski (Miramax; US DVD, 2003)

This counterpointing for the tragic film White for example set mainly in Poland, (Blue and Red are set in France) expresses wit and irony in exploring the aspirational theme of equality (egalité), in a contemporary post-communist and newly capitalist world that the director describes as a place where ‘everyone wants to be more equal than everyone else’. With masterly skill the director refuses to judge his characters, or lecture his audience.

Xie Fie’s Woman Sesame Oil Maker (1993), winner of a  Golden Bear at Berlin, offers a worthy Chinese exploration of very similar universal themes to those explored by Kieslowski. These themes include the difficulties between generations, as women take on the heavy burdens of balancing work and family. The film’s reference to a legend of two girls who drowned in the lake, provides a strong emotional foundation for the work that provides award-winning depth and cultural authority.


Contemporary European Case-Studies

The following three synopses are representative of a larger set of eleven films shown at the 60th Melbourne International Film Festival in 2011 through partnership with a private on-line film aggregator company called Festival Scope, to create a European survey sub-program  called TeleScope within the broader Melbourne Film Festival. Festival Scope works with a variety of good B grade festivals.

Australian film critic Stephanie Bunbury describes the thematic unity of the survey films:

What this immediately suggests is that while there is certainly no single  identifiable European culture, there is a distinct European film culture of festivals, prize-giving and exchange between peoples – who are other ways very different from each other –via cinema. The European Union’s media program  has helped to bring that about, and so successfully that it has just been rescued from planned closure at the end of next year.

                                                                        (2011 Aug 4, The Age newspaper)


These synopses provide a useful way to research the type of themes popular at competition level, in films that have a much stronger auteurist than mainstream commercial intent. The descriptions also reveal elements beyond theme, that helps establish each film’s claim to being a competitive festival work, including actors, period, and what in fine art is called ‘provenance’ – that is the history of the underlying work, especially where a notable literary or other work has been adapted for film.

The first sentence after the title below, is the film’s ‘log line’ used as a short-hand description for most publicity purposes. These two elements are critical to the film’s selection for festival competition, along with the ‘provenance’ of the script, actors, and social relevance.


Case Study 1.           

The Solitude of Prime Numbers  (Italy, 2010, 118 minutes)


Like prime numbers, Alice and Mattia are each divisible only by one and themselves: uniquely connected, and forever apart.        

Adapted from the bestselling novel of the same name, The Solitude of Prime  Numbers traces two decades in the lives of the emotionally scarred Mattia  (Luca Marinelli) and Alice (up and comer Alba Rohrwacher, I Am Love) - from the formative traumas of their childhood to the shared loneliness of their adult existence. Essentially isolated, and knowing the other is likewise estranged, Alice and Mattia are ill-suited for romance, yet inexorably attracted to each other.

Also stars Isabella Rossellini as Mattia's mother, and features a score by Mike Patton.

Director: Saverio Costanzo, Producer: Mario Gianini, Philipp Kreuzer Script: Paolo Giordano, Saverio Costanzo Dist: Aztec International, Language: Italian w/English subtitles, 35mm/2010

                                                                                    (MIFF catalogue 2011)


Key themes in this synopsis include revisiting the socially dislocating effects of World War Two through an understanding of 20th century French and broader European existential philosophical concerns, and examining how Italy’s modern urban middle-class deals with contemporary social alienation.

The film adopts a frequent art-house and student short film plot trope that assumes traumatic childhood trauma causes estrangement during adulthood.

Key festival elements shown include a very famous actor with strong festival record (Isabella Rossellini, daughter of Hollywood star Ingrid Bergman and Italian new-realist director Roberto Rossellini), and script adaptation from a best-selling novel of the same name.

The title of the film has intellectual implications, that require a reader to decode the term ‘prime numbers’, as a metaphor for characters who cannot be further divided. The term ‘solitude’ has solid art-house implications, and would be regarded by marketing departments as too negative for commercial use. Reviewers have though noted that the film’s ‘romantic melodrama…never matches the enigmatic grandeur of its title’ (Bunbury, 2011). From a producer’s view however, a reviewer’s assessment like this is irrelevant if  the film’s major packaged elements help it through the first phase of selection and into festival competition where the odds are much greater that it will obtain a prize.

The aim of the exercise is not to obtain great or even good reviews from journalists. It is only to win either the Palme d’Or, the Golden Lion, or the Golden Bear. It can only win one in its short lifespan.

The publicity photograph for this film is a key element in the promotion package, that shows the three main actors in sharp focus in a modern interior setting that describes the film’s genre economically and quickly. Out of focus behind the characters, is an important narrative device that shows cinematic quality of a high order – a family photograph of the troubled father, and two lead characters as children. This is also an intellectually appealing way of describing a ‘film within a film’, and a visual short-hand for the film’s flashback structure.

From a design view that references Italian painting and Catholic religious mythology, the out of focus children in the family photograph now sit like angels drawn by Botticelli on the shoulders of the mother, the film’s central pivot and star element –Isabella Rossellini. This combination gives the film a strongly allegorical sense of place in Italian culture, without being heavy-handed – that is, you have to look at the image carefully to unpack its meaning. The picture-in-a-picture device also references classical European portrait painting techniques from the 1600s onwards, often used for painting wealthy subjects and to compress family histories wordlessly into art. Again, this is not a style of publicity still design that would be readily adopted for a commercial film where maximum impact needs to be conveyed in the shortest time.

The director’s reputation is still emerging. His first film Private (2004) won no awards, but his second film Memoria de Mei (2007) was shown at Berlin and brought some attention, though no awards. This helped pave the way for screening in competition for a Golden Lion at the 67th Venice Film Festival in 2010, but without winning a prize.

In short, all elements and themes in this package are coded to create a brand for the film that is both refined and emotionally complex. The balance of elements is strong enough to cover the weaker elements.


Case Study 2.          

Sleeping Sickness (Germany, France, Netherlands, 2011, 91 minutes)


Two doctors face the unknown of a defamiliarised 'home' in this smart and enigmatic feature from Ulrich Köhler (Bungalow, Windows on Monday).

Smitten by the land and its people, a German doctor faces the prospect of leaving Cameroon and returning home to a country he hasn't seen in years.  Tasked with replacing him is a French-born man who is apprehensive about  Africa, the land of his ancestors but a place he has never before visited.

When they meet, ideas of home, culture and identity are thrown into brutal relief  by the connection of these two very different men in one intoxicating, dangerous place.

Director /Script: Ulrich Köhler, Producers: Janine Jackowski, Maren Ade, Katrin Schlösser, Distributor:  The Match Factory,  Languages: German, French, Dutch, Basse w/English subtitles TD 35mm. (MIFF catalogue 2011)                                                           


Single-nation films tend to have a ‘confessional’ theme, that is the admission through metaphor of a former national secret or unhappy historical event, that through confession – a term used also in the Catholic church, Europe’s widest practiced religious faith – leads to a secular, high culture redemption of sorts, or at least a cry to others for understanding. Confessional-style themes can have anything to do with past wars and every type of social injustice.

Sleeping Sickness on the other hand, is a truly pan-European production, whose confessional theme of troubled post-colonialism and national rootlessness, is a popular festival mechanism for creating works with strong comparative cross-cultural appeal.

The young German born director Ulrich Köhler, is well qualified to explore this theme, having lived in Zaire, Africa when he was growing up with his family, then studying Fine Arts in Quimper, France and then filmmaking in Hamburg, Germany. Many students make films about the riddles of their own childhood creating works of varying degrees of interest to others, yet in this case, Köhler’s background is of potentially great interest, and this is reinforced by a strong team of producers who have identified his potential talent, and arranged funding on the strength of it.

The film’s actors are not important elements in the festival selection package. This is clear from the promotional photograph, that does not show faces, but instead, offers a wide shot describing the actual and metaphoric distance between white and black in Africa, where communication and order is maintained by the flimsiest of man-made bridges and weapons. The characters seem almost helpless against overwhelming forces of nature and the impact of colonial pasts that burden the conscience of many European powers, exemplified in the deadly bite of the tsetse fly that has caused around 60 million African people to contract the debilitating disease commonly called sleeping sickness that the film draws its name from.

The widescreen 35mm format of the promotional image (1:1.85 Academy screen ratio) that pushes key human visual elements to the extreme thirds of frame, whilst providing greater than normal head room giving prominence to the wild African jungle all around them, offers a strong clue to selectors the film will be cinematically rich.

The director’s previous work becomes the provenance pitch, referred to in the film’s log-line. The character’s roles as medical doctors give the story greater artistic weight than if the characters were medical assistants, or even patients. The job-role of even an imaginary character, has a prestige-factor that may influence festival jurors when assessing the relative social importance of different films.

The plot combination of one German and one French doctor changing places in an exotic landscape is an intelligent strategy for mobilising the support of an international jury. This film has a strong and simple  set of festival performance elements, that helped it go on to win a Silver Bear for Best Director from Berlin in 2011.


Case Study 3.           

Principles of Life (Romania, 2010, 97 minutes)


            View trailer


Principles of Life

Program note by Brett Woodward

Emilian is 24 short hours away from cooling his fiery, frayed temper at a Bulgarian beach. One more day and he can escape the grind of his life for sand between his toes and a gentle summer breeze. But everyone - everyone! - has other ideas, and they make this one day the longest of Emilian's life.

Principles of Lifecharms you into becoming intimately involved in the life of a Romanian everyman. It's the perfect Father's Day movie for every put-upon patriarch. A catalogue of the daily tribulations dads the world over have to contend with and the stoic, but fallible, character with which they face the battle of real life.

Right after breakfast, Emilian is sparring with the builders who are behind schedule erecting his dream home. His boss is nagging him about horror-client Mrs Roman. Emilian's ex-wife Vicki is in his ear, concerned that she's losing control of their son, surly 14-year-old Catalin. His B.O. makes him smell like fried onions, and he does little except text message girls and gawp at his PlayStation.

Emilian's new wife, Ruxi, is fixated on their baby son Sorin's mild fever, punishing Emilian for making her travel all the way to Bulgaria for a swim. To add to Emilian's woes, he's recently quit smoking, gained weight, and someone's in his parking space!

Principles of Life's low-key realism approach couldn't be further in style or content from Constantin Popescu's first feature, Portrait of the Fighter as a Young Man (2010), a controversial debut which dramatised the memoirs of anti-Communist resistance fighter Ion Gavrila Ogoranu. Ogoranu was presented heroically, despite being a member of the fascist, anti-Semitic "Iron Guard". The Romanian director further upset many of his countrymen for daring to point at the cowardice and collaboration of the general populace during WWII and the subsequent struggle under the Communist yoke.

Emilian himself is no saint. He's bossy, impatient, constantly threatens minor violence, and, as we see, is prepared to mete it out. At any point he'd rather be snacking to stave off his nicotine cravings, or reliving his youth, banging his bald head to the CD of a dire, Romanian, Motley Crüe knock-off band.

Lead actor Vlad Ivanov's nuanced performance brings Emilian to life with an abundance of tics and foibles. He creates a character who has had to contend with a barrage of disappointments across the decades, slogging away at a crappy job and two marriages, unable or unwilling to compromise on his stubborn ways.

Ivanov imbues tiny moments with the touches that raise Principles of Life above the ordinary. Emilian makes excruciating attempts to pal around with his grunting, shrugging, uncommunicative teenage son. These painful exchanges culminate in an awkward lunch in a food court that combines a useless "Birds and Bees" lecture with blokey bonking tales and a stern, but confusing, warning about unprotected sex with Gypsy girls. Unbearable if it wasn't so damned funny.

Between them, screenwriters Razvan Radulescu and Alex Baciu penned The Death of Mister Lazarescu,The Paper Will Be Blue andBoogie, all of which screened as part of the Romanian Wave spotlight in MIFF 2008. It is to the immense credit of their script for Principles Of Life that it's impossible not to get absorbed in the maddening minutiae of this foul-tempered underdog's life.

With his simple wish for some breathing space, a period of domestic calm and a fortnight at the Bulgarian beach, is Emilian asking for the world? Much to our delight, it would seem so.

Brett Woodward spent 13 years at MIFF, ten of them as Program Coordinator. He is the author of four novels, a biography, a cartoon collection and 623 magazine articles on film and music. He enjoys statistics and long walks.

Close Program Notes

How hard can it possibly be to organise a family holiday?

 In Principles of Life,rising star of the Romanian film scene Vlad Ivanov (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,MIFF 2007) plays a self-pitying, middle-aged,  middle class suburban man trying his best to arrange a simple family holiday.  Beset on all sides by minor setbacks and petty frustrations, his capacity to cope with the rigours of the modern world is severely tested.

A shining example of the understated wit of Romanian New Wave cinema,  Principles of Life provides an endearingly droll account of a harassed, stubborn  man going through a very, very bad 24 hours. Bracingly familiar but uniquely Romanian in execution, writer-director Constantin Popescu has constructed an             exceedingly dry comedy of errors with an unexpectedly shattering  conclusion.   

                 Director: Constantin Popescu, Producers: Ada Solomon, S Răzvan Rădulescu, Alex Baciu, 

                 Distributor Coach 14,  Language: Romanian w/English subtitles TD 35mm/2010

(MIFF Catalogue 2011)


This film demonstrates that comedies can work, often if they depict the craziness of everyday life. Here, comedy is used to humanise an ethnic minority the Romanians, who are closely associated in Europe with gypsies and often stigmatised because of this. Romania has turned this disadvantage to an asset through clever storytelling that is still economical to produce.

Unlike a mass market film where extraordinary people do extraordinary things, this festival film does not rely on well know star actors, but instead, use very common elements like a supermarket and a family shopping trip to make a connection with the audience.

In most festival schedules, there will be many strong drama films, and often some very tragic works that will have strong emotional effect on the audience. In this programming situation, a lighter film that still has a serious message can have a great advantage, as judges as well as audience members are hungry for relief and will be more willing to laugh than normal.


The work references the photography of Andreas Gursky | UK-GermanConnection - for young people Cached

A well-known German photographer, Andreas Gursky hit the news when his ... The work depicts an interior of a supermarketwith numerous aisles depicting ...

Checklist for Festival Entry

Here is a quick list of topics to help you get the most benefit from any festival award.

Importance of Winner’s Next Film – If you win, the media always ask what you will make next. Make sure you have a feature length script ready to produce and ready for international funding if necessary.

DVD Problems ­– Always supply three copies of the entry on DVD using the best authoring tools available. DVDs are still unreliable as a preview medium compared to digital tape formats. Supply a digital tape format if possible.

Clear Authorship – Ensure all on-screen credits are as accurate as possible, and that all creative crew agree on them. A film can have an award withdrawn later if crew fight over authorship issues, and cause national embarrassment.

Marketing Assistance – Even if you are familiar with a festival, at A Grade and sometimes B Grade level, it can greatly help a competition film’s future international sales performance as well as chances of an award, to hire a good foreign publicity firm for the film before competition starts.

CGI ­–Computer Generated Images are a key part of most films now. As a guide, competition A and B Grade films use  CGI  more to create natural-looking scenes than to create sensational special effects. Effects should always enhance a story as invisibly as possible.

‘Homage’ (paying respect to other works) – Careful research needs to be done for each film to see if it has similar elements, styles, characters, music, or title, to any other well known foreign films. Almost all films will have some element that is similar to another, and if acknowledged in an artistic way within the film, may be viewed very positively by the judges, but if not, may cause rejection.

Identify Talent –talent belongs to itself and maybe to a country, but usually not just to a school. Great talent occurs rarely, but systems should be flexible enough to recognise talent wherever it occurs, and immediately make special arrangements. Great talent sometimes identifies itself in early life through remarkable achievement in any creative area, remarkable family background, and a sense of isolation from the group. Great talent requires specialist teaching, with close attention paid to ensuring mental health. The aim is to produce a long career of excellence, not just a ‘one-hit wonder’.

Electronic Press Kits ­–EPKs are a vital way of marketing the film. Festivals require you to supply many thousands of EPKs on DVD, and have a web site dedicated to the film to show clips in foreign languages and provide easy stories for foreign journalists to copy. Most American studios hire specialist publicity companies to edit their ‘trailer’ clips for promotional purposes. Studios do not usually let the director or producer cut their own trailers. It is useful to have a foreign press company assist with the development of the EPK and trailers.

Title Selection and Catalogue Listing – If the film’s title can be spoken in English in a few Chinese syllables, consideration should be given to keeping the Chinese title. English titles need to be checked carefully by experienced foreign language speakers to ensure they create the intended tone and right impression. Once a film’s title has been chosen, even if it does not make sense, it is better to keep it than change it to ensure audiences are never confused. Titles with nouns are easier to remember (e.g.: Black Swan, 2010), whilst titles with verbs sometimes sound more artistic in English and French (e.g. To Love and To Hold, 2007). If you use a first word starting with an early letter of the English/French/German/Italian alphabet (a,b,c,d,e,f,g) your film will appear early in the catalogue and get more hits on the Internet. If your film starts with a number (e.g. 3.10 to Yuma, 2007) it will often be placed at the very start of the catalogue with the lowest number first.

Photos–The key marketing image from the film should be as carefully designed as the film itself, and used consistently to promote the film. The ideal image should be able to be understood and ‘read’ as easily from a thirty-metre wide colour billboard, as two- centimetre black and white catalogue photo. The image should combine with the film’s title and graphic style to create a memorable impression in less than one second. For films in competition at a festival, the use of one single image on all marketing materials will be more effective than several types of images when use in a visually cluttered space or market.

Clear Synopsis–Writing a strong one paragraph, or even one sentence film synopsis is one of the most difficult parts of winning a film festival, yet one of the most essential. If possible, a native speaker should translate the synopsis into the foreign language.

Length­– Reduce running lengths. Ideal length for a festival feature programming is between 70 minutes and 90 minutes. Short films seem to work best up to 12 minutes for drama, and up to 6 minutes for animation or comedy.

Intelligent editing and shot length– Be careful not to over-cut your film if you are too attached to it and already know every surprise or joke in the script. Try to test the timing of each version with a fresh test-audience, and learn to trust the results. A competition film will be usually be seen only once by a jury, so it is vital the film provides 100% of its audience-benefits at first viewing.

Importance of sound and music–The relationship between the director and producer, and the music composer, is very important, but one that can go wrong badly. It is best for the director to start developing the music as early as possible before production. In an emergency, a good film with problems can become a great film with a change of music. Competition films should avoid ‘earthquake’ style deep rumbling bass and overloaded soundtracks typical of commercial war films.



Appendix 1: VCA (Australia) A and B Grade Festival Prize List 2005-2011

VCA graduates and enrolled students (marked *) records included:


Cannes Film Festival, France

2010                   Ed Housden, Prod. Nick Sherry, DOP Ariel Kleiman - Muscles – Official Selection (Shorts)*

2010                   Ari Kleiman, Prod. Anna Kojevnikov – Deeper Than Yesterday – International Critics Week*

2008                   Anthony Lucas – My Rabbit Hoppy – Official Selection (Shorts)

2008                   Julius Avery, Adam Arkapaw (DOP) – Jerry Can – Official Selection  (Shorts) Jury Prize*

2008                   Ben Hackworth invited to participate in Cinefondation Atelier

2006                   Dustin Feneley, Prod. Kate Beverley – Snow - Official Selection in  Cinefondation*

2006                   Sarah Watt – Look Both Ways – screening at International Critics week

2005                   Justin Kurzel, Prod. Tim Jolley – Blue Tongue– selected to screen in International Critic’s week.*


 Berlin International Film Festival, Germany

 2011                  Kasimir Burgess – Lily – Best Short Film, and Children’s Animation  Award

 2010                   Patrick Hughes – Red Hill – World Premiere in Official Selection (Panorama Section)                             

 2010                   Adrian Francis* and Polly Staniford* – represent Australia at the Berlinale Talent Campus.                      Started in 2007, the Campus selects talented young people from around the world to participate in workshops, lectures and panel discussions, and to work on their projects.

 2009                   Julius Avery – Jerrycan– in Official Selection (Generation Section)  Special Mention Award*                 

 2009                   Adam Elliot (winner of 2004 Academy Award foranimated short Harvey  Krumpet)Mary And Max (Animated feature)– in Official Selection (Generation Section). Special Mention Award

 2009                   David Michôd – Netherland Dwarf– in Official Selection (Generation  Section)

 2008                   Ben Hackworth – Corroboree – World Premiere in Official Selection  (Forum Section)

 2007                   Tony Ayres – The Home Song Stories– in Official Selection (Panorama  Section)

 2006                   Rhys Graham – Love This Time– in Official Selection (Panorama Section) Special Mention                

 2006                   John Hillcoat – The Proposition– in Official Selection (Panorama Section)


 The Sundance Film Festival, USA

 2011                   Ariel Kleiman – Deeper Than Yesterday – Best International Short*

 2010                   David Michôd and Adam Arkapaw (DOP) – Animal Kingdom –  World Cinema Jury Prize (Drama)

 2010                   David Michôd (Co-writer) – Hesher (U.S.A) – Official Selection

 2010                   Ariel Kleiman – Young Love – Honourable Mention in Short Filmmaking*

 2009                   Julius Avery– Jerrycan – Official Selection (Shorts) Honourable Mention in Short Filmmaking*

 2009                   David Michôd– Netherland Dwarf – Official Selection (Shorts)

 2009                   Adrian Francis– Lessons From The Night – Official Selection (Shorts)

 2009                    Adam Elliot– Mary And Max – Official Selection

 2008                   David Michôd– Crossbow – Official Selection (Shorts)

 2008                   David Michôd (Co-writer) – Spider – Official Selection (Shorts),                                                                                           Honourable Mention in Short Filmmaking

 2008                  David Michôd (Co-writer) – I Love Sarah Jane – Official Selection

 2007                   Erin White– Dugong – Official Selection (Shorts)

 2007                    Matthew Saville– Noise – Official Selection

 2006                   Anthony Lucas– The Mysterious Geographic Explorations Of Jasper  Morello – Official Selection


 The Tribeca Film Festival, USA

 2009                   Rhys Graham – Skin –Official Selection

 2009                   Anna McGrath – Small Change– Winner Student Visionary Award*

 2007                   Juliet Porter – Breathe –Official Selection*

 2006                   Catherine McVeigh – Fingerprints –Official Selection

 2006                   Timber Dean – Not What I Expected – Official Selection


 The Toronto International Film Festival, Canada

 2009                   Ana Kokkinos – Blessed –Official Competition

 2009                   Glendyn Ivin – Last Ride ­– Official Competition

 2009                   Sarah Watt – My Year Without Sex – Curated Screening

 2008                   Mark Hartley – Not Quite Hollywood – Curated Screening

 2007                   Ben Hackworth – Corroboree – Official Selection

 2006                   Ana Kokkinos – The Book Of Revelation Curated Screening

 2006                   Geoffrey Wright – Macbeth – Curated Screening

 2006                   Paul Goldman – Suburban Mayhem – Curated Screening


Beijing Film Academy International Student Film Festival, China

2010    Ariel Kleiman – Deeper Than Yesterday – Best International Short*



Appendix 2:            Calendar of major international film festivals



Sundance Film Festival

Park City, Utah, USA

Palm Springs

International Film Festival

Palm Springs, California, USA


Berlin International

Film Festival

Internationale Filmfestspiele Berlin

Berlin, Germany







Cannes International

Film Festival and Market

Festival de Cannes

Cannes, France


Los Angeles Film Festival

Los Angeles, CA


Comic-Con International

San Diego, CA

COMIC-CON is a growing force in the Sci-Fi and comic-book driven film genre. It brings together a huge consumer audience and growing contingent of exhibitors and producers.



Toronto International

Film Festival

Toronto, Ontario, Canada


Telluride Film Festival

Telluride, Colorado, USA


MIFED International

Film and Multimedia


Milan, Italy

MIP-TV International

TV & Video Market

Cannes, France

MIPCOM provides the key decision-makers in the TV and audio-visual content industry with the only forum to network, discover future trends and achieve commercial success on a global level. MIPCOM offers you key market knowledge and access to the right companies and people. Over five days in Cannes, you can do business on a worldwide level.

MIFED International

Film and Multimedia


Milan, Italy

TIFFCOM Asian Market

Tokyo, Japan

TIFFCOM has launched a new Japanese and Asian entertainment film festival and market in conjunction with the Tokyo International Film Festival. Organizers are Ministry of Economy, Visual Industry Promotion Organization and Japan Institute of Development and Promotion for Picture. Exhibits will include flims, TV programs, animation, publications, video games, character goods, comics, etc.


American Film Market

Santa Monica, California, USA

New York International


Film and Video Festival

New York City, New York, USA

NYIIFVF now exhibits in the four entertainment capitals of America: New York, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Miami.