Get Your Short Film Into Major Festivals

August 8, 2012 at 6:59 am

Get Your Short Film Into Big Festivals | Independent Film Blog


Aspiring filmmakers who produce short films usually have one goal in mind.  Festivals.

One of the biggest festivals in the world is the Toronto International Film Festival.  A massive gathering of some of the biggest stars, filmmakers and the up and coming artists of tomorrow.  Getting your short film into a major festival like TIFF can be absolutely huge for people trying to make their mark in the industry.

But what does it take to get your film accepted?  What do selection committees and programmers look for?

As an independent filmmaker myself, I decided to find out what it takes to get a short film into TIFF.  So I contacted the festival and was granted an interview with Magali Simard.  It’s her job to help decide which films are accepted into the prestigious festival so there is no better person to ask.  Her wonderful responses offered a unique look inside the process including a number of great tips and helpful advice.

So how do you get your short film into a major festival?

Here is an exclusive look behind the scenes from someone who has seen a TON of shorts and knows what it takes to get accepted.

Special thanks to Magali Simard and TIFF.

Can you briefly summarize the overall selection process for short films?

The Festival is in September, and filmmakers get to submit to us between February and May, by filling our form online through Withoutabox and sending us their films. We make our decisions in July and announce our selection in August.

What’s the first thing you look for in a short?

Maybe it goes without saying, but we look for excellence! Some films achieve high levels of production value, but if the content isn’t there, it just isn’t. It’s about artistic value, originality, execution. We see over 600 short films in couple months, so a film needs to stand out.

What are the most common mistakes filmmakers make?

There are so many steps to making a film – things can go wrong on so many levels. I’d say a recurring mistake is overwriting. The image usually conveys enough. It’s important to trust that the audience will be able to understand and absorb things without having to hammer it over and over.

In your experience, what is the ideal length of a short?

It really depends on the subject. The best run time is the one that is appropriate for what the film needs to achieve. Cutting back is hard for filmmakers, it’s their material and it’s hard to let go of some of it during the editing process. This past Festival we had a 1:30-minute short, and a 30-minute short. They were both wonderful, and time-appropriate.

Does a movie shot on film have a better chance of being accepted than one shot on a lower quality format?

Certain subjects are rightfully approached with a less polished look, and it serves them well. There’s something to be said about the ever changing formats people use.  Just about anyone can make a film, and it creates a ton of new content. Some great, some not at all, but the bigger the pool of production, the more chances good things can come out of it. Nothing should be limiting people from going ahead with their projects.

What would you say is the number one reason that a film is rejected?

Some films nearly make it, we have a certain amount of slots, and it’s heartbreaking to reject some excellent work, but it’s the nature of the beast. Others are not close to making it, of course. Films fail to impress for as many different reasons as they succeed. Concept, plot, character, and aesthetic – you basically need everything to come perfectly together. Yes, bad production can hurt a film, but so can a bad script, bad dialogue, untimely editing, choppy acting, etc.

Each festival usually asks for a submission fee which can add up quickly for many indie filmmakers.  Would you say it’s better to enter only the biggest festivals, the smaller festivals or a combination of both?

For short films, the Festival circuit is vital. So I suggest investing in those submissions but it’s not about submitting just anywhere – there thousands of festivals. Filmmakers should research the places they submit to and see the kind of selection they usually tend toward. Some festivals are more niche and that can be an advantage depending on the film at hand.

What advice would you give aspiring filmmakers before they begin their projects? What would you say to those who have submitted their films but have yet to be accepted?

Keep on submitting. Having your film(s) seen by programmers is invaluable. As a programmer, I want to follow filmmakers’ careers, see what they are up to, how they develop from year to year. Without the submissions, it’d be nearly impossible to track so many. Also: you can have a word with programmers after the submissions process to get some feedback. And festivals talk to each other, and if your name’s not out there, it’s kind of impossible to have it discussed. Keep’em coming.

Lessons Learned: Playing Through vs The Climb

February 16, 2012 at 9:01 am

Lessons Learned: Playing Through vs The Climb | Independent Film Blog


About a year ago, I took a step back and really thought about where I want my creative career to go.  Am I a screenwriter or a director?  At the end of the day I’m neither in the professional sense.  I don’t apply for directing gigs and I still struggle to REALLY put my screenplays out there.  No, I’m a professional editor.  That’s my trade.  I work in a fast paced live television environment and I’m still addicted to it after nearly 6 years.  At work, I tell stories through highlights, reports and features.  I love it.

Still, at home, I’m a passionate screenwriter and an aspiring filmmaker.

Like any job it’s important to have a clear focus and a year ago, I felt like I lost that focus.  I was still messing around with the footage we shot for The Climb and promoting Playing Through as much as possible.  These two shorts are the focus of this post as they are the only two shorts that I wrote and directed.  I love both of those films because they taught me something very important about myself:

I don’t want to be a director anymore.  I want to be a screenwriter.

I came to this realization for two very distinct reasons.  First, I read the original screenplays for those films.  They were so much more visual than the film on the screen.  I’ve learned that I’m better describing images than making them a reality on set.  Second, during the production of both short films, I desperately wanted to write something else.  You can’t do both.  You can only focus and I fell behind on my screenwriting goals.

XTRA | Rewriting Your Screenwriting Goals

However, I’d like to take a second to make one thing clear.  I do not regret making Playing Through or The Climb.  Those films didn’t scare me away from directing.  They just made me realize how badly I wanted to write instead.  And so those two short films serve as inspiration for me now.  I learned so much by getting out there and yelling action and cut.  (Even though I felt self conscious doing so.) Directing has given me a unique perspective that has changed the way I write scripts.  But that’s a pretty generic statement to make.

So let’s get into specifics.


Lessons Learned: Playing Through vs The Climb | Independent Film Blog

It’s official.  Playing Through will go down as my most successful film.  It played in three film festivals and won a few awards along the way.  Beyond anything I’m proud of the fact that people laughed and some cried.  I saw Playing Through in a packed theater once and it was both terrifying and gratifying all at once.  People laughed when I intended them to laugh.  I can’t really confirm that they cried but many have told me over the years.

The film won’t reach everyone but I sleep well knowing that it DID reach people.  I loved Playing Through.  The entire experience with the cast and crew was one I’ll never forget.  But looking back, there are still some major lessons learned.

It’s too long.  That’s the major criticism I’ve heard since we released the film.  When we realized the film was going to be close to 20 minutes long it became a concern.  But the way I wrote and directed it left little to cut out without affecting the story.  We reordered it a bit and lost a minute or two but the film is still 19 minutes long.

When it comes to writing short screenplays, you have to get the most information across as possible.  The script for Playing Through contained one major plot point per scene but I think I could have been more creative and made each page more efficient.  It would have been shorter and the pacing would have increased dramatically.

Proof that there are always lessons to take away from a project no matter how happy you are with it.


Lessons Learned: Playing Through vs The Climb | Independent Film Blog

I wrote The Climb a year before I finished the script for Playing Through.  Right off the bat, my biggest mistake was ignoring the screenwriting lessons I learned directing Playing Through.  The script was nearly 5 years old by the time we started production in May 2010.  I didn’t apply what I had learned…

However, I did rewrite the screenplay with length in mind.  The original script was 24 pages long.  The script we filmed was 16.  There were a lot of great moments in those lost pages but I was so concerned with length that I shredded it mercilessly.  When I was cutting, I did so with simplicity in mind.  We were shooting the film with basically no budget at all so I eliminated complex locations, merged scenes together so they could be filmed easier and deleted entire characters to avoid casting and scheduling conflicts.

That was a mistake.

It’s fine to edit your screenplays but this was a massive lesson that I’m thankful I learned.  When I cut those scenes, I lost sight of the story I wanted to tell.  The essence of the story is still in there but it’s a lot clearer on the page.  I wish I had gone back and stripped the story down and rewrote it entirely.

I learned the most when I was editing the film.  It becomes clear right away which lines work and which lines don’t.  I mean that from a screenwriting perspective.  I got rid of so many lines that weren’t really needed to advance the story.  That’s one of the first things you learn in virtually every screenwriting book ever published.  You have to make every line count.  EVERY WORD.  I feel like I failed in that respect because I caught so many that sounded good on the page but didn’t work on screen.  That’s not a knock against my actors.  That’s fundamental screenwriting.

Editors will agree that when a line doesn’t work, you really have to get creative to keep things moving.  Especially when it comes to continuity.  I think that’s why The Climb feels choppy in places.  From an editing perspective, I’m happy with the way the film turned out but that’s because I eliminated about 3 minutes of dialogue by the time we released it.  That’s a lot of dialogue.

It made me realize how many moments I could have saved when I was cutting scenes and characters before we started.  If only I had simplified the dialogue.  From a story perspective, the film comes across as a first act instead of a tale with a beginning, middle and end.  Actually, it’s kind of like a prologue.  On the page, I had two great characters with really interesting back stories and as the film evolved, I fell in love with those back stories and that became the focus.  A back story is supposed to lead you somewhere.  In the script, these characters changed but I don’t think it comes across in the final product.

There was a time when I planned to turn The Climb into a feature screenplay.  I wrote a great scene in a cemetery where ‘Cameron’ faces his past and it helps him.  I really can’t explain why I didn’t put that in the story.

Having said that, I do enjoy the theme of hope these characters talk about.  There is more to their dialogue than simply words that have to advance the plot.  There is subtext.  This is a lesson that’s truly important when you are shaping your creative style.  No matter what you don’t like about your films, your writing, your paintings or your music, do not let these things blind you from the things you do like.  Every creative endeavor moves you forward.

Screenwriting aside, I had so much fun working on The Climb.  It was stressful on set with weather issues and bitter cold but our cast and crew laughed together and created together.  These are experiences I wouldn’t trade for anything.

XTRA | Read about the entire production of The Climb.


The two films I have made are based on screenplays I wrote 6 and 7 years ago respectively.  I think that’s why leaving directing behind is so important to me.  I never stopped writing but I do not have anything recent that showcases what I can do.  Every writer gets better by WRITING.  I’m 100% confident that my work has improved but nobody knows that except for me.  I write about passion and dedication all the time on this blog but I never really follow through by sending my work into the world.  To be honest, I don’t think it’s fair to the people who read this blog regularly.  I intend to change that.

Obviously, I’m refocused now and hopefully that will change in the coming year.  It’s time for something new.  It’s the reason why I put screenwriting aside to finish The Climb and the new website.  I wanted to clear my slate.  I wanted 2012 to be the year I put the past behind me while bringing the lessons I’ve learned along for the ride.

I’m obsessed with movies, I’m addicted to filmmaking and I’m deeply passionate about screenwriting.  Most of all, I want to tell stories.

  • We are the sum of our experiences.
  • Why do we fall?  So we can learn to pick ourselves up.
  • You learn by trying.
  • Find a job you love, never work a day in your life.

These are just a few of my favorite quotes and words I live by.  But I think one quote in particular describes my personal creative journey:

There are many paths to the top of the mountain but the view is always the same at it’s peak.

At the peak of the mountain is a successful screenwriter.  I know it.  I just have to find my way up there.

Click here to check out and watch Playing Through, The Climb and more.  Have any thoughts on the films?  Comment below!

Lessons Learned: Playing Through vs The Climb | Independent Film Blog

Rookie Photoshop For Movie Nerds

January 21, 2011 at 9:47 am

Rookie Photoshop For Movie Nerds | Movie Blog

These days, you have to be able to promote your films online.  It’s impossible not to.  You don’t need a massive budget to have websites, blogs, twitter accounts, Facebook updates, Youtube videos, posters, artwork and more for your films.  It’s a free and effective way to get yourself out there.  When it comes to promotional materials, you can do a lot with very little.  The only thing you really need is a vision, a copy of Photoshop (or a graphic designer friend) and a lot of patience while you learn.

Years ago, I decided to teach myself Photoshop.  I wanted to create websites, posters and other related promotional materials for 17 West’s projects.  What started as a simple website soon turned into 4 including a blog that would promote them all.

That’s when my addiction started.  Each new item needed to have a logo or an image attached.

But I’m not a graphic designer.  So I had to rely on tutorials, books and blogs about design to see what was possible.

Obviously, all the research and practice paid off as I’m confident that my design work doesn’t suck.  I’m not saying I’m a pro because I’m not.  I don’t know color theory or overall composition techniques.  I don’t really consider things like balance and other rookie mistakes designers make.

But I know enough now to create images that help direct people to the content I want them to see.

It all starts with a challenge.

Find something you like and try to duplicate it.  You’ll never know unless you try!

The image below is from a hockey game I was watching recently.  I liked the look of the image and decided to see if I could make one myself.  The result is my new Movies image above.  I think I got it pretty close.

However, it’s not enough to simply copy another designer’s work.  What’s the point if you don’t bring anything original to it?

So while the Movies image is pretty close, I took the new techniques I learned and applied it to this image:

The Athletic Nerd Movie Reviews

And this one…

The Athletic Nerd Movie Blog Wouldn't It Be Awesome

And this one…

17 West Productions Independent Film Updates

These new banners are another leap forward for me in terms of techniques and overall detail.  My work is getting more and more realistic but I still believe I can be better.

Who knows what image will inspire me next.   I’m always on the lookout for something new to try.  Especially when 17 West isn’t in production on a new film. (That’s going to change pretty quickly though)

If you don’t have a home on the internet to show off your work and can’t afford to pay someone to do it for you I recommend the following.

1. Start a blog

You don’t need a heavy background in web development to get a site online these days.  I recommend WordPress and a good free theme to get you started.

2. Customize

Make it your own.  Look at other movie blogs for examples.  Set yourself a part from the rest.  Be unique.

3. Learn Photoshop

You don’t need a course.  All you need is an internet connection to access tutorials and a little dedication.  It’s frustrating at first when your images don’t turn out the way you hoped but power through it.  Eventually you’ll surprise yourself.

4. Find inspiration and run with it.

Continue to learn new techniques and apply it to new film projects you are working on.

5. Repeat Step 4 keep evolving!

I’ve been addicted to Photoshop for about 5 years now.  Recently, I started reading Advanced Photoshop Magazine and realized just how much more there is to learn.  To some that would seem daunting but I think it’s exciting.

6. Don’t Forget Your Movies!

I’ve spent the last few days messing with Photoshop but it’s time to switch gears back to Screenwriting.  These skills are worthless if you don’t have anything to promote!

Further Reading:

Photoshop: A Cure For Writer’s Block?

Creating Concept Art For Your Screenplay

Does This Poster Sell My Independent Short Film?

2010 Web Design Recap: Promoting Your Films Online

Photoshop & Low Budget Short Films

The Beginner’s Curse: Website Redesigns

The Evolution of the 17 West Logo

Does This Poster Sell My Independent Short Film?

November 10, 2010 at 1:51 pm

17 West Productions Toronto short film

Producing independent short films is fun.

Marketing them yourself without any training at all can be stressful.

Honestly, I don’t know a lot of the fundamentals of graphic design.  I’m not a trained Photoshop expert.  I don’t have a degree in marketing with a large list of clients who depend on me to sell their products.

I’m neither of those things.

But I work for free and when you have a production company that’s just beginning to pick up steam, you have to do the best with what you have.  Producing low budget short films is challenging enough.  There aren’t many budgets that allow for marketing expenses when you are just starting out.

I’ve been teaching myself design and Photoshop for years so I at least know a little.  I’ve gone through countless books, websites and tutorials picking up as many techniques as I can.  So far, I’ve designed 4 websites and a lot of promotional material for our films.

With our latest short film still in post production, it’s time to start thinking about the best way to sell it to the masses.

It started with a poster:

The Climb Short Film 17 West Productions

Visit The Climb’s Home page here.

The poster is fairly straight forward. 2 unhappy main characters in a less than inviting environment.  A title that stands out.  No doubt there are probably issues with the overall composition but I quite like this poster.

We shot the film in May and I’m still trying to free up as much time as possible to get it edited and ready to be seen.  It’ll take a while yet but the process is as fun as ever.

I’m a huge fan of launching Final Cut Pro and losing track of time editing a movie.

Still, I wanted to make sure to start promoting the film so it doesn’t appear that I’m lazy.

After a few months, I decided to start messing around with a different style of poster.  Just to see what I could come up with.

The Climb independent short film from 17 West Productions

Does this poster sell my short film?  Do either of them?

These are the questions of uncertainty I’m forced to deal with on a daily basis.  It’s been the same way for each and every poster I’ve designed over the years.

My goal at first was to produce material that didn’t suck.  I think I can confidently state that neither of these posters are terrible but will they do the job?

Do these posters encapsulate The Climb?

The beauty of handling the post in house is I have all the time in the world to produce posters, ads and trailers.  I can keep going until I’m 100% confident in what I produce.

First and foremost, the movie has to be good.

The next step is to convince other people.

At the end of the day, it’s all about creativity and inspiration.

In other words: Fun.

Looking to watch movies online?  Check out’s new online streaming service.  A pretty sweet site with thousands of movies that you can watch anywhere and any time.

Photoshop & Low Budget Short Films

July 2, 2010 at 2:16 pm

17 West Productions Independent Film Toronto

I woke up this morning with little to no energy. So instead of breaking new ground on some of my current projects, I decided to spend some time cleaning up my system.

It’s a nerdy way to pass an hour or so.  I went through old files, deleted, moved and reminisced.

One of the biggest folders I have on my PC is the ‘Graphics Department’.

Note:  My computer is organized by ‘Department’.  Ex. Video, Visual FX, Sound, Screenwriting etc…

Inside that folder are thousands of images and designs that I’ve created over the years.  It really is a large collection of memories.  Looking back at the progression of my Photoshop skills gives me a sense of accomplishment now. Mostly because I was pretty awful back in the day.

Here’s a look at the evolution of 17 West’s logo.

It’s proof that Photoshop is a skill that can be LEARNED if you’re willing to put in the effort.

Now, I don’t claim to be a graphic designer by any means.  I’m not formally trained in any way.

In fact, I have enormous respect for those who can draw.

I’m genuinely jealous of every single talented designer out there.

Dear Talented Designers…  Feel free to introduce yourself!

I may not be an expert but I have learned that if you are an aspiring independent filmmaker, Photoshop skills can go a long way.

Low Budget Film Marketing Tip: Learn Photoshop

When we first started 17 West Productions, I was relatively new to the graphic arts world.  I knew back then that good design doesn’t come cheaply and we simply couldn’t afford it.  So I doubled my efforts in order to do some of the work myself.

In today’s social networking environment, you HAVE to know how and where to market your films.

That’s the first step at least.  You also have to have the materials necessary to promote your work and it HAS TO BE GOOD.

That’s a lot of pressure to put on myself.

Thankfully, there are billions of resources, tutorials and courses online to help bridge the gap between the professionals and the beginners.  I started devouring every single resource I could find.

To name a few…

Just about every skill you need to produce quality images can be found online.  I highly recommend checking out the blogosphere as well. There are literally thousands of good designers out there who are willing to offer tips and techniques for free.  All that stands in your way is a little spare time and a quick Google search.

Tip: YouTube is another great resource with tons of video tutorials ready to watch.

Taking some time to learn the basics can go a long way when you don’t have the money to hire a pro.

Take a look at the poster for Playing Through below.

It looks like an ordinary picture that I simply added text to.  Incorrect.  I made a lot of subtle changes to improve the image using techniques I learned online.

  1. First off, I didn’t want the actors centered so I cloned the background to allow more space on the left.
  2. The actor in the yellow shirt ISN’T actually holding that golf club in the original.  It’s leaning on the bench and didn’t look right so I moved it.
  3. There were two Gatorade bottles underneath the bench that had to be painted out.  Actually, if you look hard enough you can see the smudges they left behind.  (Like I said, I’m no pro.)
  4. There were about 10-20 imperfections that I painted out as well such as leaves, rocks and sticks in the water.
  5. I put 5-6 filters on it to manipulate the color because the original image was far too saturated.
  6. I masked out the actors and desaturated the background even further.  (Masking is hard.)
  7. The glare on their faces used to be a lot stronger.
  8. Finally, there must have been 10-15 different variations of the text positions.  It took a while to really nail down a look I liked.

Playing Through Short Film 17 West Productions

That’s just ONE poster! (Hopefully it’s not hideous.)

There are also banners, ads and stills that needed to be done.  It sounds like a lot of work but it pays off in the end.  We now have an assortment of graphics ready to be sent out and used to promote our film.

Photoshop & The Athletic Nerd

I’ve also applied my growing skills to this blog.  Whether it’s banner ads or logos for recurring features, I find that knowing at least a little about graphic design can go a long way.

But don’t take my word for it…  Look around the internet or even advertisements on the streets and tell me graphic design ISN’T a vital part to promoting your work.

Warning: Once you start paying attention to graphics and marketing campaigns you’ll never look at advertising the same way again.

Photoshop quickly becomes an addiction if you are willing to give it a shot.  It certainly helps save you money because we all know that producing high quality low budget films is extremely challenging work. You’ve got to make every single dollar you spend count.  So why not save a little cash and teach yourself a new skill in the process?

Good design isn’t easy but if you put in the effort, it doesn’t have to be ugly.

I still have a lot to learn but thankfully I’ve got new films to promote and plenty of opportunities to practice.

PS: Photoshop cures writer’s block too?

Photoshop Cures Writer's Block