I’m sure you’ve heard it said before, but it’s worth repeating.  One of the first things that is left out of a budget or cut from a budget is the cost of submitting the film to festivals.

So now that your film is complete and ready to be submitted, but the money you have available for submission is limited. What do you do?

There are several things to take into consideration so let’s walk through them step by step.

First, there are literally thousands of film festivals out there. Many of them here in the U.S. and much like the films themselves, they vary in size, quality and notoriety. Some of the best film festivals I’ve attended were ones that most filmmakers have never heard of, just like some of the best films you’ll ever watch will be from a yet to be discovered filmmaker.

I’ve broken out the festivals that I submit to, into 3 tiers. There is nothing official about this, it’s just my own way of approaching the numerous film festivals.

Tier 1: This list is what I would call the world famous festivals. If you Google the top film festivals in the world, these would be the ones you would see appear the most often. Many of these have very long histories and can possibly be a part of the future success of the film and its filmmaker. I include festivals such as Cannes, Berlin, Sundance, SXSW, Tribeca, etc.

Tier 2: These are festivals that are not quite as famous as the Tier 1 festivals, but are still Academy Award qualifying. To find this list, you can easily go to either FilmFreeway or Withoutabox, and you’ll see a filter or query called ‘Academy Qualifying’. Am I actually concerned with winning an Academy award? No, but it’s a good litmus test for whether a festival is well-organized and respected enough to get that qualification.

Tier 3: This is everything else and it covers a very broad spectrum of festivals. These will vary from complete wastes of time to life changing experiences. But they are neither world famous or Academy qualifying, so this is the bucket I put them in. Because of the vast array of festivals, your fellow filmmakers are your best resource. Ask around about what festivals they’ve gotten into and enjoyed and which ones were not good experiences and why? Some people will have valid reasons why they think a festival is bad, others will not, such as ‘My film didn’t win’. Let the experiences of others help you avoid wasting money on bad festivals.

The second thing you should do is sit down and have a very honest conversation with yourself about where you are in your career as a filmmaker. Is this your first film or your 10th. Is this a short or a feature? Are there big-name actors attached or are they all undiscovered talent? Are you a current or recent graduate of a prestigious film school?

You may be asking why does that matter? If you have plenty of budget for submissions, then it doesn’t matter. But I’m assuming the reason you’re reading this is because you have a limited budget to work with and you want to get the best return on your investment. And in order to do that you have to be very selective about what festivals you submit to and in order to do that, you have to be realistic about what festivals you can get into and just as importantly, attend.

The reality is that Tier 1 and 2 festivals are very difficult to get accepted into based solely on quality work. For these festivals its more important to find quality films that have something they can market. They are looking for name actors, a filmmaker that has recently graduated from a well-known film program or has some affiliation with the festival itself whether through a sponsored lab or workshop. The subject matter can play a big part as well. Some festivals have themes that change from year to year based on what is topical at the time. At the end of the day, film festivals are businesses. They are trying to get eyes on their festival, just like you are on your film. They want to get written up in magazines and blogs just like you do. So when they receive hundreds if not thousands of submissions, they look for the ones that will spark people’s attention. I’ve been at many top tier festivals watching a film thinking, how did this get picked above all the other amazing films I know exist. Then some big movie star pops up on the screen and then I say “Oh, there it is.”

With all of that said, let’s start putting a plan together. One of the most important and rewarding parts of film festivals, is actually attending the festival. This is an amazing opportunity to meet other filmmakers and your potential audience. If you are unable to attend your screenings, the benefits are limited. Also, fostering relationships with festival organizers will make the submission process for your future projects a lot more fruitful.

So, where do you live? Let’s say for example you live in NYC. The first thing you should do is start researching via Filmfreeway or Withoutabox for festivals that take place in or around NYC. These are festivals that, should you be accepted, will possibly cost you nothing to attend.

Next, when are their deadlines? Most festivals have multiple price tiers based on how far in advance you submit. For example, Early Bird = $20, Regular Deadline = $30, Late Deadline = $40. By submitting your film by the Early Bird deadline, you pay $10 less than the regular deadline and $20 less than the Late Deadline. So be sure to get your list of potential festivals put together early so that you can ensure you make the Early Bird deadline.

I would start with Tier 3 festivals, then if you have money left over, move up to Tier 2 festivals. Next, after you have exhausted your options in your current city, then think about cities where you may have a lodging option. Let’s say your uncle lives in L.A. and would gladly let you crash on his couch, then start looking at Tier 2 and 3 festivals in the L.A. area. And if you have any money left over after that, then go nuts. Submit to Cannes and Sundance, what the hell, never hurts to try.

Ultimately, festivals can be a great experience, but they are not the only path to success. Each of us as filmmakers needs to find the path that works for us. If you don’t have the money for submitting to and attending festivals, then consider posting your work online via Youtube or Vimeo. Filmmakers, especially ones early in their career, need to be more concerned with getting eyes on their work. Being accepted and even winning at film festivals is a fun experience, but not a guarantee of success.