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Written by Mikel Fair. Updated 06-30-21: Download .pdf
Have you ever wondered what criteria for judging is used by Film Festivals with Documentary genres? Our process for selecting Documentary submissions is pretty straight forward. Are you looking for top film festivals that offer a Documentary Film, Experimental Documentary Film or Documentary Series Episode category? The following list of five events (out of ten) that are operated by Film Festival Circuit, guide each group of judges in each individual market. For our events, this is how to judge a movie with specific criteria.
Oregon Documentary Film Festival (LINK) - Our flagship documentary film festival that focuses only on docs, specifically for a documentary loving audience in the Northwest USA.
Oregon Short Film Festival (LINK) - Our largest film festival by attendance is open to all genres of films including documentary films and series.
Nevada Short Film Festival (LINK) - Our newest event that has the same categories as the Oregon Short Film Festival, but the judges and event are based in Reno, Nevada. The first NSFF featured 30% documentary content, which was the most popular category.
Austin Micro Film Festival (LINK) - This festival screens more submissions than any festival in our network because every submission is limited to 6 minutes or less. This is a fun fast paced event that features all genres including documentary micro films.
Austin After Dark Film Festival (LINK) - This festival specializes in screening content of all genres that is intended for viewing by mature adults and contains subject matter that is not recommended for children. Documentary films that may have excessive profanity, violent images, or that deal with sexual abuse, murder, suicide, religious persecution and more mature subjects are what this group of judges is looking for.
We Started Out With A Comedy Film Festival Years Ago:
When my wife Brooke and I started the Houston Comedy Film Festival in 2008, there weren’t many resources available that would clearly explain the judging process. Our goal was to create a system that would eventually screen the funniest submissions at our event. We set out to select films that had the funniest situations, the best pacing, the best acting, and a level of production value that would screen well, in a commercial movie theater. Today, we use similar principles for our other film festival events. Obviously the judging criteria for short film competitions that have a Documentary focus have a different approach than the comedy category. Which is why I’ve written this guide.
We want to find documentary films and videos that feature powerful stories, strong interviews, great cinematography, excellent music, entertaining history, memorable events, interesting or even rare stories. Especially films with memorable people and events that take the viewer on a journey. It is also important that the level of production value offers the audience a positive viewer experience from a technical perspective, in a commercial movie theater. The three categories of documentary films we accept are Documentary Film, Experimental Documentary Film and Documentary Series Episodes.
This category is reserved for documentary films with thought provoking short stories about real life, interesting people, great stories, historical research, medical issues, sports stories, coming of age stories, political issues, war stories, racism, gender issues, LGBTQ stories, social justice issues, artists, musicians, actors, professionals, technologies, depression or any other non-fiction topic. All flavors of well documented films and stories are eligible from anywhere in the world, and in any language. (with English subtitles or voice-over)
This category is reserved for a single documentary series episode intended for distribution on television, streaming networks or public online formats on YouTube, Vimeo, Facebook, Instagram TV, etc. An episode with thought provoking short stories about real life, interesting people, great stories, historical research, medical issues, sports stories, coming of age stories, political issues, war stories, racism, gender issues, LGBTQ stories, social justice issues, artists, musicians, actors, professionals, technologies, depression or any other non-fiction topic. All flavors of well documented stories are eligible from anywhere in the world, and in any language (with English subtitles or voice-over). Please do not combine more than one episode in one submission.
If your film or video isn't structured in a traditional narrator, storyteller format and is just a bit different from the norm, this may be the right category for your documentary. Perhaps you've captured footage from a social event, live demonstration, nature, geographic visuals, people interacting or a collection of footage that speaks for itself, without the traditional "beginning, middle, end" format. This category gives you the freedom to get "out of the box" and show the audience something that may be uncommon, unconventional or artistic.
* Please note that regular submissions are between six and thirty minutes in length including all credits (6:00 - 30:00) Submission fees are $35 - $40 USD depending on the submission deadline you choose.
** Micro submissions are less than six minutes (6:00) in length including all credits. Submission fees are $25 - $30 USD depending on the submission deadline you choose.
We have three rounds of judging. Each film is viewed and scored by 12 different judges. Furthermore, each judge is blind to the other ratings in the first round. The overall score is an average score of a 1-10 star system. The top 33% of films from the first round advance to the 2nd round. The 2nd round is a technical evaluation of the film. The 3rd round where the judges reach a consensus about which films will screen.
Round 1: Universal Questions
Round 1: Documentary Film Category Rating (1-10)
Round 2: Technical Film Review
The top 33% of films advance to the 2nd round of consideration based on their average rating in the 1st round. Please keep in mind that we screen films on giant commercial theater screens in high definition with great sound systems. We cannot play films that are filled with technical problems, no matter how good they are. If time permits, I will email the submitter of a film if they had a great score in the 1st Round, but their film has technical issues. This gives the film submitter an opportunity to update the film (if time permits.) We do not want to create financial stress for filmmakers, but sometimes we bring these things to their attention ahead of time. We've had plenty of success stories, where filmmakers just needed to re-render the film and update it. All of the films in the 2nd round are assigned a “Flag” based on technical aspects of the film. The flags are for internal use only and the filmmakers do not see them.
Round 2: Green, Yellow & Red Flags: What Do They Mean?
Green Flag: Clean Audio, clear picture & well paced edit.
Yellow Flag: Some problems with audio, picture or edit, that may result in a negative screening experience for the audience if it isn't updated.
Red Flag: This film has two or more technical problems that eliminate it completely from consideration. Examples: Inaudible words. Clipping sound effects or dialogue. Dark and grainy footage that looks bad on a large screen. Glitches in the edit (media offline.) Visual problems extreme brightness or “blown out” footage for no creative reason. Missing words or bad dialogue sync. Subtitles are too fast or too small. We’ve encountered other problems, but if the film has a red flag, there is usually a very big problem.
Round 3: The Final Selection Process
The 3rd and final round is considered our deliberation round. All judge’s comments and ratings are unlocked so that the other judges can see them. The 12 judges re-watch all of the Green flagged films from the 2nd round. The judges are free to edit their ratings based on their 2nd impression of the film and may consider some of the other comments about the film as well. We have spirited discussions on Google Hangouts about our favorite films and discuss the pros and cons of each. Then, on the night before notification day, I (the film festival director) select the top films based on the judges average ratings and our total screening time. Then I announce the “official selections” to the public. The “official selections” are all of the films that will be invited to screen at the event.
FAQ: Documentary Film Festival Category Judging Process
Few film festivals explain their judging process online. After traveling to several film festivals across the country, I noticed that it is pretty rare to meet any of the judges at the events as well. Why is this process so mysterious? At every single film festival event that we have, I’ll sit down with filmmakers and screenwriters and talk for hours about the film industry, film festivals and film production. Eventually the conversation leads to the following questions:
1) How Many Judges Are There?
We have over 100 registered judges that actively watch films and read screenplays for each of our events. Most of the time, the judges are registered to festivals that are local to their region or state.
2) Approximately, How Many Films Do You Watch?
Personally, I watch about 300 short films per month. It’s a part of my daily routine. I don’t like to watch more than 2 hours of films in a single setting. I use high quality headphones and a 42 inch HD Television to watch films. It’s not exactly the same as watching them in a movie theater, but I don’t feel like watching submissions on my phone or at the gym is the right environment to fully evaluate them. We also have monthly sessions for judges and watch films as a group. It helps, when judging Documentary submissions, to be in a group setting. We have scorecards and oftentimes, we stop films to discuss them. Individually, I encourage our judges to watch films on a large screen with good headphones. Many of them like to use their phones and tablets as well. Most judges will watch 4-5 movies per day, pretty consistently.
3) How Many Times Do You Watch Each Film?
I personally watch every film submitted to every film festival from beginning to end at least once. Even more, I evaluate films for technical issues and award nominations. As a result, I watch some films 3-5 times! Our judges watch as many films as possible in the 1st round, then re-watch films that make it to the final round.
4) Do You Have The Same Judges For All Of Your Festivals?
No, the film festival judges are completely separate groups of people.
5) Where Do The Judges Come From And How Do You Find Them?
We get a lot of our judges from film enthusiasts that email us and want to be a part of the process. We also run ads on craigslist, as well as, meet people through networking. It’s not a requirement to be in the film industry to judge films. We like to have judges that are enthusiastic, consistent and who really enjoy it. It’s easy to “burn out” if you’re not very interested in independent film. Some judges will commit to watching less films, others will binge an entire festival season without blinking.
6) Can The Judges Vote For Their Own Films And Productions?
None of the judges have films or screenplays submitted to the film festival they are judging.
7) Do The Judges Only Consider The “Star Power” Of Each Film?
No. In the Documentary Film Category, “Star Power” is not a part of the judging criteria. People send films with interviews of world leaders and famous people all the time. At the end of the day, if it isn’t a good film, we won’t accept it.
8) Do Documentary Film Category Judges Care About Production Value?
First of all, really poor production value can hurt a film’s opportunity to screen. Rough dialogue audio is usually the “knockout punch.” At a commercial theater audio flaws can become very distracting. Also, good cinematography and music are appreciated, but the creative moments take priority. Consequently, we’ve rejected beautiful films that weren’t that interesting and we’ve accepted Smartphone films that have impressive creative concepts.
9) Can I Submit My Film To Multiple Film Festivals And Still Be Fairly Judged?
Yes you can, and many filmmakers do. It’s nice to get recognition for your submission, at as many live film festival events as possible. Take advantage of our 20% fee waiver code (LINK) and save money on submission fees to our events.
10) Where Can I Get More Judging Guides and Filmmaker Resources?
11) How can I network with other filmmakers virtually and make contacts in the film industry?
Please join us for our next virtual networking meeting for filmmakers, directors, screenwriters, producers, cast, crew in the film and television industry. Use this link: https://www.filmfestivalcircuit.com/en-us/networking to access our free events and learn more about our premium webinars. Hosted by myself, Mikel Fair.
12) What is the Film Festival Submitters Handbook?
It is a downloadable ebook filled with tips and recommendations for filmmakers that are submitting their work to the film festival circuit worldwide. Avoid common costly mistakes that filmmakers are making every day when submitting to festivals. Trust me, I’ve seen thousands of submission forms over the last 12 years. This will be the best $9.99 you’ve ever spent.
Film Festival Circuit events have reviewed over 5,000+ submissions since 2008. Our judges see issues repeated daily that weaken the presentation of films, videos and screenplays during the evaluation process. The Film Festival Submitter’s Handbook was written to help filmmakers and screenwriters build a successful strategy and avoid common costly mistakes when submitting to Film Festivals.