Film Festival Judging Guide: Documentary Film Category

By Mikel Fair

Documentary Film Judging Guide


Judging Guide: Documentary Film Category

Updated 11-15-18


Have you ever wondered what criteria film festivals use to judge the Documentary Film category? Our selection process is pretty straight forward and I will explain it in this guide. Please email me if you have questions.


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In The Beginning ...

When my wife Brooke and I started the Houston Comedy Film Festival in 2008, there weren’t many resources available that clearly explained the judging process. Our goal was to create a system that would eventually screen the funniest submissions at our comedy film festivals. 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.


Our Goal For The Documentary Film Category

Today, we use similar principles for our documentary film judging. We want to find films with powerful stories, strong interviews, great cinematography and excellent music. 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.


Which Festivals Use This Guide?


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Our Film Festival Judging Process in 3 Rounds

We have three rounds of judging. Each film is viewed and scored by 12 different judges. Furthermore, each judge is blind to the other judges 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

  • Was there anything about this film that you really liked? (Limit 5 sentences)
  • Are there things about this film that you really did not like? (Limit 5 sentences)
  • Be honest, was this film boring to you? (Yes or No)
  • 9-10 - Excellent story, interviews/voice-over. A documentary film that I personally liked a lot and think that other people will enjoy. I can't wait to tell my friends about this one!
  • 7-8 - A good documentary film that I enjoyed.
  • 5-6 - It was OK. It didn't really blow me away. Not my kind of documentary film. Other judges may think it’s interesting.
  • 3-4 - There are some problems here and the film just isn't very interesting.
  • 1-2 - In its current form, this film is not ready for public screening.














Round 1: Documentary Film Category Rating (1-10)

  • 9-10 - Excellent story, interviews/voice-over. A documentary film that I personally liked a lot and think that other people will enjoy. I can't wait to tell my friends about this one!
  • 7-8 - A good documentary film that I enjoyed.
  • 5-6 - It was OK. It didn't really blow me away. Not my kind of documentary film. Other judges may think it’s interesting.
  • 3-4 - There are some problems here and the film just isn't very interesting.
  • 1-2 - In its current form, this film is not ready for public screening.

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?
  2. Approximately, how many films do you watch?
  3. How many times do you watch each film?
  4. Do you have the same judges for all of your festival events?
  5. Where do the judges come from and how do you find them?
  6. Can the judges vote for their own films and productions?
  7. Do the judges only consider the “star power” of each film?
  8. Do the judges of documentary film festivals really care about production value?
  9. Can I submit to multiple events at and still be fairly judged?


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1. How Many Judges Are There?

We have over 100 registered judges that actively watch documentary films for the Austin Micro Short Film Festival and Oregon Short Film Festival and the Oregon Documentary Film Festival Most of the time, the judges are registered to festivals that are local to their region.


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 films, to be in a group setting. We have scorecards and often times, 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.


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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 like the Alamo Drafthouse in Houston or Austin, 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 film, at as many film festivals as possible. To win awards and advance your career in the industry is the goal. If you are looking for a partial fee waiver, promo code or discount to our film festivals, please bookmark our promo code page and save 20% on your submission rates.


10. Where Can I Get More Judging Guides and Filmmaker Resources?

Save 20% On FilmFreeway Submissions

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Mikel Fair

Mikel Fair

From 1999-2015 I worked on location in the television and film industry as a location sound mixer, production manager and field producer. I have also worked in post production as an editor, post sound mixer and composer. Today, I am the Director of Film Festival Circuit LLC, a US based company that manages international film festival events in Texas and Oregon. Our team is passionate about showcasing new independent films, videos, series episodes, screenplays and teleplays of all genres.

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