Topic: Judging Guide

Film Festival Judging Guide: Drama Films

By Mikel Fair

Judging Guide: Drama Film Category

Written by Mikel Fair. Updated 11-22-20: Download .pdf

Have you ever wondered what criteria for judging short film submissions is used by Film Festivals for the Drama genres? Our selection process for selecting Drama submissions is pretty straight forward. Are you looking for top film festivals that offer a Drama Film Category? The following list of events that are operated by Film Festival Circuit, train people how to judge a movie and use the same criteria to rate and submissions in this genre.

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 competition in the Drama and Comedy categories have a slightly different approach. Which is why I’ve written this guide.

We Want Dramatic Films With Memorable Stories:

Our judges are looking for specific qualities when selecting Drama films for event screening. We want to find films with powerful stories, strong acting, great cinematography and excellent music. Especially films with memorable characters, events, and stories 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. We have three different Drama categories, each of which are eligible for award nominations in their respective categories. As a submitter, it’s important to try and submit to the category that best describes your film. If the judges feel that your film should be in a different category, they will contact you and change it, free of charge. The three categories are Drama, Dark Drama and Relationship Drama.

Drama Film Category Description:

This category is reserved for films with real-life stories, people and situations of a more serious nature. Especially submissions that have strong acting and great writing. Films that bring out emotions in the audience receive high ratings from the judges. Strong Drama films deal with everything from environmental, political, social and family relationships to post traumatic stress disorder, depression and loss of life. Medical Dramas, stories about overcoming adversity, period Dramas, sports stories, immigration issues, poverty, racism, sexism, oppression, legal battles, and “coming of age stories” have all screened at this event. Beautiful cinematography, good production value and great music are viewed favorably by our judges. 

Dark Drama Film Category Description:

This category is reserved for a Drama Film that is intended for a mature audience that is at least 18 years old. Films that could deal with a variety of darker topics like murder, death, abuse, torture, suicide, depression, hallucinations, shootings, police investigations, gang violence, kidnapping, riots, uncomfortable risky situations, verbal abuse, war, PTSD, flashbacks, psychological breakdowns, or some other topic that fits into a “darker” Drama category and not necessarily in the Horror Film Category. Films with graphic sex scenes or nudity should submitted to this category as opposed to the regular Drama Category. This will help our staff with late night event scheduling in order to avoid screening this material for minors.

Relationship Drama Film Category Description:

This category is reserved for Relationship Drama Films with storylines about relationships, love, dating or romantic situations. We’ve received submissions in the past with some of the following film topics: Lost love, break-ups, separation, divorce, re-marriage, rekindling old flames, therapy sessions, dating stories, love stories, trust issues, growing old, growing apart, surviving traumatic experiences with a loved one, unexpected romance, random hook-ups, sexual exploration and more. The judges are looking for strong chemistry between actors, good stories and dramatic situations.

Our Film Festival Judging Process in 3 Rounds

We have three rounds of judging for each film submission. 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 For All Films Of All Genres

  • Was there anything about this film that you really liked?
  • Are there things about this film that you really did not like?
  • Be honest, was this film boring to you? (Yes or No)
  • On a scale of 1-10, please rate the acting? Were the characters/actors believable?

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

  • 9-10 - A powerful Drama film with great acting, a good story and was just amazingly executed. I want to tell my friends about this.
  • 7-8 - A good Drama film that I enjoyed.
  • 5-6 - It was OK. It didn't really blow me away. It doesn’t stand out to me.
  • 3-4 - Rough acting and story problems throughout. Uninteresting.
  • 1-2 - In its current form, this film is not ready for public screening.

Round 1: Dark Drama Film Category Rating (1-10)

  • 9-10 - A powerful Dark Drama with strong acting, a good story and was well executed. I highly recommend this for a more mature audience.
  • 7-8 - A good Dark Film that I enjoyed.
  • 5-6 - It was OK. It didn't really blow me away. It doesn’t stand out to me.
  • 3-4 - Rough acting and story problems throughout. Uninteresting.
  • 1-2 - In its current form, this film is not ready for public screening.

Round 1: Relationship Drama Film Category Rating (1-10)

  • 9-10 - A powerful Relationship Drama film with great acting, a good story. It felt real people in a very believable situation that I could identify with.
  • 7-8 - A good Relationship Drama Film that I enjoyed.
  • 5-6 - It was OK. It didn't really blow me away. It doesn’t stand out to me.
  • 3-4 - Rough acting and story problems throughout. Uninteresting.
  • 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.

Green, Yellow And 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 Meet or Zoom 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: Drama 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 festival director or any of the judges at the events. 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 Drama film festivals really care about production value?
  9. Can I submit to multiple events at and still be fairly judged?

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 Drama films, 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 for each event 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 Drama Film Category, “Star Power” is not a part of the judging criteria. We do see a lot of actors that have been involved in large hollywood productions at times, but at the end of the day. If it isn’t a good film, we won’t accept it.

8) Do the judges of Drama film festivals really care about production value?

Yes. This is a competitive genre. Our evaluators know how to judge cinematography and overall sound quality. The mood, clarity and creativity of the photography and lighting potentially add so much to the story. This is a competitive category and you want to bring your "A" game in order to measure up to your competition. Having a "big budget look" will not carry your film alone. But an amateur production can really hurt your film in a competitive environment.

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: to access our free events and learn more about our premium webinars. Hosted by me (Mikel Fair) and my long time friend, Hollywood Producer and CEO of Playworld Pictures, William Garcia.

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.

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.

Topics: Judging Guide

Are you new to the Film Festival submission process?

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.

Download Now!
$9.99 USD