Topic: Judging Guide

Film Festival Judging Guide: Experimental Film Category

By Mikel Fair

Judging Guide: Experimental 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 Experimental genres? Our selection process for selecting Experimental submissions is pretty straight forward. Are you looking for top film festivals that offer a Experimental 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 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 Experimental and Comedy categories have a slightly different approach. Which is why I’ve written this guide.

Our Goal For Selecting Experimental Submissions:

We want to find films with fresh ideas, creative images, thought provoking messages, non-hollywood concepts and original artistic vision. We want films that stretch the boundaries of what ‘normal’ is. It’s OK to be strange, confusing, bizarre, refreshing, positive, negative, inspiring or chilling. It is important that the level of production value offers the audience a positive viewer experience from a technical perspective, in a commercial movie theater. The different Experimental genres featured at our Film Festivals are Experimental, Experimental Horror, Experimental Music Video and Experimental Documentary.

Experimental Film Category

This category is reserved for films that are outside of the Hollywood mainstream. Creative works that some would consider odd, strange, artistic, weird, innovative, fresh, enlightening, inspirational, confusing, mysterious, futuristic, retro, or difficult to classify. Experimental films must have some element that has something truly unique about it.

Experimental Horror Film Category

This category is reserved for experimental horror films that may not tell a story in a traditional way or in a non-linear fashion. Images, dream sequences, terrifying moments, graphics or sound effects that may appear to be random, chaotic, confusing, mysterious, futuristic, retro, strange, weird, or difficult to classify qualify are what the judges are looking for. Experimental horror films must have some element that has something truly unique about it.

Experimental Music Video Category

This category is reserved for music videos of all musical genres. The judges are impressed by good stories, great acting, excellent cinematography, and cool editing that syncs really well with the music. To be considered a part of this category, the video submitted should be odd, strange, artistic, weird, innovative, fresh, enlightening, inspirational, confusing, mysterious, futuristic, retro or difficult to classify. It is not a requirement that the musician is seen on screen. The focus should be on some aspect of your video that is very unique beyond the artist performing the music. If your music video is publicly available on Vimeo, Vevo or YouTube, your submission is qualified for entry. Official selections, nominations or awards on the Film Festival Circuit may help your video get exposure.

Experimental Documentary Film Category

If your film 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, 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.

Things To Avoid

I made a list of the types of experimental films that filmmakers have sent us in the past that were immediately rejected and turned off the judges. Please avoid having content in your experimental film that may be listed below.

  • Long periods of strobe lights or light flicker that can make people uncomfortable.
  • Loud distorted noises, long periods of white noise, sirens or screeching audio
  • Excessive profanity in text or audio (a few words here and there is OK)
  • Excessive explicit sexual acts that could be considered pornography. Please use good judgement. Rated-R is OK. Rated-X is not.
  • Please avoid death threats or depictions of murder to politicians or celebrities.
  • Please avoid violent scenes directed at children or animals.

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)

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

  • 9-10 - An amazing film that I found to be informative, entertaining, fresh, creative, or unusual.
  • 7-8 - A good experimental film that I enjoyed.
  • 5-6 - It was OK. It didn't really blow me away. It doesn’t really stand out to me.
  • 3-4 - There are some creative problems here and the film 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.

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: Experimental 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 experimental film festivals really care about production value?
  9. Can I submit to multiple events at and still be fairly judged?
  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?
  12. What is the Film Festival Submitters Handbook?

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 Experimental 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 Experimental Film Category, “Star Power” is not a part of the judging criteria.

8) Do Experimental 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, sound effects 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: 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

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