An update on Stuck and festivals

Hey all,

It’s been quite a while since I updated this blog.

So. Let’s see if I can give you a good update for the last six months.

Stuck was completed some time in late November or early December, and we started sending out to festivals almost immediately.

We applied to about 40 festivals and started hearing from them at the end of January.

Applying to festivals is a stressful time. You go in with some very, very high hopes, and as notification dates creep up on you, you go through something akin to the five stages of grief.

But this is The Five Stages of Fate.

Hope. Fear. Frustration. Anger. Acceptance.

The first one is self explanatory. Everyone thinks their film can cut the mustard. God knows what that saying actually means, but everyone understands it for some reason.

It’s your baby, and there is no way in Heaven or Hell that a person won’t see the true meaning of your work and understand the blood that went into making it. The screeners will definitely gravitate towards the film, its story, its cast and visual storytelling.

Won’t they?

Fear can also be described as self-doubt. This part of the wait is akin to that guy or girl you really like, and you sent them an email or a text or left a message with smoke signals or something and you’re waiting to hear back from them. But there’s the creep. That thing in the back of your mind that says even though there’s a month before you’re supposed to hear from said festival… something’s wrong. You can’t put your finger on it, but there is something, and it becomes a nagging.

Maybe your screener copy doesn’t work. Maybe it got shuffled somewhere off to the side, fallen into the cracks, and forgotten. Maybe the person watching it just got dumped by a Norwegian, statuesque and beautiful, and your lead fits that description to a T.

Maybe everyone just hates you.

A lot of crazy thoughts keep you up at night while you wait. And wait. And wait.

It’s frustrating, the waiting. You apply to so many festivals you make an excel spreadsheet with more detailed information than you would ever put into your 9-5 job. Ever. The fucking thing is even color coded by notification date so you can tell which festivals you’ll hear from first. And your cast and crew are asking you what’s up and you can’t give them any info, but it’s simply driving you crazy because even a no at this point would be better than the wait.

Wouldn’t it?

That’s day in and day out while you wait for some vindication from someone you don’t know, someone you might not ever meet, to tell you that your film is up to muster for their film festival.

You keep waiting because there’s nothing else to do. You’re not going to be that filmmaker who can’t take it anymore and who writes the festival asking what’s going on. You’re not going to tweet passive aggressively, or post on message boards anonymously about them. Because, just like a murder scene, you’ll make a mistake and you’ll get outed, and you’ll irrevocably burn a bridge.

Sometimes festivals notify you when they say they will. Others blow the deadline, and THAT is when you start losing your fucking mind.

See, this is where anger comes in. On no less than 8 occasions out of 30 (so far) I had to find out we did not get into a festival by reading a press release for said festivals and their accepted films.

If you can, imagine looking at the PR piece, seeing a list of films, and, abandoning the search function on your browser, you meticulously drag your mouse down, lower and lower, until you don’t see your film. It’s torture, and I simply could not believe that an organization who gladly accepted my money did not have the decency to let me know that my film wasn’t accepted before posting those that made the cut.

We received 11 no’s before we got our first yes, and part of the special hell with submitting films to festivals is that there is no WHY. You don’t know why your film didn’t make it. And after the hope and the fear and worrying and all that shit… now you’re just left with a red line on your excel sheet that indicates that, no, you did not make the cut of a festival you thought would be perfect for your film.

Maybe it’s because it didn’t fit the theme of the year. Maybe it just didn’t speak to the right people. Maybe it’s just because the film is bad… and you’ll never know.

Sometimes the rejection letter comes with a kind note saying that the festival appreciates your hard work and apologizes for not being able to feature it that year. Most notes in fact say that, and you try and take some solace in the fact that out of many hundreds (if not thousands) of films, you did not make the top 20% or less.

Take that in for a second. 20% or less of submitted films.

There are always going to be unaccepted films by the hundreds. Doesn’t mean it doesn’t suck.

I got one note that said they loved the film, but simply did not have enough slots available to all of the great films they received that year. It was a record year for submissions. Every single festival we applied to, and I mean every single one, had a record year for submissions, which says a lot about the industry.

And sometimes… sometimes you don’t get a note at all.

In the end, note or not, what you’re left with is an empty hull. You’ve showed it to your cast and crew. Maybe your family and friends. You’ve gotten nothing but encouragement from the people who love you, and it builds up your confidence.

But the constant rejection from the people in charge of the festivals you submitted to… that is a repeated kick in the balls (metaphorically speaking, ladies). And when you hit the floor and look up and ask why… there is no face or mouth to give you an answer.

I know exactly where I was when we got into our first three festivals.

On my bed, feeling despondent.

It was brutal, getting all of those no’s. The depression I felt was something very specific. Working hundreds of hours on a project, the stress of borrowing money to finish it, then fine tuning it to the best it can be, and then the continuous crushing. Over and over again. I simply could not believe the film didn’t speak enough to a single one of those festivals to get accepted.

I want to stay as linear as I can, but you have to understand… that is ALL part of this process.

The first festival we heard from was the Soho International Film Festival. Julie Sisson and I first got into SIFF in 2013 with our short film 5AM. Julie, Lynn Mancinelli and I got in the following year with Untitled Zombie Project.

Our third year in, and I felt a palpable relief. We were going to be able to have an NYC premiere with our cast, our crew, and everyone’s family members in a festival we loved being a part of. I’d never felt a wash of relief as I did when we got that news.

The following day, still on the bed (but having left it multiple times for multiple reasons) I got two emails. One was from the Julien Dubuque International Film Festival and the other was from the Newport Beach Film Festival.

I remember seeing ‘Congratul-‘ in the subject line of an email, and I shut my laptop. I sat there for a moment, stunned, and stood up, walked away from the laptop. “Get the fuck out of here,” I said, and slowly opened it back up. That one was from JDIFF. And right above it was Newport.

What a great weekend that was.

About two weeks later we found out we got into the Art of Brooklyn Film Festival.

The wonderful people at both JDIFF and NBFF allowed for fantastic screenings, and I thank them all from the bottom of my heart. Dubuque was such a fun city to visit (with HUGE cash prizes I might add), and Newport Beach puts on such a wonderful festival. We were so happy to be involved with both!

Our NYC screenings went just perfectly. We sold out our first Soho screening (and were awarded a second), and had such a great crowd at Art of Brooklyn (and a fantastic Q&A!).

Just this past Thursday was the Soho Awards Night and after some awards for short films I was nominated for Best Breakthrough Performance, along with Emmy winner Chandra Wilson who took home the award.

Then we were nominated for Best U.S. Feature Film.

Then, inexplicably, they brought out the Carbon Award for Most Creative Filmmaker. “And the award goes to writer, director and actor…”

And Julie and Lynn, who were with me that night, went insane. I was still in a bit of shock that we’d gotten nominated for two of their top awards, and they started pushing me to the stage.

I got up there and said some things that I honestly can’t remember right now. There were so many lights and photos being taken and I lost my ability to talk, truthfully. And that has NEVER happened before. Both, the talking and the awards.

What a thrill. My sincerest thanks to Soho and Carbon for the wonderful honor.

Some time during that whole stretch of craziness, I was interviewed twice.

First was by HollyShorts who did a Filmmaker Spotlight on me. We had both 5AM and UZP screen at Hollyshorts in 2014, which was awesome.

Second, I was interviewed by Backstage Magazine on being an actor/director. Very exciting! The last month or so has just been a whirlwind of fantastic activity.


When the dust settled, we’d hit 10% of acceptance to submissions.

Lots of people will say that 10% is a reasonable expectation for festivals. I am not one of those people.

We spent a considerable amount of money on those festivals, and I was really hoping for more like 30%. We still have another 9 or 10 to wait to hear from.

Now, it’s important for you dear reader to know that I am thrilled with our festival run so far. Newport Beach is a major festival. The JDIFF will be the Sundance of Middle America in two years. This year they gave away almost $35,000 in cash prizes. They will get MAJOR films in next year’s festival, and that town will be hopping soon. Soho… we have nothing but love for Soho. The people, the venues, the volunteers. It’s always a treat for us. And Art of Brooklyn, in their 5th year, put on a great show.

And perhaps I’m being overly critical of the percentages of possible acceptance. Perhaps.

But when one spends $2300 on 40 festivals and your acceptance rate is $230, respectively… that does not seem like a good return on your investment. Understanding fully that the word ‘investment’ doesn’t really apply as much as maybe the word ‘gamble’ does… there are simply too many factors to being accepted into a film festival… and all of it is perfectly normal, if normal is the right word.

That is part of the struggle of applying to festivals.

Which brings us to the last part of the Five Stages of Fate. Acceptance.

You know, now that I think about it, that last stage might have to change its name to Faith.

It’s your movie. Your baby. You have a full on love/hate relationship with it. You’ve lived with it for months, perhaps years on end, and when you’re finished with it you put it out into the world to see what will become of it.

With every Withoutabox and Film Freeway submission. With every credit card transaction. Every DVD. Every envelope you address, wait on line with at the post office, and ship out with a final look that says “I know our film is great, and they will too…”

Think of it as messages in a bottle. That is the closest comparison to hope and desperation I can think of when applying to film festivals.

You have a strong sense of belief in yourself and your film. You know your crew gave their all. Your film looks good. It sounds good. The pace is fantastic. The performances are spot on.

If you’re a filmmaker and you are struggling to get festivals to vindicate all of your hard work, you’re not alone, and I’m here to say the following;

Expect it all.

In the end, regardless of the outcome, it is so important to continue to be proud of the work you did. Something on that shoot, something from the whole process is going to more valuable than any festival can give you in the end. You’ll have achieved something that many people attempt to do and unfortunately fail in the end with. Something you learned is going to solve a major problem in the future, and you’ll look back and know that without the failures, you wouldn’t be where you are now.

We were very fortunate with our festival run so far, and I hope we get into more of them in the near future. But festivals or not, I love filmmaking too much to quit. It took me 20 years to finally do the thing I’ve wanted to do for so long, and I don’t regret the journey I had to take to get here.

Thanks for reading. Don’t give up on you dream. There are stories out there waiting to be told, and I promise they can be told with what you have available to you. Stuck was shot in 17 days (plus pick-ups) for $7,350. Everyone but the producers and myself were paid and fed well and treated with respect. I owe them all, and I hope they know how important they are to me.

If we can do it, so can you.

John Painz

PS – For those filmmakers who do read this, take a very close look at the Julien Dubuque International Film Festival. With a very small push, they will be the Sundance of the Midwest. Seriously.


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