~ Adam E Stone ~

How to find festivals for a poetry film: an interview with Adam E. Stone

A recent post about calls for work in festivals elicited a comment from filmmaker Adam E. Stone. We corresponded and this turned into a interview about the advice, ideas and strategies that Adam employs to get his work out into the world.

an entombing(dis)entombing (2020 – HD) from Adam E. Stone on Vimeo.

Jane: Apart from targeting the festivals known specifically for poetry films, how do you go about choosing which events to enter?

Adam: Well, budget is always a consideration, so I look first at the reasonableness of the submission fees. In addition to that, I look for festivals that are run by people who seem to be passionate about independent film, and who seem to be guided by an artistic, poetry-like aesthetic, even if they do not specifically have a category for poetry films. Onirica Film Festival in La Spezia, Italy is a good example. They have a very “dream-like” vibe, which to me is consistent with many, perhaps most, poetry films. Festival Fotogenia (which translates on FilmFreeway to Photogenic Festival) in Mexico City, Mexico is another one I discovered by searching for festivals with that kind of vibe. It did not have a separate poetry film category at the time I found it and had one of my poetry films accepted for screening there, but now it has added one, which is an exciting development for us all, and I hope to screen there again in the future.

Jane: What is your search strategy to find appropriate non-poetry film festivals?

Adam: I develop a list of non-poetry keywords that I believe characterize the film, then use the search function on FilmFreeway (found at the top of the “Browse Festivals” tab) to see what kind of festivals are out there that may be interested in the film. The results can be surprising. For example, there is a great little festival in Anglesey, Wales, UK called the SeeMor Films Festival that only screens films that have either a dialogue reference, or a visual reference (or both!), to the sea. Both of the poetry films I made in 2020–“an entombing(dis)entombing” and “Elegy for Unfinished Lives”–had such references, so I submitted both, and they both screened at the festival in 2020. Likewise, my 2021 one-minute poetry film “If Any” is partially filmed from a bicycle, and the narrator refers to riding a bicycle, so I did keyword searches for “bicycle,” bike,” and “biking,” and found quite a few festivals. Some are high-adrenaline, adventure-biking kinds of festivals, which I don’t think are good fits for the film, but I found a handful that seem to be more eclectic and have potential, so I will try them out.

I also think that sometimes you have to think outside of the box with your keywords, and really trust your instinct. “Elegy for Unfinished Lives”–which I describe as a ghost poem film–is such a strange and disjointed howl of angst against injustice and against mainstream pop-culture that its text, as well as its visual content, made me wonder if some of the more experimental horror film festivals might be interested. So I did a keyword search for “ghost,” found and submitted to a few horror festivals, and ended up with screenings at Delirium, Dreams, and Nightmares (Southsea, England, UK), as well as at Qosm Film Festival (formerly known as Vidi Space, and located in Reston, Virginia, USA), Canted Angle Film Festival (Harrison, Arkansas, USA), and Haunted Garage’s Horror Fest 2021 (St. Louis, Missouri, USA).

And finally, don’t neglect the more obvious choices: if your poetry film is a one-minute film, search for all of the festivals that specialize in one-minute films (and there are several of them!), because you definitely have a good shot at screening with some of them. Most poetry films are fairly short, so be sure to search for “micro-shorts,” which often includes films up to three minutes, or even up to six minutes, depending on the festival. The Haiku Amateur Little Film Festival (also known as the HALF Festival) is a festival in Palakkad in the Kerala state of India that doesn’t have anything to do with haiku in the poetry sense, but only screens films that are five minutes or less. It is run by a group of distinguished Indian filmmakers who love short film as an art form, so in my opinion it’s a great potential fit for poetry films, and in fact I have had both poetry films and dance films screen there in the past. Some years it is on FilmFreeway and some years it isn’t, but it is on there for submissions for its September 2022 event, so I’d encourage everyone to check it out and submit if you think it’s a good fit for you.

Jane: Do you search any sources other than FilmFreeway?

Adam: Yes, I check the “Calls for Work” section of the Moving Poems website once or twice a month. This year I made a feature-length poetic essay film called “Atmospheric Marginalia” that I wanted to submit to some big fests that are not on FilmFreeway because they use their own internal submission systems (like Cannes, Berlinale, Busan, and Telluride), so I had to research those individually and submit individually. That’s very time-intensive, but sometimes you have to do it. Overall, I’m grateful that so many festivals (including big ones like Sundance, Slamdance, and Raindance, to name but a few) are on FilmFreeway now. When I started using FilmFreeway in 2014, it was still an open question whether they would be able to compete with Withoutabox. Obviously, they out-competed them, and overall I think they have a very good system that is very user-friendly to independent filmmakers. When all else fails, you can always Google “poetry film festivals” or whatever term fits your film best and see what you get from the web at large.

Jane: Given a budget would you rather spread it more widely on cheaper entry fees or on a few more expensive festivals if they are more prestigious?

Adam: I try as much as possible to have the best of both worlds. A lot of festivals have lower entry fees if you submit early in their selection process, so I do that whenever I can. Keeping a running list of potential festivals, and monitoring it year round, is what works best for me. If I finish a film at a time when one of the festivals I want to submit to is near its final deadline, and therefore the submission fee is high, I’ll usually just wait for the next year and submit then, as long as they don’t have a strict completed-by date restriction. Overall, my goal has always been to try to get my films in front of audiences that will appreciate them, and although that sometimes means a bigger, more prestigious festival if it seems like a good fit, often it means a smaller, narrowly-focused festival, like a poetry film festival. Fortunately, most poetry film festivals have very reasonable submission fees, and several are free to enter.

Jane: How do you choose categories to enter (other than poetry film) if it’s open to interpretation? Short film, art film, experimental film, narrative film?

Adam: That can be tough, but I read their descriptions closely and try to find the best fit I can. Most festivals state in their rules that they will move your film to a different category if they think there’s a better fit for it, so I trust them to do that. As with everything else in the selection process, it is very subjective, with a lot of room for individual interpretation. If I really have a hard time deciding, and I’m using FilmFreeway, I might use their cover letter function to put in a brief note telling them I wasn’t sure which category to enter, and that I’m open to them putting it wherever they want to.

Jane: What do you think makes a film an experimental film?

Adam: That’s a great question, and I think if you asked 10 different festival directors and programmers, you would get 10 different answers. Personally, I love the fact that it’s a wide open concept. It’s a turn-off for me if a festival tries to give a rigid definition of what makes a film experimental – that’s a little too elitist and snobbish for my taste, because I think it can lead to an unhealthy hegemony of self-appointed gatekeepers. Often, the best art is wild art, and I think that attempts to nail it down or control it are unfortunate, especially among those who profess to love art. An art form can move forward–can grow and flourish–only when the most experimental of its artists push the boundaries. Certainly, if a festival wants to focus on traditional, classical types or genres of films, they have every right to do that, but I would hope that if a festival actively seeks experimental films, they would be open to diverse interpretations of what “experimental” means. To me, it can refer to form, content, or both, and is often about asking viewers to reconsider long-held and deeply-ingrained ideas about how the world works, structures of power, the nature of reality, etc.

Elegy for Unfinished Lives (2020 – HD) from Adam E. Stone on Vimeo.

Jane: What do you think festival directors think their categories mean?

Adam: In my experience, when festival directors or programmers have a strict or regimented idea of what each of their categories mean, they usually make that very clear in their descriptions, and if they do, it’s good to pay close attention to that, so you don’t waste your time and money on something that is not a good fit for your film. However, a lot of times they leave their categories pretty wide open, or specifically mention that they are open to all genres of shorts, or features, or whatever, or state that they reserve the right to move your film to a different category if they accept it. That tells me they recognize that many films are hard to categorize, and that they want the flexibility to place your film where it fits best with the other films they are programming. Personally, I prefer festivals that are very open and free with their categories, because in my experience they tend to be more open-minded about film in general, and to see film as a very subjective, exciting, and expansive mode of expression.

Jane: How many festivals did you enter last year?

Adam: I tend to have multiple films on the festival circuit at the same time, so it’s hard to say exactly, but I think that on average, I submit to approximately 100 festivals per year in total.

Jane: What would you estimate is your success rate for entries?

Adam: It is interesting to me how much this varies by film. I think it really shows that even among the most independent film programmers, there are certain films that connect with them more than others. My work tends to go very much against the mainstream, and definitely leans more toward the highly experimental and boundary-pushing, and I have found that the more offbeat the film is, the lower the acceptance rate generally will be. For example, my 2018 short poem film Gods Die Too is admittedly provocative in its rejection of mainstream, Western notions of “heroism.” Its festival acceptance rate was roughly 10%, although it screened at some great festivals, including the final presentation of the Rabbit Heart Poetry Film Festival, and at the 7th International Video Poetry Festival in Athens, Greece. On the other hand, my 2020 one-minute poem film an entombing(dis)entombing has a festival acceptance rate of 30% and is still going strong on the circuit. I actually consider it to be quite subversive and countercultural too, but maybe it’s just a little less in-your-face about it than Gods Die Too was. Or maybe it’s just a better film, who knows. If one of my films has an acceptance rate of 20% or higher, I consider that quite good, in light of how competitive the well-curated festivals are, and how subjective programming decisions are. But really, to me, if you are happy with your film, and you feel like it expresses what you set out to express, then you shouldn’t worry about the acceptance rate. Some films, by their nature, are going to have smaller audiences, or resonate with fewer people, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t important films, especially to the people with whom they do resonate.

Jane: Have you ever tried to modify what you create in order to try to fit into a festival?

Adam: No, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with doing that. If you feel like the modifications are small, and that they don’t negatively impact the overall integrity of your film, I would say go for it, because it may create an opportunity for a screening that otherwise would not exist. Likewise, I’ve never made a film specifically for a certain festival (such as, for example, making a film around a festival’s theme, or using their designated poem for a poetry film), but I think it’s great if a person can do that, and it’s another excellent way to get your work out there in front of an audience, and to get some name recognition among festival directors and programmers.

Jane: What makes a good festival to enter?

Adam: Just as independent musicians often find their most dedicated and appreciative fans in small, intimate performance venues, independent filmmakers sometimes can find the same in those small, labor-of-love film festivals that cater to people with an appetite for original, non-mainstream films that push the boundaries of the art form. Certainly that includes poetry film festivals, but many other types too. The tricky thing, as we’ve discussed, is finding them. It takes a lot of research time, but it’s worth it when you feel like your film has connected with an audience that appreciates it.

Jane: What makes you avoid a festival?

Adam: I avoid festivals that appear to be interested in presenting only mainstream, orthodox points of view, because I know my films won’t be a good fit for them, or vice versa. I also avoid festivals that are vague about when and/or where their screenings are going to be, or have generic descriptions of themselves and what kinds of films they seek, or that seem to exist only to collect submission fees. If I’m not sure about a festival, I go to their website to see if it looks like a real festival, and beyond that, I’ll often Google the festival to see if it has gotten coverage from legitimate media sources, like the local news outlet in that area, because authentic festivals, even if very small and grassroots, are going to be doing everything they can to engage their local communities, as well as wider independent film communities specifically related to their festival, to try to attract attendees, promote the films they have selected, and build a following for themselves for future festivals they plan to hold. Likewise, I search to see if they have used social media to promote their prior events, which is another indicator that it is a real festival that is trying to create excitement for its screenings. That said, I don’t avoid a festival just because it is new, or hasn’t yet attracted a big following. I recognize that takes time, and as long as the festival directors and programmers seem to be genuine lovers of independent film who are doing their best to create a unique and interesting festival, I’ll submit, because to me, in the end, it’s all about trying to get my films out there to people who might appreciate them, wherever in the world they may be, and no matter how large or small the screening may be. You never know when or how your film may make a positive impact on someone’s life, and to me, that’s a big part of what independent filmmaking is all about.


Bio: Adam E. Stone’s poetry films and other films have screened at many prominent festivals worldwide, and have won numerous awards. His latest film is the feature-length poetic essay film Atmospheric Marginalia (2022). He also is the writer, producer, and co-director of the feature-length fictional essay film Abstractly You Loved Me (2013), and is one of the co-producers of, and conducted many of the interviews for, the feature-length documentary Black Hawk Down: The Untold Story (DVD 2019). In 2012, he wrote and produced the spoken-word ballet A Life Unhappening, about the impact of one woman’s Alzheimer’s disease on three generations of her family. In 2010, he wrote, directed, and produced the DVD novel Cache Girl Saves the World: A Novel in Visions. He is also the author of three conventional print novels. He currently lives and works in the United States in Carbondale, Illinois.