Rejection sucks. There’s no other way to describe the feeling. It sucks to be rejected and it sucks to do the rejecting.
The fun part of film programming is discovering the unique, the great, the special. Those are few and far between, which leaves a lot of rejection in its wake. That is one phase of my work this week.
There are typically two kinds of rejection within the film festival world: the “this movie is way to amateur/bad to program” usually from an unknown filmmaker and the “not quite” from someone you’re familiar with. The first kind is common enough and there is not much emotional attachment involved. But the second kind is more difficult. These are the people you respect, care about, have some kind of relationship with from the past. The ones you believe have talent and a spark inside, but the stars didn’t align this time.
There could be various reasons for why that is the case: the film’s topic was covered in another way (or stronger) by another film; the film has some structure, story, acting or production issue that the screening team couldn’t ignore; we can’t figure out a way to sell this film to an audience (because in the end…it has to sell tickets); or just flat out the festival runs out of money (so many screening fees, so little budget) or room (the slots left are not the best times and work for a certain kind of film). Sometimes the reason a film doesn’t get in is because one reason is too big, but often it is because there’s a mixture of many of these reasons and the film.
It sucks to write that email or make that phone call to someone. You can’t explain all these reasons. Feedback about a film can (and sometimes should) be given, but the filmmaker should be in the right headspace for it, which is not always in the same moment of rejection. It doesn’t matter how many rejection letters I have sent, the week I have to send them, I’m always in a somber mode.
No matter how many rejections are sent, there are always a handful of responses from filmmakers acting out in emotion, typing up a snarky reply as quickly as they read the email. Of course, the key is never to respond to these anger-ridden replies. I gave in once, when a filmmaker wrote saying about us not knowing better and then ending with “I hate the Dallas Cowboys too.” I wrote back, “Me too. Geaux Saints.”
I’ve been rejected plenty of times before, both professionally and personally. It always hurts. I have a written rejection letter from Telluride Film Festival, back in the day when you got a letter in the mail. Upon reflection and experience, there is NO WAY my short film would have played there. I’ve learned a lot in the twelve years since that letter (and each time I get rejected from something else, which is still more frequent than I would like it to be these days). Rejection plays a role in your creative journey. It stings, but you move past it. Rip the bandaid off and press forward. Because if you get stuck in that rejection, your creativity gets stuck too.
How do you deal with rejection?