BITS Submission Process

Posted by Kelly Michael Stewart on March 28, 2018

I thought that it might be useful to write about our process of picking films at Blood in the Snow. It is a process that we take seriously and is something we work at all year round, but I think it is something that is perhaps misunderstood. Here is a look inside this process:


The Evolution

When I started the festival in 2012 all of the films that year was chosen by myself and it was more of a showcase of films I wanted to play. The selection process changed drastically with the success of that first year, so I brought on programmers to help curate the festival each year.

Our Programmers

We have six programmers: Kirk Haviland, Jason Tannis, Carolyn Mauricette, Andrea Subissati, Kelly Michael Stewart & Melanie Turner. Carolyn, Melanie and myself are regular programmers and Kirk and Jason are known as Senior Programmers. This distinction was given because of their extra work seeking out titles at other festivals like Fantasia. We have also just recently added Andrea Subissati as our new Programmer at Large, helping us by recommending titles that she would like to champion.

Kirk was the first programmer I brought on to the team in January 2013. I knew Kirk as a local film writer for a number of blog sites in Toronto and he had a real passion for it. He also works as our Industry and Media Coordinator for the festival. Kirk has been my right hand man for the fest and also helps with many of the media interviews for the festival.

Jason was brought on pretty much around the same time and had been a friend and colleague for many years that had also been a contributing writer for Fangoria and is an actor as well (including Late Night Double Feature, which I produced). Jason has a great knowledge of Canadian film history and great insights into his selections.

Melanie is one of the founding team members that started BITS in 2012 and then became a programmer in 2014. A lifetime horror fan she has attended most of the major horror events in Toronto over the past 10+ years and brings a lot to the team.

Carolyn joined the team in 2016 after attending the festival for a number of years previously with a media pass. I was struck by her insights and enthusiasm and she has been a great addition to our team. She has recently also joined our Board of Directors.

Andrea our newest member is of course the editor of Rue Morgue as well as an accomplished writer and commentator on horror with her Black Museum lecture series and the Faculty of Horror podcast.

Judging Process

We usually open up submissions in February or March of the coming festival year. Each of our programmers have a login for Film Freeway, which is the online platform where we receive and watch all of our submissions. On the submission page we can watch the films and vote on them privately within the team. This is a combination of a voting chart between 1 and 10. There is also place where we can make notes on each film and a vote button of “Recommend,” “Maybe” and “Pass”. Generally all five core programmers watch every film but if there is one film that gets a bad review by at least three programmers then the other two won’t bother at that point. But I can not recall a film that we have received where we haven’t had a least three programmers watch the film from beginning to end.

Most of the heavy lifting is done online but we have (at least) two face-to-face meeting of the entire programming team closer to the final deadline. Usually we have one in September and then one in October where we make the final decisions. With our September meeting we go through the entire list and go over every film we receive one by one. Generally we start by making a working list of films we 100% want and the firm ones we do not want. The “maybe” list is never decided until we have the final films submitted to us and that is decided in our final meeting. The “maybe” list is actually where we get some of our most interesting titles. This is usually when one or two programmers feel really passionate about a title over the others and we need to talk it out. All of us have an equal vote on what films we select but it is usually myself who does the actual scheduling of the films with suggestions by the programmers.

Selection Criteria

There are a variety of factors we take into selecting a film. A lot of it is of course subjective and when you have six different people giving each of their opinions it will vary. Having said that I would say there are few areas we generally look for the most:

  • Originality
    Are you just repeating ideas that others have done or are you going your own way?

  • Something to Say
    What are you trying to say with your film? Our programmers tend to respond more to films that have a unique vision, commentary or point of view.

  • Style
    Even if you are telling a story that has generally been done before, are you then giving it a different angle? HOW you tell the story can make a big difference in standing out.

  • Production Quality
    This sometimes gets confused with budget, which is not the case. In this day and age there is no excuse for really bad audio or a bad colour grade. Do not rush your film, even if you have to spend 6 months on your own fixing the audio and colour on your laptop, it is better than getting it out there and getting rejected. Submissions are so competitive now that it is really hard for us to program films that have not given that attention to detail.

  • Length of Film
    There are no firm rules to this and there are always exceptions but one of the responses we consistently see is “great film but it dragged on for 10 minutes longer than it should have.” So here are a few things to keep in mind:

    Shorts We have played short films as long as 35 minutes before but we have found in general most shorts dramatically do not need to be over 20 minutes long. Sometimes when the story needs to be long-then keep it that way but more times than not the film likely needs to be cut.

    Features Same thing goes for features- many being too long. In 2017 we did play a few films that were 100 minutes and one that was 110 minutes but as a general rule it is best to have a feature in that meaty 80 to 90 minutes range.

    Submission Fees

    I think the most confusing thing for filmmakers is submission fees. I can not speak for other festivals but the fees we get are a critical part of maintaining the festival. BITS is a non-profit organization (since 2015) and the money we receive goes a long way to pay for the festival’s operational expenses. We do try and keep our fees low, especially if you can make our early-bird deadlines.

    Our Standards

    We take what we do very seriously and all film festivals should because it can have tremendous effect on how the film does. I would not go so far to say that playing a festival like ours is a “make or break” for that film but it still has an impact. Filmmakers are paying money for us to consider their film and it is important to give that film it’s due. I find it appalling when I hear stories of other film festivals not watching all of their submissions and I personally find it very unethical. I feel that if you do not have the programmers or staff to look at every submission then you should put a cap on how many submissions you receive.

    So here are some things that I can promise you when you submit your film:

  • We will watch every submission. Every film is viewed by at least one programmer but the majority of films are watched by 3 to 5 of the core programmers.

  • We never publicly say what films have been submitted to the festival. I have heard of a few festivals tweeting submissions they have received and I find this inappropriate.

  • We never publicly say what films did not make it in. It is none of anyone’s business whose films we receive or which films did not make it in.

  • We will give feedback when requested. I try and personalize as many letters as possible to the filmmakers if they did not make it in. In certain cases, I might recommend other festivals that your film might be more suitable for or if there is something very glaring that you should consider fixing before you submit elsewhere. You are also welcome to ask for feedback.

    To submit a film or to read more about our submission requirements check us out on: Film Freeway

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