How the Film Festival Programming Process Works

Every year, when the films are announced for the annual Toronto Youth Shorts film festival, I always get a few emails from filmmakers asking for feedback on why their film is not selected. One of the biggest myths I want to debunk is that only good films are chosen and that if your film is not chosen, it is a bad film.

However, this couldn’t be  any further from the truth. Due to economics, all festivals have a specific length they can adhere to for their programming. Even with our biggest year yet at Toronto Youth Shorts, we still left at least four films on the cutting room floor for every film we programmed. And we’re just a local festival. You can only imagine what numbers the big international festivals deal with.

How the Film Festival Programming Process Works

Members of Toronto Youth Shorts meeting to discuss short films.

The programming process at Toronto Youth Shorts begins months before the final submissions deadline. Our team attend screenings held at schools and around the community in the GTA. We also look to the internet to see what interesting work is potentially out there. If we see anything we like, we reach out and encourage filmmakers to consider us as part of their festival strategy.

“Contrary to what many may think, we do not begin programming with a specific theme in mind,” says Sia Mehilli, who has been programming for Toronto Youth Shorts for four years. “We watch, we take notes, and move on to the next film. Once in a while, we come together and we discuss what we’ve seen. If at the end trends emerge, they are a surprise to us.”

With many content from student events, other festivals, community screenings, as well as official submissions from our official channels, we end up with more than enough content to fill three festivals. “Even with the short run time of each piece, we would need more than a full 24 waking hours just to sort through everything,” says Sia Mehilli.

“During this time, I find it very easy to get attached to specific films — maybe even too attached — before some of the other programmers have even seen them,” says Paul Krumholz, a programmer for Toronto Youth Shorts. “I’ll hype up my favourites to my fellow programmers: X is the best student doc I’ve ever seen, Y is such a great comedy, etc. I get excited for the day when the filmmaker submits and everyone else can see what I’ve been going on about.”

At Toronto Youth Shorts, we’re fortunate enough that programmers can watch the majority of submissions sent to us. With other festivals that have bigger submission numbers due to accepting international entries, they use a team of pre-screeners, who pass on notes to the programming team. Feedback between the programmers is key in the process and first impressions matter a lot.

“My favorite part is gaining insight on the unique perspectives everyone provides on the films,” says Julia Crocco, who leads the Junior Programming team at Toronto Youth Shorts. “Each programmer shed light on a different aspect of their favorite shorts that allowed the rest of the team to appreciate upon second viewings of these films.”

How the Film Festival Programming Process Works

A speaker at a Toronto Youth Shorts film festival.

Having a programmer champion your film certainly helps your chances of it being included in your festival but it is certainly not a guarantee. At the end of the day, a programming team is made up of more than one individual and therefore, differences in taste and opinion are inevitable. A lot of times, programmers are on the same page about the viability of the film for the platform it’s being considered for. In certain lucky instances, the film is added to our lineup without hesitation. But occasionally, as Krumholz notes, “Sometimes, Sia, Julia and Henry will look at me like I have two heads, and I’ll be left scratching them both, wondering where exactly our tastes diverged.”

“These moments are actually instructive, because they help me to understand why I like particular elements of a film and why those elements don’t resonate with everyone else. When selecting a lineup, it’s absolutely important to have strong ideas about what makes a film good, but it’s equally important to acknowledge that if your fellow programmers don’t love a particular film, it’s likely the audience won’t either,” says Krumholz.

This is why I think people should take part in or watch a film festival every now and then. The experience of spending vigorous hours analyzing and creating a program for an audience is very different from the traditional movie-watching experience. And with short film programmes in particular, there is always something for everyone. Swing by for our 2017 festival on August 11-12 to see what we’re talking about!

Written by Henry Wong for Toronto Youth Shorts.


How the Film Festival Programming Process Works
Toronto Youth Shorts is a showcase of short films, video art and new media projects held during the summer in Toronto.