A top-down photograph depicting objects related to short film competitions including a Best Short Film trophy, engraved film reel, laurel wreath, clapperboard, judging ballots, and popcorn all arranged together on a wooden table.

What is a Short Film Competition? A Beginner’s Guide to Entering and Winning

A short film competition provides filmmakers the opportunity to showcase their work and talents to a wider audience. By entering your short film into contests and festivals, you can gain invaluable exposure, connect with industry pros, and even win awards or prizes to help elevate your career.

But where do you start when you’re new to the world of short film contests? What types of competitions are out there? How does judging work and what can you do to increase your chances of success? This comprehensive guide will walk you through everything you need to know about short film competitions.

Types of Short Film Competitions

There are a diverse range of short film contests across the globe that cater to all types of indie filmmakers. Here are some of the main categories:

Local and Regional Competitions

Local film festivals and contests are a great entry point for beginners. These competitions are organized by film societies, arts councils, local governments, and community groups.

They attract more regional participants, which can give up-and-coming filmmakers better odds. Look for contests in your city or state.

Some examples include the Manhattan Short Film Festival, Austin Film Festival, or Sundance Film Festival Shorts Competition which highlights local talent. Do research to find ones accepting submissions in your geographic area.

National Competitions

Once you have some festival experience under your belt, consider submitting to well-known national contests to expand your reach. These competitions receive thousands of entries from across the country.

The National Film Challenge, PBS Short Film Festival, and HBO Short Film Competition are great national contests to target. Make sure to study the categories and requirements thoroughly.

International Short Film Festivals

The top aspiration for many filmmakers is premiering their work at renowned international events like the Short Film Corner at Cannes, Clermont-Ferrand, or the Berlin International Film Festival. These prestigious festivals can launch your career, but they have stiffer competition.

Work your way up to these by first winning some smaller regional or national awards. International festivals look for unique perspectives. Partnering with filmmakers from other countries can help increase your chances.

Student Competitions

Both high school and university students have opportunities to showcase their films. Check with your school’s film department about internal competitions. There are also many festivals catered to student filmmakers such as the National Student Production Awards or USA Film Festival College Day.

Topic-Specific Contests

Many short film competitions are focused on specific genres or topics like sci-fi/fantasy, horror, comedy, animation, documentaries, LGBTQ stories, and more. Research the niche your film fits into and submit strategically.

Some examples are the Golden State Film Festival for California stories or the Action on Film Festival for action flicks. Taking the time to find the right contest makes a big difference.

How Short Film Competitions Work

If you haven’t entered a short film into a festival competition before, here is an overview of how the process typically works:

Entry Requirements

Competitions will have a call for entries where filmmakers can submit their work. There are often specific technical requirements like file formats and maximum running times. Low-budget films are welcome, but make sure yours meets the minimum production quality standards.

Most contests charge an entry fee which helps fund prizes and administration. These range from $10-$100+ depending on the scale of the event. Be prepared to pay multiple fees if entering several festivals.

Some contests require your film to be an exclusive premiere in their competition. Make sure to read all rules closely and plan submissions accordingly.

Judging Process

Your short will be evaluated by a judging panel comprised of industry experts like professional filmmakers, critics, academics, or even celebrity guests. Different competitions use different judging methodologies.

One popular format is a 3-5 round process where initial screeners narrow down the selection, then judges score films to pick winners. Filmmakers don’t interact with judges during the contest.

Pay attention to the judging criteria listed – this signals what elements your film should highlight. Common criteria include originality, execution, entertainment value, technical merit, and creativity.


The incentive to win makes competitions worthwhile. Prizes at short film festivals can include:

  • Cash awards – these range from a few hundred to thousands of dollars for top winners.
  • Film equipment – cameras, editing software, gear rentals, and more.
  • Services – options like free post-production, color grading, foley services, and original music.
  • Distribution deals – some competitions partner with TV channels and streaming services.
  • Laurels & trophies – Win laurels to display on your website and impress future distributors.
  • Publicity – festivals promote winners through press releases, news articles, and social media.
  • Industry access – networking opportunities, mentorships, ticket packages, and more for consequent big festivals.

The prizes rotate at each festival. Thoroughly read through what’s up for grabs. Even non-winner participants often get perks like free screeners or filmmaker lounges to connect with others.

Filmmaker working on laptop with submissions paperwork prominently displayed

Tips for Entering and Winning Short Film Contests

Now that you understand the inner workings, here are some pro tips to set your submission up for success:

Find the Right Festivals

Don’t go randomly submitting your film everywhere. Research thoroughly to identify reputable festivals that are a fit for your work. Check filmmaker forums and review sites to verify their legitimacy.

Prioritize contests that align with your film’s genre or theme. Make a target list starting with local festivals, then expanding nationally and internationally.

Polish Your Written Materials

Many contests require a synopsis, logline, director’s statement, bio, or list of credits. Spend time perfecting these – they form that critical first impression on judges.

Keep it concise, well-written, and brimming with personality. Have others proofread to catch errors that could cost you.

Format for Video Requirements

Follow the video format and tech specifications precisely. Upload the highest possible resolution and quality. Audio balance is critical.

Provide captions or subtitles if required. Adhere to maximum limits – not even one second over! Judges screen hundreds of films, so give them the best viewing experience.

Market Your Film

Once you are selected, don’t stop there! Promote your acceptance through social media and press releases. Utilize all resources provided by festivals like screening schedules and email templates.

Post on relevant Reddit threads, film blogs, and groups. Ask friends to share festival posts. Actively get the word out to build buzz around your film ahead of screenings.

Make Connections

Attending the festival in person opens huge opportunities to network. Talk to as many people as possible: filmmakers, judges, press, industry reps. Have business cards ready to share.

Party hop to build connections. Follow up with peers after and support their work. This is a collaborative industry, so actively expand your network.

Accept Feedback with Grace

If your film doesn’t win, don’t get discouraged! There can only be one first-place winner, but judges often provide encouraging and constructive feedback.

Keep an open mind and learn from the experiences. Continue improving your craft. Losses still get your film in front of the industry’s eyes, which can open future doors.

Why Submit to Short Film Contests?

Building festival credentials through short film competitions provides numerous benefits for indie filmmakers including:


Winning awards, laurels or even screening selections acts as validation. It’s proof that your skills impressed professionals, not just friends and family. Use laurels prominently in your PR materials and portfolio.


Film festivals get your work seen by hundreds if not thousands of viewers in the industry and the general public. Even if you don’t win, you’ve expanded your reach.

Platform for Launch

Many now-famous directors like Denis Villeneuve, Taika Waititi, and Neill Blomkamp were discovered at short film contests. It can provide the platform to get your first real break.

Professional Reputation

Programmers, critics, sales agents, and distributors attend festivals looking for promising new talent. Your name starts circulating within this influential group.

A square social media graphic with a vintage film reel in the center surrounded by text numbering one through five. The text lists condensed tips reading - Find the right fests, Perfect your submission, Promote and network, Learn from the experience, and Gain exposure.

Profit Potential

While short films generally don’t earn massive profits directly, winning festivals builds your reputation. Distributors may approach with partnership deals for future projects.

Fresh Motivation

There’s nothing like an upcoming contest deadline to light that fire under you creatively. It pushes you to produce your best work and keep honing your skills.

Industry Immersion

Talking directly with professionals and peers gives perspective and insight you can’t find in books. Surround yourself with excellence.

Conclusion – What is a Short Film Competition?

Entering short film competitions is an incredibly rewarding path that connects you to a wider community. The journey requires patience and persistence, but the exposure and experiences gained are invaluable.

Start local with contests tailored to beginners. Research thoroughly and polish your written materials. Follow guidelines closely and actively promote your film’s selection. Network at screenings and accept feedback gracefully.

Let the festival circuit guide you to new heights in your filmmaking pursuits. Stay passionate about the art, support your peers, and keep creating. Your next masterpiece awaits!

Frequently Asked Questions

What defines a short film?

A short film is generally defined as a fictional or documentary film that runs for 40 minutes or less, including credits. Short films tell stories with much less time than feature films.

How long is a short film for it to be in a contest?

Most short film competitions have maximum runtime limits between 1-30 minutes. 15 minutes is an average upper limit. Be sure to check each contest’s exact time requirements. Going even one second over can lead to disqualification.

How do you organize a short film competition?

Key steps to organize a short film competition include setting rules, categories, and prizes, recruiting judges, marketing to entrants, collecting submissions, scheduling screenings, facilitating judging rounds, and ultimately selecting and awarding winners.

What is the goal of a short film?

A short film’s goal is typically to tell a compact, engaging story while also displaying the filmmaker’s talents and abilities. Many filmmakers use shorts to launch careers, exhibit creativity, or as a stepping stone to eventually producing feature films.

What are the main characteristics of a short film?

The main characteristics of short films include condensed storytelling, limited characters, single or few locations, and overall brevity. Shorts often focus on a single theme, mood, or moment rather than complex plots.

What are the three types of short films?

The three main types of short films are fiction, non-fiction/documentary, and animation. Some key sub-types include narrative, comedy, drama, horror, sci-fi, mockumentary, poetic, music video, experimental, and more.

What are the rules for short films?

Rules can vary by contest, but common ones include limits for maximum runtime, content rating, submission format, premiere status, and completion date. Following all rules precisely is critical so entries aren’t disqualified.

How many scenes are in a short film?

Good practice for a 1-3 minute short film is 1-2 scenes maximum. For 5-15 minutes, aim for 2-10 scenes. Longer shorts around 30 minutes can have 10-25 scenes. Keep scenes concise focusing only on key story moments.

Do people get paid for short films?

Budgets for most short films are small or non-existent. However, fundraising campaigns, film grants, sponsorships, and contest prize money can sometimes provide pay for crew and cast. Revenue from distribution deals or streaming may support pay too.

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