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  • Writer's pictureStephan Bookas

On Rejections

I've been rejected more times than I can remember. It doesn't get easier. And I've been trying to figure out how best to cope with it, get over it and move on.


Rejections in my world come in all shapes and sizes. Film festival rejections are very much black on white: we watched your film and frankly, it isn't good enough for us. Or maybe it just doesn't fit in our program. But it's not for us. Thanks and good luck.


Sometimes I wish they'd not send out those rejection e-mails. I'd be better off just not knowing. But that's not a solution.


A rejection can make you think. But it can also make you overthink. Where did I go wrong? Should I maybe not have changed the ending? Maybe I waited too long? Not long enough? Missed the zeitgeist? There's a million things you can wonder after you get a rejection.


And rejections by default far outweigh selections and positive responses.


In his memoir "On Writing", Stephen King says:

"By the time I was fourteen the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and went on writing.”

I certainly didn't have that kind of determination when I was fourteen. I'm not even sure I have it now. But I want to be able to say that I can wear rejections as a badge of honor: A rejection, after all, means someone took the time and care to look at what you did, judge it on its merits (in the best case), and then decide it wasn't for them.


I mean, is it possible they never looked at your submission in the first place and just took the money and ran? Sure, but that's not a satisfying narrative. You've got to be able to construct a narrative that makes sense for you, otherwise you can't keep going on.


Let's have a look at my FilmFreeway account. It's a submission platform for film festivals around the world and has sort of taken over from other such platforms that dominated in the past, like Withoutabox (defunct), Shortfilmdepot, Clickforfestivals and Festhome among others, most of which I've used in the past and all of which seem to have a strange tendency to combine multiple words into a single neologism. But I'll focus on just FilmFreeway for now as it's easier to get a handle on things.


Why film festivals? Well they're a good indicator for how well your film is received and they give your film a certain credibility.


I should add that I tend to limit my budget for festival submissions, I can't possibly submit all my shorts to all the A-list festivals out there, so a lot of these submissions are either free or very low cost. I try to target big festivals specifically for certain films.


Here's a screenshot sample of what that looks like. All these films were also submitted on other platforms and to other festivals that aren't part of any such platforms at all, but as an overview, this will suffice:

A grid of film festival submissions, taken from FilmFreeway

There are a few more films on there, totalling 18, but I've limited the screenshot to a grid of 12. However, I've tallied up all the submissions, rejections, selections, etc. on the platform and got this (it's a decent sample size):


Projects: 18

Submissions: 849


of these:

Undecided: 5

Withdrawn: 7

Not Selected: 722

Selected: 80

Award Winner: 11

Finalist: 6

Semi-Finalist: 10

Nominee: 2

Honorable Mention: 6


So for the sake of simplicity, let's say everything that's undecided, withdrawn and not selected is a rejection. And everything that's selected, awarded, finalist etc. is a selection.


So then we end up with 115 selections against 734 rejections. That's a 13.5% selection percentage against an 86.5% rejection percentage. I have no idea whether this is in any way representative of the average filmmaker, these are just my numbers.


I'm a baseball fan (Nats all the way) and in baseball terms, a .135 batting average is pretty grim (for the uninitiated, 13.5% translates into .135 in terms of averages in baseball, where 1 equals 100%).


Put into perspective, according to the batting average Wikipedia entry, "the record for lowest career batting average for a player with more than 2,500 at-bats belongs to Bill Bergen, a catcher who played from 1901 to 1911 and recorded a .170 average in 3,028 career at-bats."


It didn't matter as by all acounts, he was an incredible defensive catcher. But .170 is still a damn sight better than .135.


And: "The modern-era record for lowest batting average for a player that qualified for the batting title is held by Chris Davis, who hit .168 in 2018."


That's for a single season, not his career average, which stands much higher at .233.


It goes on to say: "For non-pitchers, a batting average below .230 is often considered poor, and one below .200 is usually unacceptable."

Cartoon image of a baseball batter, missing a ball on a big swing

Illustration by Joe Pettitt


I played a bit of baseball in the UK for the Croydon Pirates for a few years. I reckon my batting average might have been as low as my festival selection percentage. But no player in MLB history has ever had a BA as low as that. Okay, this statmuse page has 4 players in MLB history below .135 for a single season, all back in 1884. Might have been the weather that year. But even the worst player on that list, Joe Werrick, ended up with a career .250 batting average.


In terms of team win percentages in a single season, you have to go back as far as 1899 to find a team with anywhere near as low a win percentage as .135, according to this article:


1899 Cleveland Spiders: 20-134, .130 winning percentage

1890 Pittsburgh Alleghenys: 23-113, .169

1889 Louisville Colonels: 27-111, .196

1897 St. Louis Browns: 29-102, .221

1886 Washington Nationals: 28-92, .233


I see the OG Nats made it onto this list as well. Go Nats.


A single modern-day MLB season has 162 games. So my team would have won only 22 of those games. That's a definite last place across both leagues in any year, and one for the ages and the record books.


By now my team would have been sold off, moved to a different state and rebuilt from the ground up with first draft picks.


Thanks, I guess, to the 1899 Cleveland Spiders for making me look good. It was, however, their final season: "The dismal 1899 season was the end for the Spiders, and for National League baseball in Cleveland."


Ouch.


All that's to say is that, with that particular frame of reference, a .135 percentage isn't something to be proud of. You could argue that in my case, it's a bit presumptuous to compare any of my work to the big leagues. If anything, I should have a look at little leagues stats instead. Okay, okay, you've got a point. But let's just say that baseball's not a good frame of reference at all.


Baseball is a sport – filmmaking is a something else entirely. A profession, a passion, an art. But all those can apply to baseball as well, some would say, myself among them. Be that as it may, rejections and selections are part and parcel of what it means to be a filmmaker and as long as you put your best work out there, they're out of your hand.

Cartoon image of a baseball batter, missing a ball on a big swing

Apologies, let's just for another moment stay with baseball, but frame it in a different context: There are 30 Major League Baseball teams fielding 28 players each at one time on their roster. Across a single season, that number can be a lot higher. But let's say for the sake of argument, you have 840 players in MLB at any given time, at least before the roster expands towards the end of the season. And now imagine all the tens of thousands of players in the Minor Leagues, in college, in non-professional leagues, in other countries, who aren't part of that pool.

Illustration by Joe Pettitt


For those 840 players, they've already made it. They're already in. As soon as they step into that batting circle for the very first time, they're part of history. For better or worse. Whether they bat .500 or .135.


So if you can count yourself a filmmaker, if you've managed to write a script or make a short film or a music video or a short documentary or an art film or whatever it is that makes you happy, you're already part of a very select few people. You're in the big leagues. You've still got to go up to bat, you've still got to prove yourself. But you're already on the roster.


Sure, you could argue that anything you make below a budget of, let's say $10,000 is little league, anything between $10,000-$1M is minor league, and anything between $1M-$250M is major league (anything above $250M is just silly).


But that discounts the fact that it's just extremely hard to make anything at all, at any level. Getting a story and people together to make something is a miracle, every time it happens. Whether it's made for $5 bucks or $5 million bucks.


Some people are born into the big leagues. They're already on the roster before they even know how to form coherent sentences. We can't all be that fortunate. Some of us have to claw our way in somehow. And thankfully, there are more paths than one.


Film festivals aren't everything. Not by a long shot. Rejections come in all shapes and sizes. I've been rejected from pitch competitions at festivals, script competitions, bursaries, development funds, completion funds, agencies, production companies, corporations, residencies, workshops, jobs, individuals and I'm sure a host of other things. And the average there is a lot lower than 13.5%.


But you've gotta keep in mind, the last one on that list is the key one. At the other end of every rejection, there's always an individual, a human. Sometimes it's more than one, a committee, a panel, judges. But they're people. They're all people.


I say that knowing full well that we're heading full steam ahead into a world where AI systems will at one point or another read your script submissions and pitches and proposals and watch your film submissions and rate them against every single film ever made and every single script ever written. Because it's cheaper.


At some point we'll have a film festival that's entirely run by AI, judged by AI, watched by AI and all the films are also AI-generated. And why not? AI will also need to be entertained. It's a never-ending loop. A downward spiral into a perpetual motion hellscape beyond our comprehension. And we may not even know it's happening, somewhere out there, removed from humanity.


But for now and for the most part, you're dealing with human beings. They're your audience. And they're fallible and moody and tired and flaky and everything else humans can be and often are.


And us humans respond to genuine emotions. To genuine thoughts and ideas. Not to things that follow trends or try to trick you into feeling things. Okay, that doesn't apply to all of us. We've all found ourselves dumbfounded as to why certain works are successful or popular. And why others are hated. Sometimes it's just hard to grasp.


Why did that film/book/photograph/painting/sculpture/insert-the-thing-you-make do better than mine? Dare I say it? What they made is crap. It didn't deserve to get selected or win a prize or the audience award. Do I sense a bit of jealousy?


What humans respond to and how – as a group as well as an individual – is an everlasting mystery. I'm convinced it can't be cracked. It feels satisfying when something you respond to extremely positively is also liked or even loved by an overwhelming majority of folks. Or vice versa: it feels great when you hate something everyone else seems to hate in equal measure.


But it's disquieting when something you love is universally hated and something you hate is universally loved.


Criticism is a whole other topic worth exploring, but on another day. For now, suffice to say that a disparity between your own feelings and emotions and the response of the general public at large can make you feel like you're not of this world. That you're born in the wrong century or on the wrong planet.


So to bring it back to rejection:


Whatever you make won't be liked by everyone. It might even put some people off or aggravate others or turn them outright antagonistic towards you. Your writing might be called lazy or your directing uninspired. Even if you thought it was none of those things. Or on the flip side, something you may not have put much thought into might be hailed as the next great thing. It's confounding, but such is human nature.


I'm not quite at the Stephen King level of holding my head up high proudly in the face of rejections. Maybe that requires a skin much thicker than the one I have. It hurts every time. But I do see that rejections have value as well and I don't get hung up on them any longer.


When a rejection lands in my inbox I say: okay, thank you. And I archive it. I don't need to dwell on it. I don't need to pin it on a wall to remind myself of it. I get it. Not everything is for everyone and there are too many of us as it is, so it's hard to even get your work seen and noticed.


You mourn, just for a moment, what could have been. And then you move on.


The law of averages, in baseball, in film and in life, says that eventually it'll come round. For festivals at least, with a 13.5% average, it means for every 100 things I send out, between 13 and 14 of them come back with a positive response. That's not too bad at all.


You'll swing and miss over and over and over. But eventually you'll hit a single, a double, a triple or a home run. And in some cases, a grand slam.


Just try to not let the strikeouts get to you. It's not personal. And even if it is, perhaps when you get turned down for a job, it just wasn't meant to be anyway. You say thank you, archive it and move on.


As Babe Ruth once said:

“Every strike brings me closer to the next home run.”

There's a ball out there to hit for each and every one of us.

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