Film Juries: Why They Matter

One of the things I enjoy most when I work with film festivals is sitting on a Jury. I’ve even had the great privilege of putting together juries for several different festivals. A film jury serves two important purposes. Firstly, they take the final decisions of ‘who wins’ at a festival out of the hands of the festival itself (which has really already weighed in simply by selecting the film). Secondly, they provide a forum to introduce the film and the filmmaker to the industry. Film festivals ask different types of people to serve on their juries – they may be local luminaries (like a film critic or university film professor), they may be filmmakers with ties back to the festival or region, they may be industry insiders who are coming to the festival to speak on a panel or present a film, or they may even be a sponsor of the festival that writes the check for the prize money. To answer the question ‘Why do Film Juries Matter?’ I think it’s best to look at it from both sides of the jury box.

Why Juries Matter to a Filmmaker

Let’s just set aside the simplistic answer of ‘they decide who gets the money.’ The reality is this is one of the least important things juries do. Furthermore, you can have no effect on how they will vote – everyone has different tastes and wakes up in different moods. The mere fact that your film is being watched by a jury is victory enough. No, what juries do is give a filmmaker access. These are Hollywood heavy-hitters who are watching your film, a film that they never would have seen otherwise. Here a filmmaker can find advocates who will champion the film and filmmaker and open doors the filmmaker can’t even get the address of. A jury member may become a mentor, a friend, or even a collaborator on a future project. And Juries matter even if your film is not being judged – because in most cases the juries will be around at the festival and you can meet and network with them. I’ve heard countless stories like a filmmaker who had a narrative short making a strong connection with a member of the documentary features jury (simply because they met at a party). Even if you have no interaction with the jury, they go out into the world and talk up the festival, a festival where your film just played, which only makes the film look better.

Why Juries Matter to the Industry

Okay, so let’s say you are someone lucky enough to be asked to serve on a jury – why should you say yes? I’ll once again set aside the obvious answer of ‘its an opportunity to give back.’ Juries are more than just gate-keepers, they are tastemakers. Films that take home jury awards can use this success to land distribution, get critics interested in coverage or even just simply play other festivals. Of course, the mentee, friendship and potential future collaborator relationship is reciprocally beneficial for jury members, but then there are also relationships to be struck with fellow jury members. When I put together the jury for Austin Film Festival, I cannot tell you the number of writers and producers who realized they were meeting for the first time, a peer they respected, who lived maybe a mile away from them, but who they had to travel 1000 miles to sit down at a table together. Another great takeaway from being on a jury is inspiration. These are the best films on the fest circuit right now, a good way to take the pulse of the moment’s creativity. As a festival programmer myself, I always enjoy having good films curated for me by another programmer, so I can look at the slate through the lens of their taste. As a director and producer, I am stirred seeing innovative people solving fresh problems in their own way, within whatever budget they’ve allowed themselves. I always take that energy back to my own work. Finally, is it silly to say ‘it’s fun?’ How cool is it that you’ve reached a stage in your career where someone wants to offer you an opportunity (often with a free flight and hotel) to discuss films with similarly creative people?

Meryl Streep, Francis Ford Coppola and The Coen Brothers

Streep will serve as the Jury President for Berlin this year, and the Coen Brothers headed up the last Cannes. Last December Coppola chaired a jury at the Marrakech International Film Festival that awarded its top prize to all the films in competition together. Big names can add flair to a film festival jury. But managers and sales agents, and distributors and producers all can help a film or filmmaker reach that next plateau (and you could certainly make an argument that they might be more willing to do so). Filmmakers should always pay attention to who a festival had on their jury last year when thinking about submitting. And potential jury members, why not reach out to a festival you respect and offer your services!

About the author

Bears Fonte is the former Director of Programming for Austin Film Festival as well as the Founder and Executive Director of Other Worlds Austin, a SciFi film festival.
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