I feel like we could do something layout-wise with pictures and box quotes on the three people that replied to me:
Shaun Landry is the San Francisco Improv Festival Producer
box quote:
"The people who get into festivals are the ones whose material is not only incredible to watch, but they have a general idea of how to handle themselves in a submission package....they have followed the directions and they really, really want this. You can see a package that just screams enthusiasm when it gets into my mitts."

Mark Sutton is Artistic Director of the Chicago Improv Festival
box quote:
“When you talk about what the show is, just talk about what the show is. Don’t try to reinvent the wheel, don’t try to entice me with something that will be a lie once I watch the tape. Don’t call it cutting edge if it’s not. Just say what it is.”

Kevin Patrick Robbins is Executive Producer of the Toronto Improv Festival, and has Fatty Four Eyes' submission tape stuck in his VCR.
box quote:
"Show me something that says you take it seriously and you're not just a group of people that rehearse once a month in one of the guys’ basement, If you're submitting to a professional festival, you better look like professionals."

Getting into improv festivals is a contentious business. You have to sell a festival producer on your show, and the catch is you’re represented only by a mailing envelope, some papers, photos, and a video tape or DVD. YesAND talked to Mark Sutton, Artistic Director of the Chicago Improv Festival; Shaun Landry, San Francisco Improv Festival Producer; and Kevin Patrick Robbins, Executive Producer of the Toronto Improv Festival; to get some tips from the people that open those envelopes.

Before you even lick those stamps, the producers have one piece of advice for you: “Know the mandate of the festival you’re submitting to,” said Robbins. “If the festival has an ‘about us’ section on their website read the mission statement and see what the festival is trying to accomplish….It's like applying for a job. If you're applying at a bank you're going to write your resume and cover letter differently than you would if you were applying for a job at a record store.” Landry added, “Look over the instructions on what we ask for. If I say The San Francisco Improv Festival is all improv? I do not want your sketch shows. I do not want to see an interview on your local station. I do not want to see your fundraiser promotion on how great your company is. I asked to see your improv show.”
Because each festival has such specific ambitions and requirements, the advice from producers is occasionally contradictory. But all three agreed that a successful submission starts with good organization. “Lay out the material in a clear fashion,“ said Sutton, “Nine out of ten times, we’re looking at that stuff while watching the video tape, so make it really clear.” All three recommended a summary page with key information: the name of the group, the primary and secondary contact information, a brief show description, group biography, and a list of the cast members. “When I open the envelope the first thing I want to see is an overview of the show and then who’s in the show, then I want to see the press, then the headshots, then everything else,” said Sutton.

The festival will love you for making any effort to help them sort the submissions. “When you have hundreds of submission tapes, you need to catalog them,” said Landry. “Every single page should have the name of the group that is being submitted and the year, because papers get moved around,“ said Robbins. “Staple information together.”

Regarding press clippings, “The more press you have, the less needs to be included in the packet,” said Sutton, “I’m not going to sit there and read the whole review, just pull out the highlights and make a summary page."

Good photographs are an oft-overlooked fundamental for festival submission packets. A good 300 DPI photo will not only catch the eye of the producers, Landry said, “If you’re selected most festivals will start immediately doing publicity. An action shot photo rocks and generally gets into papers.” Robbins asserted, “The photos that we use on the website are from the groups that have the best photos. If you can send that information in a hard copy and a CD-ROM that's beautiful."

The best organized packet and the most beautiful photographs will be of no use if you violate a single principle all three producers agreed upon. Submit early. “If you’re serious about coming to a festival why are you waiting until the last minute to get your submission in?” asked Sutton. Late submissions lead to late acceptances, late publicity, late ticket sales, late everything, Sutton explained. Landry relayed a cautionary tale: “Massive Creativity from Houston, Texas went right up to the wire for submitting their tape. The post office delivered their submission to the wrong address and it got forwarded to me a day after the viewing day. Otherwise, they followed directions. Beautiful package. Lovely improv CD. Really good improv. I felt so bad. So, so bad." The story has a happy ending: an ensemble dropped out and Massive Creativity was in, on a double bill with an old cast member, no less. “It was meant to be,” Landry said, but did not recommend relying on fate.

For those of you drooling at the prospect of assembling a beautiful packet and delivering it months ahead of time, there is one last thing the festival producers said was essential -- obvious, perhaps, but essential: Be good at improv, and make sure it shows. “The best thing you can do if you’re trying to get your show into festivals is do a good show,” said Sutton. “A lot of the shows we see that have a lot of fancy packaging are compensating for a show that’s not really that great.” Robbins added, “The best preparation is to rehearse. A lot of submissions that I've gotten are clearly just thrown together or are the last show they did before the deadline.”

A case study in this principle is the Boston show “Waiting for Ennis Cotter,” that was accepted at the Chicago Improv Festival, the Toronto Improv Festival, and the San Francisco Improv Festival. Their submission materials included the standard background, cast list and show description; but also what cast member Tim Paul called a “little arts & crafts project that enveloped our DVD” containing their characters’ fake biographies and letters. "When you have to drive a car from Boston to Chicago [for their first CIF appearance, last year], you need something to fill the hours. I watched season four of OZ, and Kiley [Fitzgerald] did lots of cutting and pasting,” said Paul. Landry said, “We saw it and said ‘If their tape is anywhere as good as their package, they’re rock stars. If it’s any less good then at least they know how to market.” Robbins had the opposite reaction. "I included them only based on what I saw on their tape and what other people told me about their performances, the scrapbook just sits in a box,” he said. “Presentation is not important as long we can read it….Put it into just a plain old brown envelope” In the end, it was Ennis Cotter’s originality and talent, not their scrapbook, that got them into both festivals, but their presentation was icing on the cake for Landry. “They were the people who we screamed ‘They’re in! And look at their submission package!’” she said.

The best evidence of your group’s ability, of course, is the video or DVD that you enclose. “Put some thought into what you are sending festival submission, people,” Landry chastised. “ We are not asking you to do a professional tape. We are only asking you to find a cameraman without the shakes who does not laugh all the way through your show, drowning out your voices, while standing so far back you all look like dots on video….Seriously I have seen some horrible tapes that had good improv where I try to adjust the sound from the whirring noise, or the shoddy one-unfocused-camera of, yes I'm not joking, a show toting touting ‘multi-media.’” According to Robbins, an advocate of tripods and wide-angle lenses, “There’s nothing worse that trying to watch improv that’s handheld…Watching even really good improv on video is difficult.”

Refer to the festival guidelines to see if they prefer DVD or videotape. “We're actually starting to accept files that are DivX and AVI files, too,“ said Robbins. No matter what medium you choose; Sutton, Robbins and Landry recommend that you test it in a machine other than the one used to create it. “Once again this year I had a couple of DVDs that I put in the player and they didn’t work," said Sutton. For international submissions, ensure your is DVD burned in the correct region code. If the festival authorizes submission via streaming online, upload in a standard format, warned Landry, “The moment I find myself downloading some foreign viewer to watch your tape I have spent about 30 minutes and have not even seen your improv. I'm sort of through with your ensemble at that point before I've even seen you.”

The festival’s call for submissions will specify the length of time your video or DVD should be. The experts disagree on how best to treat that time limit. “If they say thirty minutes, send thirty. Not an hour. Not two hours,” said Landry., “If they say fifteen minutes do a fifteen minutes set for one of your shows.” By contrast, Sutton said, “I like having the whole show because with some groups, after fifteen minutes I’m like, ’Wow it’s been fifteen minutes but it feels like nothing, I want to watch the rest of this.’” Robbins drew a middle line; “The time limit to us is not horribly important, but if we're looking to fill half hour slots we need to know that you can sustain a half hour show.”

No matter how long the recording, it should start strong. “We can normally tell in the first five minutes whether you can do a good show, whether you’re polished,” said Robbins. “A lot of times, especially in something like CIF where you’re watching the 190 tapes, if it doesn’t grab’em quickly, you lost’em,” said Sutton.

The three agreed that you should not edit your tape to get at the best minutes of your set. “I think it’s important in an improv show that it be unedited. I want to see what kind of show you do,” said Sutton. Robbins concurred: “We want to know that if you're going to have low points in the show, you're challenged and you can deal with those challenges.”

In the end it may turn out that nothing in your packet or your group’s ability or style got you tossed into the reject pile. “It’s almost like a baseball season,“ philosophized Sutton. “When you go into the season you know you’re going to lose 50 games and you’re going to win 50 games no matter how bad your team is. It’s those middle 62 that make all the difference. If you have 100 submissions for an improv festival 20 will be great 20 will be horrible -- it’s the middle 60 that make it tough."

In short, some dos and don’ts from the pros:
DO - Know the festival's mission.
DO - Organize your materials and meet all submission guidelines.
DO - Include newspaper-worthy photos.
DO - Be rehearsed and professional.
DO - Rent sound and lighting equipment if you're setting up a show specifically to record.
DO - Find university film students willing to record and edit a two-camera shoot of your show.
DON'T - Inflate the value of your contents on your customs forms for international submissions, "I end up having to pay customs taxes on that," said Robbins, "That annoys me."
DON'T - Understate your experience. "Without lying, act as thought you've been doing it forever," said Robbins.
DON'T - Overestimate your festival history "You should never, no matter how many times you've performed at a festival, feel entitled to perform there again."
DON'T - Harass the festival staff. "I do not mind ensembles emailing me asking if I got the tape," said Landry, "I do mind when it is continual and obnoxious."
DON'T - Exaggerate the groundbreaking nature of your show. "Just talk about what the show is," said Sutton. "Don’t try to reinvent the wheel, don’t try to entice me with something that will be a lie once I watch the tape. Don’t call it cutting edge if it’s not. Just say what it is."