I want to start off this post by saying that I love animation festivals. They are great places to discover new films and to meet other animated filmmakers.
Year after year, however, I found that a great many films simply fell off the radar after the festival run... That is.. I never got a chance to see them again.
Fast forward to today, where there is a very clear and very real assumption that by submitting your film to festivals is the most important and/or only viable means of distribution for films available to a filmmaker. This perception is especially true among students.
While I think this is extremely untrue, the other side of the coin is that many filmmakers, especially students, feel that they cannot submit their films online before submitting to festivals - that festivals will not allow films if they are not debuting at the festivals themselves. I have also found this to be patently untrue. Looking at the major festivals terms of service, I have yet to find a festival that explicitly states that you cannot have a film screened at their festival if the film is submitted online.
Ottawa's rules and regulations are here.
Annecy's is here.
There wasn't a full regulation page for Zagreb, just this.
Spike and Mike's relevant page is here.
Animation Block Party's is here.
Anima Mundi's is here.
Siggraph's is here.
This is by no means exhaustive, but the common thread is there is a limit to when the film was created, that it must be able to pass for animation, etc. This seems to be the only major requirement that is not file format based. From Ottawa's regulations (seemingly in its entirety):
Any frame by frame or computer-assisted animated film or video made for cinema, television or internet may be entered. Only works completed after June 15, 2009 will be accepted.
I've never seen this mystery clause about that your film cannot get into festivals if they go up online. These are the larger animation festivals who I would assume have harder restrictions on submission. There may be smaller ones that do explicitly state the "no online" restriction but I haven't found one yet. The only thing that comes even close is Anima Mundi, that states it will:
Give preference to works that have not yet been on general
release or exhibited in other festivals in Brazil.
However, this would mean that you would have to hold off showing at any festival until anima mundi if it was your sole intent to insure your film screened there.
Which brings me to another important point. If your goal as a student filmmaker is to get your work out there, the Internet is a vastly more accessible medium. Your film can easily be seen by millions of people online rather than thousands at a festival. Granted, your audiences will be very different, but the exposure will be much larger. Animation festivals are a great way to get accolades from within the industry... but the internet is by far more powerful for getting your film in front of audiences.
Case in point with Alex Hirsch's student film "Off the Wall", which has more than 800,000 views on youtube, and probably much more adding up all the video sharing sites and duplicate versions of the video that pop up.
The only reputable distinction that I can think of that you might miss out on by submitting your film online is the academy awards. But their restrictions force you to show your film for three consecutive days in a theater accessible by academy members. I don't know of any student who has done that. I also assume that most students aren't holding out their films because they expect academy awards.
As a student, your film is a great calling card to help you get a job. If you make it difficult for people to see your film you are essentially eliminating a huge potential for job opportunities, especially ones that you yourself don't anticipate.
My last note: for those who do want to exclusively have a festival run of your film, please post it online eventually. This way you can have exposure from both. A huge number of fantastic student films never see the light of day online.
If I'm seeing this completely wrong please sound off in the comments. Again, I have no issue with festivals - in fact, I love them. But I like seeing filmmakers and their films reach their intended audience that much more.