Are Film Festivals A Scam?
Independent filmmakers spend a lot of time and money applying to film festivals. With each passing year, the number of competitive film festivals seems to grow almost exponentially. And with submission platforms like Withoutabox.
Independent filmmakers spend a lot of time and money applying to film festivals. With each passing year, the number of competitive film festivals seems to grow almost exponentially. And with submission platforms like Withoutabox.com, Shortfilmdepot.com, and Filmfreeway.com streamlining the process, submitting your film to festivals has never been easier.
In the end, though, what’s the point?
This nagging question eventually creeps into the minds of most indie filmmakers sooner or later. Many of us have had the frustrating and disappointing experience of screening our films at a bunch of festivals, perhaps even winning some prizes, yet having little to show for it in the end besides a cheap trophy and a large credit card bill. We may even feel like we’ve been taken advantage of by these festivals, who are basically getting free content from us bootstrapped filmmakers.
Yet we still find ourselves inspired and motivated by the many success stories (and tall tales) we constantly hear and read about – that lucky indie filmmaker who sold his film to a distributor at a festival, or the friend of a friend who met a big shot talent agent and was signed on the spot.
I’ve worked at a number of film festivals over the years, serving in administrative functions, curatorial functions, and even as a judge. As a filmmaker, I’ve been submitting and screening my films at festivals since 2001, so I’ve seen the process from the other side as well.
My view is that most film festivals are a flat-out scam. There are some exceptions, and in general it’s still worth applying to and attending film festivals. At the very least, it can be an enjoyable process in and of itself, while solidifying your position as a legitimate filmmaker and helping you get your next project off the ground. But you should also approach the festival circuit with a healthy dose of skepticism, as well as some basic info about what it is that you’re getting yourself into.
Before launching a film festival campaign, it’s important to have an accurate picture of what’s going on behind the scenes when you submit your film. We’d all like to believe that each and every submission is given careful consideration, that all the films are watched under ideal viewing conditions (i.e., not on a laptop computer), and that the process is fundamentally fair. Unfortunately, these things are seldom true.
Here’s a list of some woeful realities about the film submission and review process:
- At a lot of festivals, an army of screeners will watch the submissions first, sending along their favorites to the actual festival reviewers. In other words, the fate of your film may well be in the hands of some college students and other volunteers, not the esteemed committee listed on the festival’s website.
- There’s a good chance that many of the spots in the festival are already filled, or they will be filled, with invited films and films made by friends and associates of the people running the festival.
- Festival committees will often accept the films of established filmmakers without even watching them.
- It’s not uncommon that these same festival committees will reject the film of an unknown filmmaker after watching just a minute or two of it.
- Most festival organizers are (somewhat understandably) more concerned with creating a program that will sell tickets than they are with creating a program that has the most artistic or cinematic merit.
- You will probably be rejected by most of the film festivals you apply to.
The festival submission and review process is not exactly an equitable one, and it also costs the filmmaker a heck of a lot of money, with the average submission fee being somewhere in the $40 range for a short film and $60 for a feature. If you apply to 50 festivals, which is not unreasonable, you’re looking at thousands of dollars just to pay someone to (maybe) watch your movie. And if you do get into a festival, you will likely incur many other expenses, including additional post-production work, travel, promotional materials, and costs related to the delivery of your screening copy.
Strategies & Tips
Given that the odds are stacked against you, instead of indiscriminately submitting your film to festivals, wasting both your time and money, it’s important to identify those select festivals that might actually provide some tangible benefit to you, should you be accepted. Here are some simple strategies:
- Research: Any legitimate festival is going to have a website. Look at it. What’s their mission statement? What films did they screen last year? Did they play any films like yours? If the festival doesn’t have an online archive, email them and ask about their past programming. If possible, look up the filmmakers who’ve screened before at the festival, and email them to ask what their experiences were like.
- Be Honest: Take a good hard look at your film and make a realistic assessment of where it fits in the larger film landscape. If it’s too painful to do this, send out some surveys and ask people to describe your film and rate it in a variety of categories like “Story,” “Acting,” and “Production Values.” This is essentially what festival reviewers will be doing when they watch your movie, so you might as well get a sense of how others perceive your baby, which may be very different from how you see it.
- Assess Value: Not all film festivals are created equal, so it’s helpful to look carefully at each festival and ask yourself, “If I get in, what will I get out of this?” In other words, what’s the value of screening your film at Festival X? To determine this, think about whether you’d realistically be able to go if you have to pay out of pocket (which, presumably, you will). And if you can’t go to the festival, will it still add value to your career in some way? If we’re talking about Cannes, the answer is yes. If we’re talking about a brand new festival in a small town in Alaska, the answer is probably (but not necessarily) no.
- Follow The Leader: It’s often helpful to look at role models and then work backwards to figure out how these people got to where they are. Instead of daydreaming about how you’ll be the next Steven Spielberg, however, it might be more useful to look at an indie filmmaker who is just a step or two ahead of you. What film seems to have been the turning point in their career? What festivals did it play at? How did they use the press, social media, etc., to build momentum behind the festival run? And how did this translate into the next step in their career? Read some articles about the filmmaker and their work, and you’ll likely find a treasure trove of information, as well as inspiration.
Put The Ball In Your Court
A lot of filmmakers just show up at film festivals to enjoy the ride, mostly taking a passive approach to the event. There’s nothing wrong with this, and showing up is half the battle. But there’s definitely a lot more you can do to maximize the opportunity of being at a film festival where your film is playing.
At the very least, bring some business cards. And while you’re at it, print up some postcards and other promotional material for your film. List your website and social media channels on your printed materials. Make it as easy as possible for people to find out about you, your work, and how to get in touch with you.
At a film festival, you are on display just as much as your film is. The more work you do on your own behalf, the more you’ll be able to get out of film festivals. Some filmmakers stick their noses up at this idea, believing their work should speak for itself, and that marketing and networking are beneath them. But advocating for yourself and your own career is not about being superficial and shoving your business card in everyone’s face. It’s about building real relationships with people who share the same interests and tastes as you, and hopefully some of the same ambitions and dreams. No one else can do this for you.
During the recent economic recession, a lot of towns, universities, and even filmmakers themselves got the idea that launching a film festival was a good way to generate revenue. The number of film festivals has simply exploded in the past decade, a growth spurt that continues to be fueled by the “democratization of filmmaking” that arose with affordable HD cameras and powerful desktop editing tools.
Every new festival seems to bill itself as the next Sundance or Toronto International, hoping they can become money-making juggernauts like those two prestigious festivals. The dark secret, though, is that many festivals do not generate their revenue through ticket sales or merchandise. Rather, they make their money from film submission fees, preying on desperate filmmakers in search of public validation and their “big break” into the film industry. To put it another way, these festivals are not in the business of promoting and celebrating cinema; they’re in the business of selling a pipe-dream to aspiring filmmakers. In the worst cases, I’ve heard of literal scams where the festival organizers just pocket the money from submission fees and never hold the actual festival! (I’ve been victim to this at least once.)
It’s not all bad news. There are definitely some great film festivals out there, if you’re willing to look for them. I recommend identifying and applying only to those film festivals that you think can provide some value to your film-making career. If and when you do get into a festival, it’s your responsibility to take advantage of the opportunity. As much as possible, make the festival work for you. You’ve incurred a tremendous amount of expense – from the production of your film, to submission fees, to your hotel and travel costs. You deserve to get something in return.
Have you ever had a film on the festival circuit? What has your experience been like? Please share your horror stories, success stories, and insider tips. Which festivals take care of the filmmakers and create a worthwhile experience for them? And which festivals are a scam?
Opinions expressed in our articles are those of the authors and not of the Film Inquiry magazine.