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Film Festivals Under Fire?

Two Underground Film Journal re-launches ago, I planned on turning the site into the most comprehensive website on underground film festivals on the web. But only because there were no websites devoted to the subject at all. Then, it wasn’t until March of this year that I actually started being able to cover underground fests and the films that play them the way I originally envisioned.

Now recently, I’ve come across a couple of articles giving the movie festival circuit the smackdown. This isn’t confined to underground fests, but all festivals in general, and still deserves a write up here.

First up, indie filmmaker Sujewa Ekanayake (Date Number One) argues that all film festivals are not only useless, but detrimental to true “indie” filmmakers. I’m obviously not going to agree with that, even though Sujewa makes some interesting points in his blog post.

Sujewa begins his argument with his own seemingly irrational fear of rejection, which I think if one wants to “make it” in the film business, this should be the first obstacle to get over. All creative types need to be able to deal with rejection properly since it comes from all angles — festivals, distributors, audiences and even friends and family. Yes, getting rejected from festivals is tough, but not any more or less than it is getting rejected by any one else. So, either get over a fear of rejection or don’t bother with trying to make movies. Or procreate.

However, it is true that festivals are not the end-all and be-all events they’re expected to be. I’ve heard my share of filmmakers give their business plan as “I’ll make an indie film, get it into Sundance where a distributor will pick it up,” which isn’t even a plan at all. These days, as we all know, it’s near impossible to get into Sundance without knowing somebody or already having industry connections. But it’s also true that the vast majority of films that even make it into Sundance never even secure distribution anyway.

So, while getting into as many festivals as possible can help a film get distribution, it doesn’t guarantee it. Not even close. Therefore, Sujewa argues don’t even bother with the festivals. Just hold screenings yourself and then sell your own DVDs. Sounds reasonable, but here’s the odd thing: Why not do both? Yeah, some festivals require that they premiere a film for entry, even if it’s just a regional or city-wide premiere. But filmmakers can either probably get away with holding a few screenings and still make it into some festivals, or play some festivals just to get exposure then hold your own private screenings if there’s no interest from distributors. There’s nothing that says film festivals are strictly an either/or enterprise. They should just be one aspect of a film’s “career.”

The other thing Sujewa overlooks is that if your film is accepted into a festival and you can actually attend: Going to a festival is fun, especially having the ability to hobnob with other filmmakers and such. Yes, you can get that feeling at your own personal screenings, but a good festival has an energy about it that may not have any practical benefit, but it’s beneficial nonetheless.

Film festivals are so much fun it seems that there’s a massive overload of them. One day Australia’s The Age newspaper is celebrating the Melbourne Underground Film Festival and the next they’re running an editorial about how festivals are choking the city.

Here in the States, Ed Halter, former chieftan of the New York Underground Film Festival, has said the same thing about New York City. There’s not only 3 different underground fests in the NYC area, but an almost uncountable amount of other film festivals.

One of the reasons I’ve decided to stick to just undergrounds on┬áthe Underground Film Journal is that I have to limit myself somehow. I barely have enough time to cover what I do. (The other reason is that I prefer so-called “underground” movies to regular indies.)

But for filmmakers, it is important to research festivals properly to know what ones are mostly likely to accept your film and what ones have a decent reputation. Most of your money is probably blown making your film, so it’s best not to spend even more money willy-nilly on festival entry fees that are guaranteed not to get you anywhere.

Underground Film Feedback (8 comments)

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  • Hey Mike E,

    Thanks for mentioning my blog entry where I doubt the usefulness of festivals to real indie (100% DIY) filmmakers. I agree w/ you that since fests exist, incorporating them into ones distro strategy is wise. However, it probably is not a good idea to allow fests to negatively affect your distro strategy, or set the pace, tone, etc. or otherwise be the leading item on your distro strategy if u r a 100% indie filmmaker since the fest decisions are not under your control – its not a DIY thing.

    What do you think about another point I raised in the entry – fests sharing the revenue generated from the screening of a given flick w/ its makers? The one very positive thing about 4-wall screenings, DVD sales, regular theatrical or microcinema bookings is that those can generate at least some revenue to keep a distro project going. Perhaps selling DVDs at fests is the solution to not making any $s at fest screenings.

    All “reasonable” approaches aside, I think it will be useful to have a tradition of DIY film release/distro where fests do not determine what is worthy of attention. I guess genres such as horror & maybe comedy work around the fest issue for the most part, since those genres are generally not the ones that get championed by most fests (drama seems to be the fave). I really like the freedom that certain indie rockers have: they make the music, play it & sell it, interact w/ their audience & consumers, totally outside of the fest or mainstream distro structure.

    I will be submitting my current flick Date Number One to a couple of fests. I am not anti-fest, but I seriously question their value to most very-indie projects. We’ll see how things go as I interact more w/ fests.

    An artists fear of rejection for the wrong reason is healthy. Fears in general may be useful things, they may exist for good reasons -such as that of protecting yourself from self-destructive behavior. I think the idea of overcoming them should be approached as a question & not a must do at all costs type thing. I have no problem with a theater that is checking the flick out for a booking or a paying audience member rejecting my flick. I just don’t feel that festivals have sufficient authority to reject SINCE they are essentially asking filmmakers to pay money (submission fees) for the chance for the fests to screen the filmmaker’s work so that the fests can make $s & keep doing their thing (filmmakers do get some benefits from fest screenings, understood). The whole set up seems very one sided, absurdly in favor of fests. Being a filmmaker, I of course believe that filmmakers are more important than film fest programmers, and if the two groups are going to work together, the situation should be more of a near-equal partnership as opposed to one group, the film fest programmers, dominating the transaction. The truth is (as I see it now), fests are not essential. Audience members are, filmmakers & films are. Fests are a middle-thing, an optional thing, in the equation (though sometimes very useful).

    The outside the fests route has worked well for me so far on Date Number One. In the future I will experiment, on a small scale, with participating in fests to see if it is a useful thing, it may be. Even if it isn’t useful on the business side of things, it might be fun, as you pointed out above.

    Keep up the good work over here at this blog!
    Talk to ya soon.

    – Sujewa

  • Mike says:

    No, I don’t think festivals will or should pay filmmakers. I also don’t quite like the characterization that festivals are “making money” off of filmmakers because they charge submission fees.

    Fees are charged not so the festival workers can get rich off the backs of filmmakers, but it costs money to run a festival: Renting the theater, publishing catalogs/guides, sending out press and all around postage costs just to name a few costs. And, yes, I don’t think it’s unreasonable that festival organizers get some sort of salary for running a business, which a festival is.

    Yes, there are some behemoth fests that may pay their organizers well, but the underground and indie fests that I report on here are labors of love by people who make little to no money. It’s not like filmmakers send their movies in and the festival happens magically around them. It’s a lot of hard work and takes money.

    I don’t know what you mean that festivals are run “absurdly” in their favor. The image you are casting of festival programmers as evil money-grubbing cretins out to suck the life out of filmmakers is actually insulting. Film festival programmers are film festival programmers because they love film. Yes, you’ll run into the occasional creep or snob, but most of them are, guess what, film audiences.

    The festival programmers I have known personally have been enthusiastic film fans who really want to bring attention to great, unknown filmmakers. You’re actually insulting people I consider friends with these comments. As you’ve said, you’ve avoided festivals, so I have no idea where you are coming from. If you have some bad stories to tell, out with them. But everyone has bad, nightmare stories and a lot of people have good or great stories.

    I think it’s great you are doing what you are doing and showing that there’s an alternative way of distribution. But there’s no need to do what you do and insult people at the same time.

  • Sujewa says:

    Hey Mike,

    Absurd is not an insult. Choosing to be insulted by anything in my comment or my original entry re: this subject is your choice, and it is largely irrelevant to me or the matter in discussion.

    I believe we have two vastly different frames of reference or models as to how things should work re: filmmakers & festivals. You are happy with the current state of how festivals relate to filmmakers, I am not (and I am not the only one, I am just one who publicly speaks about the subject, many filmmakers have told me about their displeasure with fests – but they are not comfortable with publicly voicing their opinion for fear of retaliation, but they will be and are voting with their feet/cutting down on fest participation). The ideal situation for me would be to approach film fest screenings as a partnership between film festivals and filmmakers. This can be clearly reflected in filmmakers receiving a share of revenue generated by the screening of THEIR films. It does not have to be a vast %, perhaps 25%, perhaps less or more depending on the fiscal health of a given festival. Festivals take money to put on, no disagreement there, but it should be taken into consideration that films take money to make – even a “no budget” film – since most likely the filmmakers will have to take off from work to make the film, thus lose $s. Of course anyone is free to not partake in festivals if they do not like how festivals work, as I have generally chosen to do (there will be some exceptions, just to test out my own impressions, to gauge more clearly how valuable or relatively useless fest exposure may be to the success of a film project, and to figure out which fests may be exceptions to the “perhaps generally useless to me” rule).

    The question of the ideal situation or money aside, I am all for creative people getting an opportunity for sharing their work. The existence of festivals is a good thing many people – specially audience members. But many fests may not be useful for certain filmmakers such as myself.

    Deal with exactly what is being said. Stop projecting or creating unnecessary drama – it may be the more useful & productive way to go.
    My original blog entry & comments to your entry on the fest matter are discussions, attempts at exploration & discovery, not dogma or law. The final answer is not in yet. If some people get insulted by others voicing disattisfaction that may actually exist, opinions that may be relevant to the work that they do, then they might want to consider a different line of work. As far as I am concerned, nothing is taboo, everything is open for discussion & debate.

    Later on.

    – Sujewa

  • Mike says:

    I did not say the term “absurd” was an insult. I said your overall characterization of film festival programmers as pieces of shit was insulting especially since some of them are friends of mine. If you can’t follow that line, that’s not my fault.

    And why are you coming to my blog and telling me how to “behave” and telling me exactly what the parameters of the discussion are going to be?

    I find this all the time, particularly in “discussions” on the Internet. One person brings up an argument and when somebody else doesn’t agree with them, the original person starts saying stupid stuff like, “You are not following the rules of my argument.” I’m sorry I don’t agree with you, God. If you truly believe everything is open for discussion, how about actually responding to what I say instead of just limiting the parameters of what you want the debate to be?

    Your original premise is wrong, so why would I bother to start discussing percentages of how festival money should be spent? Here’s my percentage: Zero. Tell you what, you go run a festival where you pay filmmakers, then come back here and tell everybody how well that went. Then maybe you’d have a leg to stand on. You don’t have the practical knowledge to know if what you are proposing is workable.

    You asked me to respond to your position on paying filmmakers at festivals and I did. Period. I then responded to further allegations you made on my blog. If you don’t like that, too bad, it’s my blog. Here’s more:

    As far as filmmakers are concerned bitching about festivals: You know what, filmmakers bitch. Some filmmakers are going to have some problems at some festivals. Some festivals probably aren’t run properly. Just read all my posts on the Melbourne Underground and people bitching about festival director Richard Wolstencroft. Some people hate him and others had a fine experience with him. Some had bad screenings and others had great ones at this year’s MUFF. This is what happens at festivals. Some filmmakers have very legitimate complaints and others come in with wildly exaggerated expectations and then complain. And if some festivals really suck, then they should be publicly called out. I don’t go for this “hushed whisper” complaints thing because that’s just filmmakers letting off steam. And if filmmakers are telling you all kinds of bad stories, I’m sure you can re-tell them on your blog and keep your source anonymous.

  • Mike says:

    P.S. I hope there are no hard feelings. I know when I debate things, my points can come out shockingly blunt, especially in print.

    As I have said, you’re original post had some interesting points and that film festivals shouldn’t be seen as the be-all and end-all for filmmakers. That’s a very important point to be raising.

    I also do admire the track you are taking with your own film and am glad you post about it in so much detail so others can learn from from your experiences.

  • Sujewa says:

    Well Mike, I think this subject has been argued pretty fully at this point and looks like each of us are pretty firmly set on our approach to film festivals, for the moment. This conversation has been interesting. Now I gots to go set up & promote some screening of my flick. See ya around the web.

    – Sujewa

  • Sujewa says:

    One last thing, here is the link to a discussion had at my blog Filmmaking for the Poor re: fests paying filmmakers issue:

    At least 1 filmmaker we know (Caveh), one of the programmer of the T/F Fest, & Agnes Varnum joined that discussion.

    – Sujewa

  • Mike says:

    I notice that Agnes, who’s probably a nicer person than me, made the same point I did — and in a nice manner. Also, most of the people with experience in running festivals also explain the economics of fests — and again basically say the same thing I did and in a nicer fashion. It’s not economically feasible to pay filmmakers (much less the 25% you’re proposing) and that fests are not in the business of making money for themselves, but to help promote filmmakers.

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