Underground Film Journal

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Film Festivals Under Fire?

By Mike Everleth ⋅ July 16, 2006

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.

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