The Film Business

Are Film Festivals Still Relevant?


Photo by Blacklisted

There are thousands of film festivals of various sizes and popularity around the world, and several thousand more independent films are submitted to these festivals each year. Filmmakers are hungry to get their movies in front of audiences and spend on average $40.00 per submission for the opportunity to have their film played to the public. But are these festivals still relevant to today’s indie filmmaker engaged in the socially networked, audience connected digital world?

There is no doubt that the days of multi-million dollar payout distribution deals at top tier festivals like Sundance and Cannes are long behind us, and the current economic climate prevents many filmmakers from submitting to and attending more than a handful of these events. But filmmakers should be able to engage their audiences online, and make the most of the festivals they do attend, filling seats with hundreds of people who are interested in seeing their cinematic vision up on the big screen, right? Unfortunately the sad truth is—and the main reason that film festivals are still relevant to filmmakers is—that the average indie filmmaker does not know how to market his or her film to an audience. They rely on the festivals to pack their venues with patrons to get the word out about their movies, rarely bringing their own audiences to partake in the event. Some filmmakers don’t even bring screeners, posters, or even business cards to festivals to help promote their screenings. This is just bad (show) business.

Film festivals aren’t blameless either. Putting aside the occasional sham fests that are only out to take money from movie makers, there are some events that basically only have a poorly designed and unkempt website, and a sloppily put-together program filled mostly with paid-for ads from sponsors who really couldn’t care less about the fest, and are only looking for the exposure. These fests continue to exist because filmmakers refuse to research festivals before submitting (referred to as the shotgun approach to festival submissions), and just continue to feed these festivals their submission fees. There are local, niche, and regional festivals that don’t even advertise to the local community, resulting in low patron attendance, which defeats the purpose of creating a venue to screen films in the first place.

Filmmakers need to take responsibility for how and where their movies are screened. Careful research needs to be done before putting hard-earned cash on the table for submission fees. Audiences need to be created, managed, and engaged regularly to support these films as they travel around the world. Filmmakers need to give feedback, both positive and negative, to these festivals and to other creators. Movie makers need to come prepared to do business at these events; even if there isn’t a lot of business to be done: perception is important in this industry.

At the end of the day, film festivals are only as relevant as filmmakers allow them to be. They are another tool in the arsenal of film publicity. Many filmmakers use the festival circuit as a cheap alternative to four-walling their films, which can cost thousands of dollars per event, not even counting publicity materials. Festivals are a way for filmmakers to interact with their audience on a 1 to 1 basis, to build rapport with them, and turn them into active evangelists of your movie. Festivals help creators create buzz around their film, possibly attracting the attention of a bigger fish in the pond that could catapult them to the next strata of their careers. The festival is one of many mediums, but you are the message, and it is your responsibility to get that message to the masses.

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   Simon said on August 29, 2011 at 10:03 pm

Thanks. I’m in two minds about festivals. Some do appear to be just an excuse to take your money. Beware the insertion of the word ‘independent’ into a familiar sounding festival. eg: the Toronto Independent Film Festival which costs more than Sundance to submit to. Festivals aimed at zero-budget film makers which also cost more than the average to apply to – I think they know what they’re doing…

   Nic Baisley said on September 1, 2011 at 3:49 am

I’ve gone to awesome fests (Sidewalk Film Fest, FirstGlance Philly and Hollywood, and New Hampshire Film Festival), and I’ve been to others that are just ‘meh’. Cost is definitely an issue for a lot of filmmakers who are applying to a lot of fests. They really need to research these fests to see if they have an honest chance of getting in. Do they play flicks similar to yours? What kind of perks does the fest offer filmmakers (hotel rooms, travel stipend, etc.). Is it at least a good networking fest? All things to consider!

   Pennegan said on September 3, 2011 at 2:17 am

First I want to say thanks for making this website, I love the book “Voice and Vision” and I love this site. As for the festivals, I think that the “withoutabox” website is a major middle man that disconnects the filmmakers from the festivals.

I for one thought that festivals would be the way to make it into the business, but now I’m seeing that its a way for some one to pocket cash and not show your film. I think you should only have to pay a fee if your film is accepted, and if they need money to run the festival then charge people attending for a ticket, or get sponsors and offer the winning filmmaker a real opportunity,

In fact I think that with some festivals the films being shown are from people who are friends with or know the people who are running the festival, so they get a mass amount of submissions and submission fees and then reject the films and show those of their friends or friends of friends, easy way to pocket money and not be stopped.

   Nic Baisley said on September 10, 2011 at 7:25 am

Hey Pennigan – I totally understand your frustration and you aren’t exactly incorrect. While it is certainly helpful to have a friend or two in the industry and to know folks in charge of festivals (I’ve gotten a film or two into festivals from my own recommendations to the festival directors). But usually this is just the sign of a decent film that supporters believe deserves to be seen. There are definitely the scam festivals out there that are only interested in taking your money, but for the most part you’ll find as you talk to the people in charge, and especially the volunteers who put in countless hours into making these festivals successful, that they are all in it to help filmmakers get their work in front of an audience. It costs money to do that though, which is why festivals have submission fees (this is also usually their operating capital until the sponsors pony up their cash, which is usually 60-90 says post-fest, if at all). I definitely don’t agree with the double-dip approach of film festivals pocketing filmmaker’s money, and then selling tickets to their shows with no cash coming back into filmmaker’s pockets, but the sad fact is that filmmakers are doing little to put paying butts in seats at these regional events, and the onus of filling theaters is put on the festivals themselves (given some do a better job than others). All I’ll say is that once you’ve been to a few great festivals that treat filmmakers right, and get into the positive energy groove that happens when filmmakers are happy, I’ll bet that your overall opinion will change. It’s VERY easy to get jaded about fests and the industry in general. I just hope you don’t let a few bad personal experiences ruin it for the rest of your film career. There are some great fests out there, and they DO genuinely want to help filmmakers get to the next level of their careers.

   Christina said on October 4, 2011 at 1:50 am

We actually offer our filmmakers the ability to purchase a professionally designed full-color ad for only $50 in our beautiful 16-page glossy program to show off their films to our audiences. This year only 1 out of 42 filmmakers took advantage of this and his film was attended nicely.

We also print 11×17 posters for our festival, but only a small handful of filmmakers provide them.

As for being a festival founder and pocketing any money…..we had a budget of $1350 to put on our 2-day festival. Take out $550 for venue costs; We got sponsors to pay for hotel rooms for our guest speakers and workshop instructors. Our festival event program paid for itself with those worthless ads that are mentioned above; we paid over $400 for several newspaper ads to bring in larger than average audiences; posters, postcards and ticket printing took away another $300; nice trophies cost us $180; We brought in only 50% of the money we needed for our Gala which was the only thing that went over budget. And on top of that, we gave 100% of one of the venues’ proceeds to a local school, a nonprofit and our ticket sales location. Our festival

While there are festivals that rip people off, please don’t assume that because something looks like it cost a lot of money to put on, that it did. Our budget was extremely low.

We’ve been getting great feedback from all of our festival-goers and filmmakers who attended.

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