LA diary: Are film festivals really worth entering?

Atlanta Film Festival 2008, originally uploaded by stomptokyo.

Lisa Marks at Guardian Unlimited wonders, after spending 400 quid on festival entry fees and getting into only one festival out of a dozen, if film festivals are really worth entering. It's a valid question but only if you know what your goal is for your film -- something that Marks never mentions in her column. Does she want distribution for her movie? Networking opportunities? To see the flick with an audience?

It's tempting to look for systemic problems when facing repeated rejection from film festivals, but more often the problem lies with your festival strategy or your film. People make good movies all the time, but making a really great movie is tremendously difficult. If you're submitting to major film festivals like Sundance and SxSW without a truly great film, rejection is near-certain. (There's a little more leeway with shorts -- I've seen some pretty questionable shorts at major fests but the sheer numbers involved can make it extremely difficult for your short to stand out.) Even with a great film, your film can be knocked out of the running by a number of factors that have nothing to do with the film itself -- maybe it's too similar to something that played last year, or touches on a subject that the festival programmer doesn't think the audience will respond to.

Marks also voices the thoughts of a lot of filmmakers:

I might start my own festival; I reckon if I can get 3,000 entries, charge about $40 a pop, and show maybe 100 movies in a mate's back garden, I could turn a nice profit. I'm not saying that's what any festival promoters are in it for but who really gains?

Here Marks displays at least some understanding of the numbers involved -- with some festivals getting thousands of entries and usually fewer than 200 slots to fill (shorts and feature-length films combined), it's a sure bet that a festival will find more viable candidates than the staff can reasonably program. Over the course of a dozen submissions it's reasonable to find yourself repeatedly in the position of "good, but not good enough."

Marks' inspiration to start her own festival is one that strikes a good many filmmakers, and some have gone on to do exactly that. However, even a small festival needs far more than entry fees and a DVD player to run successfully. As Tribeca film fest exec director Peter Scarlet said recently:

"Folks tend to think a fest is exclusively about the films," Scarlet says. "Indeed, the films are the most critical part, but the idea that people hang a sheet on the barn and people come ... a fest is as complicated a logistical task as landing people on the moon."

The only idea more laughable than a backyard film festival getting 3000 entries (most first-year fests get fewer than 300) is the thought that festivals profit from entry fees. Well-known major fests like Cinevegas might get upwards of 2000 entries but the revenue from those entries -- especially after Withoutabox takes its substantial cut -- is a small fraction of a large fest's operating budget. That's not to say that there aren't festivals out there that prey on filmmakers with exorbitant entry fees and a less-than-impressive screening event, but word about those gets around pretty quickly. (If you're not googling the the name of every festival you enter with an eye towards complaints from other filmmakers, you should be.) Festival entry fees are, more, than anything, a barrier to keep festivals from being flooded with entries from every Dick and Jane with a Handycam. Annoying? Yes. Expensive? Yes. But they are a fact of festival life and aren't likely to go away anytime soon.

As to who really gains, well -- hopefully, everyone. The festival staff gets to show excellent independent films to an appreciative audience. The filmmakers get exposure for their films, networking opportunities, and the possibility of a prize -- be it in cash or simple prestige. Audiences get to see movies of a nature and quality that some believe Hollywood has forgotten. I'll touch more on the benefits of festivals to filmmakers in an article in the near future.

In retrospect, I think the way forward is internet competitions. Most of them are free and the traffic is high. I'm waiting to hear about the Sony/Crackle shorts contest (of which I am one of the 10 finalists) and you can see my entry in the Babelgum festival, which is being judged by Spike Lee.

Maconie's List has now been viewed over 20,000 times on Crackle - where else would you get that sort of exposure?

If it's simple eyeballs you're looking for, loosing your film upon the internet is absolutely the way to go. Unless you're selling merchandise or collecting a share of advertising revenues, however, exactly what happens from there is wildly uncertain, not to mention way less fun. In an industry that thrives on personal relationships, internet competitions offer no face time and none of the location-based benefits of traditional film festivals. Certainly the internet will play a role in film discovery and distribution, but I don't think they will ever supplant film festivals. People still enjoy sitting in the dark with a crowd of their fellow humans to watch movies, and I suspect that's likely to continue.

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