Distribution companies shutting down (or seemingly on the rocks). New technologies seeming to arrive on a daily basis. With all the fast and furious changes in the independent film world, it's become necessary to take a somewhat yearly look at the state of our union and to question whether we are abiding by an old, outmoded system.
Jonathan Marlow had a good piece up at GreenCine Daily last week that calls on filmmakers to do just that, wondering if too many of us "otherwise intelligent people (are) still playing by the studio rules":
"When the likelihood of success for films made on spec (that is, a film made with private money on the hopes of selling it to an established studio or distributor) approaches the same statistics as the chances of winning the lottery, why do so many filmmakers persist? Why do they essentially follow the same established patterns?...
The whole (to oversimplify) festival-circuit-followed-by-theatrical-release-followed-by-
video-debut-followed-by-television-sale - the notion of cascading windows of availability - was created to benefit the multiple-sales cycle of the studios, in essence carving out different periods of time to sell the same "product" again and again. Conversely, this process rarely benefits independent filmmakers at all. For just-starting-out directors, playing by these tired rules generally does more harm than good."
Marlow goes on to note that the flourishing of film festivals a decade ago (note how many fests are celebrating their 10th anniversary this year) has led to an alternative distribution system, although one that holds little financial gain for filmmakers:
"The festival circuit (has) become an ersatz distribution system unto itself that, for the most part, keeps money away from the makers. The ten or 20 dollars you spend on a ticket (or the $50 to $500 you spend on a pass) rarely finds its way into the hands of the folks behind the camera. For all of those folks that were frustrated by the late-1990s business model of mere exposure-driven outcomes, these same folks generally have little complaint when festivals routinely screw them the same way. If you're going to prostitute yourself and your work, wouldn't you want to at least be treated with a little respect? To stretch the analogy, isn't the distance between "street-walker" and "call girl" really a matter perspective?"
"If the proverbial theatrical release is elusive and the video business is flat or in decline (depending on which statistic you tend to support), what else is there to expect out of the proverbial festival tour beyond the face-to-face that filmmakers get with their audience? The undercurrent of a point from these words is that if you're traveling to a festival, you might as well enjoy the experience when you get there. Any other expectation misguided at best."
There's a lot of interesting stuff to digest and discuss in Marlow's piece and, if I may, I want to add a bit of personal perspective on festivals, starting with a respectful disagreement on his suggestion of filmmakers routinely getting screwed over.
When we posted our list of the top festivals for documentary, it was our hope that filmmakers would be able to see through the maze and fog of the festival circuit and could make more educated decisions about their festival strategy. Ah yes, the vaunted festival "strategy", wherein one plans a roadmap for which one has little to no control over the steering. The festivals that were mentioned on that list (along with a few others that for one reason or another didn't get mentioned this time) can provide a benefit that extends beyond a monetary fee.
That benefit varies, of course. Some festivals offer the possibility of distributors in the audience. Some have panels or social settings where you could strike up a conversation with the likes of HBO's Nancy Abraham or Magnolia's Tom Quinn. Some have large cash prizes in their competitions. Some attract well-respected/well-read critics or bloggers. Some are known for treating filmmakers like kings - who doesn't want an all-expense paid trip to a resort town where one can dine on scotch and lobster? And nearly all offer a community experience - a chance to meet other filmmakers from around the world and socialize, share notes and commiserate. Depending on your desires, any one of the above could be a reason for you to attend or let a festival screen your film, whether money flows your way or not.
With that in mind, here is some (unsolicited) advice about festivals that I think every filmmaker should know.
PART ONE - SUBMISSION FEES
I'm of the belief that once you have played a major festival (and I consider all of the festivals in our top 10 - plus Berlin, Cannes, Venice, Rotterdam, Telluride & AFI - to be major) you shouldn't pay submission fees, except under extraordinary circumstances. And I think you should never pay a submission fee if a festival requests to see your film.
What are extraordinary circumstances? Maybe there's a certain festival that you really want to play - perhaps it's a top fest, maybe you have friends or family in the region - and the festival refuses to waive the fee. First ask yourself what this may say about the festival (its hospitality, its willingness to work with filmmakers, the depth of its pockets) and then decide whether it's worth it for you to pay the $35, $50 or more. If it is, then go with God, but don't make a habit out of it.
PART TWO - SCREENING FEES
The not-so-secret secret of the festival world is that someone is probably being paid, even if you aren't. Fees vary so greatly that it's difficult to come up with a standard, but many films are paid $500, $1000 or more to screen at fest. Some even split box office revenues with the festival - a nice incentive for filmmakers to work hard to get an audience for their film.
Some festivals don't pay screening fees on principle (wherein often the rich - or those with distribution already - get richer and the poor get nothing). Some don't have the financial resources to pay for filmmaker travel and a screening fee. But at a certain point on your festival run, you probably will have reached your saturation point. You've played (or been rejected) by all the major fests and you've been to enough regional fests to keep you in messenger bags and Stella Artois commemorative glasses for a lifetime. This is probably the point at which you should start asking festivals (if you haven't already) to pay to screen your film.
PART THREE - FILMMAKER HOSPITALITY
If I invite someone over to my house, I feel like it's my responsibility to feed them, give them something to drink and tell them where everything is. It's what we like to call "being a good host". If while that person is at my house I ask them to do something to make my house better - painting, fixing, setting up my edit system - then it's also my responsibility to compensate them in some way.
Funny then how so many film festivals have lost sight of their host function, gearing up with the expectation that their guests bear some of their costs of living.
I don't have much sympathy in this regard. There are already too many festivals. No one is forcing you to create a cinema event in your town. But if you're going to do it, then I feel your most basic responsibility is to be a good host.
Ideally, I don't think a filmmaker should have to pay a penny out of pocket from the moment he or she steps onto an airplane to the moment he or she returns home. That includes airfare, transport from the airport, lodging, transport to the screening venues, transport (or directions if walkable), food and drinks throughout the day, alcohol if required, access to wifi or computers and a guide to the city. If a festival can't do this, they might as well call it a day.
Now, I'll admit that many of the fests we included in top festivals fail to meet this high standard. Some will pay for some of these things (airfare OR lodging, for example) and at least one of these (SXSW) puts most of the costs back on you. Because these festivals may offer other important perks (not to mention the prestige of having their logo on your poster) you'll probably choose to forge ahead nonetheless (as I have).
But if a festival won't pay all your expenses and can't offer even a modicum of prestige, then what's the point?
(Note: Next year we will be weighting our festival rankings toward those fests that do pay for expenses, while still taking a fest's various profile-raising attributes into account.)
PART FOUR - LOCATION
Sometimes, you may choose to play a festival because the chances are slim that your film will ever play in that town or region even if you were to get the vaunted theatrical release. Few indie films make it to South Dakota, for example, so if the mythical Mount Rushmore Indie Film Festival (MRIFF) invited you to screen, you may see it as an opportunity to gain exposure in that particular market prior to a release on DVD (where anyone with access to Amazon or Netflix can pick up your movie), even if MRIFF offered nothing in the way of remuneration.
That doesn't mean that you should fork out your own hard earned dollars to attend MRIFF - in fact, it probably means you should stay home. But it may still make sense to you to send and screen your film.
PART FIVE - MAKE SMART CHOICES
Another reason for the list of 25 festivals (plus a few on the bubble) is because I often see smart filmmakers make foolish choices when it comes to their festival strategy. A filmmaker should make every effort to premiere at one of the major festivals. If you are successful, you'll probably start getting invited to other festivals, some major, some minor. You might end up playing a handful of major festivals before you are done. Witness MAN ON WIRE - it premiered at Sundance and went on to play at True/False, Full Frame, Tribeca and Hot Docs and will screen at Silverdocs and Los Angeles - 7 out of the top 10 festivals.
But chances are you are not MAN ON WIRE and therefore you need to carefully consider your choices.
What happens if you don't get into your first choices of major festivals? Well, for one thing, don't panic. I tend to think that most films tend to find the festival journey that's right for them. Maybe a major fest isn't in your film's future. That doesn't mean that you can't find an audience or that you won't gain something big by playing what you may consider a minor fest.
On my first short film (which was a narrative), we were bypassed by nearly every major fest. After nine months of submissions, we ended up getting programmed by the LA Short Film Festival. A writer for indieWIRE saw the film, wrote about it and later suggested the film for the then nearly brand new Sarasota Film Festival. I went to Sarasota, met a bunch of filmmakers, got inspired to make a documentary feature and less than a month and a half later, I was making my first feature film, GIGANTIC.
AND FINALLY PART SIX - COMMUNICATION
If you don't know this about me yet, I am a big fan of festival programmers. They love film, they love filmmakers and they want to put on a great festival. To do this, they make choices based on a lot of different factors - films they love, what plays to their audience (or their board of directors), balancing with other titles, filling out sidebars. Sometimes, these choices are subject to derision or the raising of eyebrows. Often the deriders are those who, for one reason or another, didn't make the cut that year.
I can't tell you how many times I've heard of the misplaced email or letter sent by the scorned filmmaker. That misbegotten "you may not get my film but just watch it's gonna be a huge success" note might feel good for a moment but, like leaving a message on your ex-girlfriend's answering machine, it's a bad, bad, bad idea.
When I talk about communication, it's important that your communication with festivals is courteous and respectful of the fact that - whether you make it into the festival or not - you are one of hundreds of filmmakers vying for their attention and that, despite what I may infer with parts one through five, it's not all about you.
Just as I expect festivals to be a good host, I expect filmmakers to be good guests. And that starts with the moment that you submit your film. Think of it like applying to a good college. Make a good contact in the admissions office (programmers). Write a good essay (make a good film). Keep your package simple (label your DVD with your contact information). Follow up to make sure that they've received your application. Wait patiently. And don't suicide a single school (festival).
If you get in to a festival, make yourself available to them for press. Make a contact that you can rely on (and who can rely on you). Meet your deadlines. Have a healthy dialogue about screening times and potential audiences. And treat everyone with respect.
If you don't get in, how about sending a letter of thanks for their consideration (you're going to make another film, right?) and how you look forward to meeting them down the road. And then move on.
Festivals, whether they pay you or give you face time with Debra Zimmerman or put you in a fancy B&B, can be your friend. More importantly, they can be your partner in reaching an audience for your film that you might otherwise miss. And yes, they can be part of an "ersatz distribution system", particularly at a time when fewer films are being distributed.
But like all parts of your filmmaking journey, it's up to the filmmaker to be educated and to make smart choices.