Towards a filmmaker bill of rights for festivals

21 mins read

If you’re an independent documentary filmmaker who has sent an unsolicited submission to a film festival, and you’ve actually been selected to present your work at said festival, well, first: mazel tov! You’ve defied the odds. You’re in the ten percent. Or, more like five. Or less. You’re also probably broke. Still, lucky you.

Yes, being invited to a significant international film festival is an honour and a privilege. There’s usually an open bar or two, not to mention a “free” pass. Sometimes there is karaoke and dancing. It can be an incredibly fun and frequently a professionally inspiring experience, especially if you avoid the panel discussions.

However, and this is rarely considered, it’s also a business transaction. Is the super prestigious festival giving away tickets to its public and industry constituents? Are they allowing sponsors to place their trailers on the pre-roll as a public service for an audience in want of more information about the new Cadillac Escalade? Is the festival charging submission fees? Is this esteemed (and often relatively lucrative) event paying all the expenses that you, the filmmaker, provider of the content for the festival, will incur in presenting the work that you’ve spent at least five years of your life making? Heck, is the film festival even paying for your time to attend? A cab ride or two? Why not?

In the simplest terms, you are the supplier and they are the exhibitor. Is it shameful to expect a mutually beneficial value transaction when you are an independent filmmaker presenting a film at a film festival? Unless you are a well-oiled patron of the arts, you are among the vast majority of filmmakers who will not make a second or third or fourth feature documentary because you’re deeply tinged with blood-red debt from the first or second or third film. There is rarely a fifth. But you’ve had a blast at film festivals.

However, before we address the many ironies and inequities of the contemporary film festival business and how to deal with them, let’s toggle back a tad.

From a festival to a circuit

The international film festival as we know it today is a vastly different machine, churning in a vastly different context than when Benito Mussolini christened the first continuing event in Venice. Indeed, Mussolini believed that the festival could be used as an instrument to advance his government’s fascist agenda. In 1938, the “Mussolini Cup” for best foreign film was awarded to Leni Riefenstahl’s notorious doc Olympia. Cannes was launched in 1946, a collaboration between interests in France, Britain and the United States, largely as a response to the propagandist foundation of Venice. The plan was to launch the Cannes Film Festival in 1939, but Hitler’s invasion of France put the kibosh on those plans throughout World War II.

As the Dutch academic Marijke de Valck points out in her incisive Film Festivals: From European Geopolitics to Global Cinephilia, festivals began along nationalist lines: “The traumatized European nations were eager to develop initiatives that would help them regain their proud national identities: Nation-states would continue to play a dominant role until the reorganization of the film festival format at the end of the 1960s and beginning in the 1970s.”

Berlinale (the Berlin Film Festival) joined Cannes and Venice in being granted “A” status (as designated by FIAPF, an aggregate body of producers’ associations) in 1956 and, according to de Valck, initially functioned as “an American instrument in the Cold War.” The creation of the (now terrific!) annual festival in Karlovy-Vary coincided with the nationalization of the Czechoslovakian film industry in 1946. And so it went for decades. (The Dubai film festival could be seen as an extension of this impulse, expressed in uniquely 21st-century terms.)

De Valck suggests that the politics of the late 1960s, and the rise of cinephilia and auteurism, made the nationalistic structures of the founding festivals outdated (the selection process for these early events, for instance, was largely determined by government and industry committees). The second phase was driven by curatorial independence, the notion that the purpose of film festivals was not just to promote national cinemas, but rather to acknowledge cinema as artistic expression.

In de Valck’s formulation we are now in the third phase of the development of film festival culture, where there is always a festival (or many) being presented somewhere at any time. Festivals are now firmly entrenched in the economic structures of the broader global film business. It’s a circuit with thematic sub-circuits. The documentary film festival circuit, for instance.

But what does it mean for film festivals to be at the core (I would submit) of the art and business of independent filmmaking? And to be so ubiquitous? If festivals were once the vessel for national expression before evolving into the keepers of the auteurist canon, then what are they working for now? The corporate sponsors who have come to excessively brand these events? Governments? Super wealthy patrons? The international film market? The audience? Festival employees? Volunteers? Media? Filmmakers? At any one major film festival, of course, each of these constituencies have a stake, even if competing agendas are often in play. What is clear, though, is that festivals are now big business, and the only meaningful distribution and exhibition circuit for specialty cinema.

Yet, in this context, it seems more and more that the filmmakers have the most complex status at film festivals. They are at once significant revenue generators (through submission fees, ticket sales to their screenings, etc.), consumers (via industry pass sales to aspirants) and, if they’re not young and unheralded, the stars (offered accommodation, if they’re lucky, at the second- or third-tier festival hotels). Yet, the major festivals still base their relationships to filmmakers on the premise of the prestige of being selected or the prospects of promotion and sales.

In the case of the A-list festivals, there can be tangible and achievable gains to being in the programme—though not always, and maybe not even often. And this is only applicable to a very small portion of festivals, the top five of the thousands.

So what should filmmakers do? They could take a look at their counterparts in music. Among bands playing the showcase circuit, and specifically SXSW (South by Southwest), Fucked Up’s Mike Haliechuk has astutely positioned his band to economically leverage the festival business. “Like every other part of the music industry, it’s musicians and artists that are the oil in the machines of this festival. But all too often artists are treated exactly like that—as a simple combustible energy source to keep something much larger afloat.”

Having played a few “South-bys,” Haliechuk came to understand the role Fucked Up played as “economic actors” in that festival’s business culture. Fucked Up realised that SXSW had provided an invaluable service; it was a place where a band could become an overnight success. They had played their first successful show in 2007, and by 2010 had learned “about how to get as much money out of the music industry as possible without resorting to advertising and other lame shit.”

In 2010 Fucked Up made sure their showcase was properly programmed, scheduled and located, and…“we made money, all because we set out to make decisions that would help us as a band, rather than help out SXSW or any other company, “ says Haliechuk. “The point of doing a show within the SXSW framework was to show that it doesn’t take a record label or a company to put on a concert there. You are the band, you should be the one calling the shots.”

Independent filmmakers have much to learn from this approach. The inherent competitiveness and supply-side glut within independent film has made most of its filmmakers simply grateful for being programmed into an international film festival. The sense I get from filmmakers is that they don’t have much leverage. Yet, and here’s the rub, there aren’t that many GREAT films. Filmmakers with such work do have leverage, and they need to start exercising it, not just out of self-interest, but also to the benefit of the lesser lights who scrape along with a festival invite or two, always hoping for a better deal.

Your festival strategy

With all this in mind, here are a few tips for developing a film festival strategy.

First, don’t pay submission fees. Ninety-percent (an intuitive figure, admittedly) of major film festival presentations have not paid an entrance fee. If you’ve paid a submission fee to a film festival you’ve significantly decreased your odds of being selected. They are taxes on the lowest income earners in the festival economic structure. Instead, write a short email to the submissions office describing your film with a link to the trailer. Suggest that if they’re interested in considering your film you’d be happy to send the link to the completed production (or a work-in-progress, if that’s the case). If they are interested in your film they will ask for the full monty and should, as good film culture citizens, waive the fee (solicited submissions, from which the majority of most festivals derive their programme, usually do not pay fees). If the programmers are not interested, then now you know.

All credible film festivals should give you a date range in which you will know of their important decisions. And you should plan accordingly. My template advice is to give yourself a six-month festival window. If you have the ability to honestly assess your film and its festival prospects, that’s plenty of time. The ideal scenario is a launch at a major international film festival. For a North American documentary that means, in descending order: Sundance, TIFF, Cannes, Berlin, SXSW/Tribeca (a tie), Locarno and Venice. These are the hothouses in the film festival ecology, with other events spreading out like tendrils from these stems.

I know, I’ve placed no documentary-themed events in this first tier. I base this on meaningful and obsessive tracking of the way films flow through festivals. Your chances of building a meaningful festival run are much greater from launching at a major international festival rather than a documentary specialty event. The documentary festival circuit is very important to your career as a filmmaker and the long-tail life of your film, but only a handful of films break out of this circuit following a world premiere. In 2011 The Ambassador opened IDFA (International Documentary Filmfestival, Amsterdam), followed that with Sundance and subsequently had a fine festival run. But that’s the exception.

A national launch can be effective too, which keeps your “international premiere” card in play. Ballroom Dancer opened at home in CPH:DOX (Copenhagen’s documentary festival) in 2011, and subsequently had its international premiere at IDFA, then its North American premiere at Tribeca, before playing most of the key documentary events. If you’re Canadian, your Canadian premiere possibilities are numerous: VIFF (Vancouver International Film Festival), Hot Docs, RIDM (Rencontres Internationales du documentaire de Montréal), the Atlantic Film Festival and Whistler. Choosing your local festival is always a good idea, and just the right thing to do. RIDM, for instance, has been very effective in launching Quebec-produced work.

Yet, even as I make these suggestions I know that it’s all amorphous and slippery, and bespoke. Every film of merit finds its own way. For instance, in the Canadian context I’ve noticed that amongst documentaries there’s an advantage to opening abroad (at Sundance, or Berlin, or SXSW, or Locarno or Tribeca) and then having the Canadian premiere at TIFF or Hot Docs or VIFF or RIDM. But this, again, usually applies to the top ten percent. In 2012, Bestiaire (the most interesting Canadian film this year) premiered at Sundance before playing Berlin, TIFF (and many others). The World Before Her premiered at Tribeca before winning Best Canadian Film at its domestic premiere at Hot Docs. The End of Time premiered at Locarno before TIFF, and Stories We Tell premiered at Venice before its super successful TIFF launch.

Most independent filmmakers will not have such luxuries of choice. You are at the mercy of festival programmers, premiere politics and more than a bit of serendipity. However, if the festival gods do present you with an invitation letter, remember to ask a few key questions BEFORE you accept.

For instance:
What programme will my film be presented in? At some festivals premiering in the competition is essential (IDFA), at others less so (Hot Docs).

Will I be invited to the event, and if so what expenses will be covered? There’s little point in premiering your film at a major event if you can’t be there, and you shouldn’t have to go broke attending. Your attendance adds tangible value. As a kind of ethical imperative, I submit that at least your host should cover 75% of your total costs.

When do you intend to schedule my film? How many screenings will there be? What about the location and size of the venues? Get to know the festival, the venues, and the event flow. Some festivals are very top heavy (Sundance, TIFF, SXSW), with the industry leaving after the first five days. Others, like IDFA and Hot Docs, are jelly-filled doughnuts, with the most intense period occurring mid-festival. CPH:DOX is more lively, international guest wise, in the second half than the first. And so on.

Do you pay screening fees? An honorarium? How many complimentary tickets will we receive? Are you open to promotional/marketing/distribution tactics that we may employ in tandem with our festival screening? Remember you are a filmmaker, but as Haliechuk puts it, you are also an economic actor on the festival stage. If you can’t negotiate or ask the right questions, have a producer’s rep do it for you.

Of course, there’s a line between being pushy and negotiating in a respectful and professional manner on behalf of your film (and career). Much has to change in festival culture in order for filmmakers to be equitable partners in the enterprise. There will be resistance to change, but the progressive festivals will realize that sustaining creative artists (and the supply of interesting content) takes more than a slot in the programme and a few nibbles at cocktail parties.

And a further caveat: there are big festivals and medium-sized festivals, and then there are the little guys. Just as many professionals were likely generous to you in the making of your independent film, remember that, outside of the biggies, most festivals are run as no-budget operations. Not every event can pay a screening fee or even invite you, so give back a little too, by giving your film to those events, which truly deserve the support.

The festival fourth dimension

Following de Valck’s paradigm, I would suggest that we are now in the fourth phase of the development of international festivals. Many of the major events are now year-round exhibitors, distributors, funders, and professional development institutions. They are not simply cultural or civic events, but fully integrated businesses, with multi-million-dollar organizational budgets.

In short, and to conclude this first part of the series, festivals are the spine of independent film culture. Building a strategy into the DNA of your business plan is essential for leveraging a festival invitation, or even a nice run, into a successful commercial life for your production. In the next article I will suggest some tactics for directly aligning festival play with a sales and distribution plan.

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