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An IW Investigation: The Dark Underbelly of the Festival Circuit, Part 2

An IW Investigation: The Dark Underbelly of the Festival Circuit, Part 2

In Part One of its investigation into the underbelly of the film festival scene, Indiewire went down the rabbit hole of confusion and obfuscation attached to a number of questionable film festivals and awards events around the country. In Part Two, we discover who’s behind them, how they operate and the effect they have on the indie-film industry.

Along with the Alaska International Film Awards, Honolulu Film Awards and Mountain Film Festival — on Withoutabox there are identical pages for the Mountain Film Festival and the Mountain Film Awards, except the Film Awards page says that films are not screened to the public — other questionable entities include the Oregon Film Awards, California Film Awards, Mexico International Film Festival, Colorado Film Festival, Yosemite Film Festival, Nevada Film Festival and Canada International Film Festival.

They all have similarly designed web pages, and most have mailing addresses that ultimately go to P.O. boxes despite being made out to read as suite addresses on their contact pages. If they have phone numbers listed on their sites or Withoutabox pages, most of them have area codes outside of where the competitions are held, are no longer in service or, in some cases, go to people who have never heard of the events. The various festivals’ e-mails to filmmakers are worded almost exactly the same.

READ MORE: An IW Investigation: The Dark Underbelly of the Film Festival Circuit, Part 1

According to sources close to these competitions, a group of entrepreneurs in Nevada owns, or at one time owned, these properties. In 2008, one of the members of the group, Las Vegas businessman Rick Weisner, began posting an offer for people to own their own film festival on the Withoutabox message boards. For a price in the thousands, Weisner and his associates would hand over the intellectual property, name, website and all publicity materials needed to run one, including templates for press releases and e-mails to filmmakers, the different award categories and a listing on Withoutabox.

For the people who bought in, the thrill of running a film festival quickly faded to horror when they realized how hard it was, which led some to change their properties to mere online competitions and others to rename them “film awards” with a dinner/networking event for the winners.

That’s what James Nicholas, a Los Angeles fire fighter and self-described movie fanatic, did after seeing the Withoutabox post and buying the La Jolla Film Festival: He renamed it the California Film Awards. (A spokesperson for Withoutabox would not comment on “details of our associations with current and former customers.”)

The juries for these competitions hardly seem high-end or legitimate. Indiewire has obtained the text of a Craigslist ad used to seek out jury members for one of the competitions. It states that they are volunteer positions and that each juror will receive several films and a form to fill out to rate each film and provide detailed assessments of its strengths and weaknesses. Though the ad asks for industry professionals, a source close to the competition says that mostly mere film enthusiasts answer the ads, though some script readers do, too.

Las Vegas venture capitalist Monty Lapica says he purchased from Weisner and his associates a group of festivals, including the Honolulu Film Awards, Mountain Film Festival, Canada International Film Festival and Nevada Film Festival. Lapica, a Las Vegas native, also is the director of the 2005 drama “Self-Medicated” and founder of the Las Vegas Film Festival.

“From an investment point of view, the film festival business made sense because I had a fairly thorough understanding of how film festivals operate as a result of my experience with ‘Self-Medicated,’ and I felt I understood the business model,” Lapica says in an e-mail. He also notes that filmmakers could attend the awards without paying for a meal (though that option is not stated in the e-mails that filmmakers receive).

Recently, Lapica sold back the Honolulu and Mountain properties to Weisner, and in February 2012 he sold the Las Vegas Film Festival. Lapica states that he is now focusing more on his tech-based investments, though he remains the owner of the Nevada Film Festival and Canada International Film Festival, which both screen films to the public.

Lapica adds that when he owned the Honolulu and Mountain festivals, he never received complaints from filmmakers about being misled and he does not regret the investment. “However, after several years of experimenting with the business model, and despite some very memorable and enjoyable festival experiences, we do not view this particular investment as one that meets our current performance criteria,” he concludes.

Along with the Honolulu Film Awards and Mountain Film Festival, Weisner and his group also currently own the Yosemite Film Festival. Though he replied to an initial e-mail by encouraging this reporter to look at the Honolulu Film Awards’ website and Facebook page to learn more about it, he never responded to questions about his involvement in the festivals or about selling festivals in 2008.

For the most part, the filmmakers interviewed for this story who attended the awards dinners enjoyed them (though some admit that they thought they had submitted to film festivals). Numerous people described the events as a working vacation and consider the experience just another expensive stop on the festival circuit. Some also feel they need to submit to these kinds of competitions because they sense that distributors want films that have a website full of festival laurels.

However, Rooftop Films program director Dan Nuxoll — who along with filmmaker Martha Shane is currently making a documentary about alleged film festival con artist Marie Jocelyne — says that filmmakers must change their thinking when it comes to submitting to festivals.

“Some filmmakers think that it substantially improves their reputation if they can list an acceptance of an award from any festival, but in reality this is rarely the case,” Nuxoll says. “Not many people in the industry will be impressed to hear that a filmmaker has won an award from a festival they have never heard of.”

He adds: “Every time a filmmaker trumpets the award he has won from an ethically suspect festival, he furthers the online illusion that this festival is legitimate. This makes it easier for such organizations to maintain a veneer of respectability and thereby further exploit an already vulnerable population.”

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Monty Lapica

Filmmakers, you have to be very careful, all this festivals are receiving submissions through a new submission platform called Filmfreeway, they are still operating!


How can you find out who owns a festival name, and who judges?

Filmfreeway is based in Canada and requires the festival to list that its competition is online only, not with public venues, and to list that it has a channel for transmitting the films online. (I am not affiliated with Filmfreeway. I've used them and I've used Withoutabox. It sounds like several of the cited pseudo-festivals are on one or the other.)

Look, it's one thing to state that a bunch are fake. That's great, but it's backward looking. New fake ones can spring up any time. How do you know what IS legit? How do you know who is new but trying to create a presence in a legitimate way?

FIAPF only lists the very top festivals in the world, so that is not helpful. Let's have some real sleuthing tips.

Frank Desmond

Almost all this film festivals are listed in Filmfreeway. BE AWARE.

    Steven Halsey

    Say what you will about Withoutabox, but they ran into legal issues a few years back when it came to their attention that there were a number of illegitimate “Festivals” listed on their site. As a result, they actually started vetting the people who create listings. Film Freeway is using this to their advantage by simply allowing anyone and everyone to create a listing, all so they can say “look how many festivals use FilmFreeway! We must be better than Withoutabox!” Mark my words, FF will run into problems with this. I have nothing against them at all– they have a great product that has forced WAB to step up their game, but they are enabling scammers to straight-up STEAL millions of dollars from unsuspecting filmmakers. This is going to come back to bite them in the ass if they don’t stop this practice soon.

Jerry Hoffman

Anyone has an opinion on the New York City International Film Festival? I was doing a research on film festivals to submit my film in New York. And, I came across their site. So, I did some more searching and found some reports of them in Ripoff Reports. They also have a bad reputation on some twitter accounts stating how the founder Roberto Rizzo is a scam artist. Wonder if anyone submit their film to this festival and what are your opinion. Thanks.


“Every time a filmmaker trumpets the award he has won from an ethically suspect festival, he furthers the online illusion that this festival is legitimate. This makes it easier for such organizations to maintain a veneer of respectability and thereby further exploit an already vulnerable population.”

This comment coming from Rooftop Films, an organization that has consistently rejected many of my short films. Many of the fests you attack in your articles have shown my work, why should I listen to you? IndieWire, you're goons!

Shawn W

Yawn…. Who cares?

Jonas Walker

Personally I don't see why this bothers anyone. What's the big deal? They're offering filmmakers a chance to get their films out there, meet some other filmmakers, and have fun. Not everybody is going to get accepted to Sundance, after all. If people don't like the festivals nobody is pointing a gun to their heads to participate. And the article evens says that the festivals do everything they advertise they do. I don't see how this is news. The film snobs need to lighten up some. If you're too good for small festivals like this then I guess we'll see you at the Oscars.

    Steven Halsey

    The problem here isn’t really whether or not a festival is small… of course most festivals can’t afford to foot the bill for every single thing. The major issue is these scam artists collecting submission fees for “competitions”, and FilmFreeway is responsible for enabling this practice. Anyone can create a “festival” on their website, then sit back and collect fees for submissions. I have researched hundreds of so-called festivals on the FF website and have found many competitions that don’t screen films at all. Not that there is anything terribly wrong with that as long as you are transparent about it, but digging into these by searching domain names uncovers many scam artists who are running multiple competitions under different names and websites, all pretending to be film festivals. This is why FilmFreeway claims to have over 4,000 festivals listed on their site. In reality, there aren’t nearly that many festivals in the world, not even close. We have less than 1,000 festivals that can even claim to be legitimate. The rest are just scams that are preying on indie filmmakers and screenwriters. Try it for yourself– all you need to do is register a few domain names and create listings on FilmFreeway. You too can be collecting on submission fees in under an hour! It won’t make you rich, but it’s so simple that you have no reason not to do it. Someone mentioned Roberto Rizzo from NYCIFF on here. This guy is a total scammer! He owns over 80 domain names, and half of them are for fake “festivals”. Now he’s doing this thing called Fright Fest… just look up the website. It probably took him about 10 minutes to create, and it’s full of spelling and grammar mistakes– this is not a real festival! The goal here is to take money from unsuspecting filmmakers!!

Michael g.

Excellent article that only brushes the surface of the scams out there. It's misrepresentation that is at the heart of this. Organizations which call themselves film festivals and don't show films to the public, simply exist to take money from credulous filmmakers. Sure filmmakers might enjoy the dinner and hanging out with other filmmakers – that's mostly a circle jerk (join a local legit film society and network that way instead). Since these awards are frequently not based on merit, but primarily on the fact that you pony up the fee, it gives the filmmaker a false sense of their own abilities. There are plenty of other second and third tier film fests which are legit, so if the only way you can get into a festival or to earn an award is to purchase access, you might think about a different career.

Jazzy J.

Too many movies anyways. Making a good film includes accounting formally and aesthetically for your socio-historical time…you can't rely on past patterns to work for you. That's exactly what these scam artists are take advantage of: belief in awards, clout, right to celebrate your creative accomplishment (this is not a right), bad movies. Dan Nuxoll is absolutely correct about reputation construction. And blind submissions through Withoutabox is lazy. Withoutabox is lazy. It only exists because filmmakers are so abundant, they have become a reliable consumer base. Withoutabox does nothing to help filmmaking as an art.

Jerzy J: Why do you want a statue? Make your own.
Justin T: Are you kidding me? Go to Red Lobster and save the plane fare.

Jerzy J.

I guess the writer thinks we should only submit our films to the biggest festivals like Sundance and Cannes. Only problem is that no one gets in to those. At least no one I know. I kinda like having smaller fests like these to submit to. Gives me a better chance of bringing home a statue. 4 awards and counting….

Justin Tabuenke

So let me get this straight. These festivals charged filmmakers if they wanted to buy an extra trophy and/or attend a fancy dinner? Um, yeah, so does just about every festival I've ever attended with "Young Lacy". I guess these guys that are complaining would rather everything be free? Maybe Obama can nationalize all film festivals and then there will be no more entry fees and we can all win the Best Picture Award. LOL.

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