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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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