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

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

When the Sundance Film Festival hands out its grand jury prizes Jan. 26 in Park City, it will be an evening full of elated filmmakers, both new and established, filled with satisfaction and an anticipation of what’s to come for their films as they are recognized at the country’s premiere festival. On the same night, 750 miles southwest in La Jolla, CA, a similar event, the California Film Awards, will be taking place in a swanky ballroom overlooking the Pacific Ocean. This one, however, will do almost nothing to help the winning filmmakers get their work seen by anyone.

It’s supposed to be a special time in a filmmaker’s life: submitting his movie to film festivals. It can be as strenuous (and expensive) as making the film, but the filmmaker will (theoretically) finally get the satisfaction of showing his hard work to an audience. Thanks to online festival-submission giant Withoutabox, this has become much easier, as with a few keystrokes a filmmaker can submit to an unlimited amount of film festivals throughout the world.

But buried in this vast catalogue are an increasing number with questionable intentions. Since 2008, a string of film/screenwriting competition events, or events that call themselves film festivals but do not screen films to the public, have popped up on Withoutabox that are misleading filmmakers into thinking that they are submitting to regional festivals set in beautiful locales when in fact they are sending their work to mere online competitions that may or may not have an event to celebrate the award winners.

These operations seem to have flown under the radar of most in the film community, since filmmakers that blindly pay submission fees to as many festivals as they can afford often then move on unless they’ve gotten an acceptance notice. At the same time, with the large number of winners these events have, the chances of grabbing an award are very good, so if a filmmaker does win one why on Earth would he complain? Even so, some have grown suspicious.

READ MORE: Ted Hope Says To Best Serve Audiences, Film Festivals Need A Reboot

Producer Kristi Denton Cohen submitted her film “The River Why” to festivals in 2010 and thought she had done her due diligence. She submitted to fests that have a bit of clout while also choosing some smaller ones that might have been a good fit for her film’s outdoor feel. The acceptance e-mails rolled in, including one that said “The River Why” had received the festival’s Best Narrative Feature and Best Actor awards. Since she couldn’t recall ever being invited to the fest’s screenings, Cohen took a closer look at the e-mail and realized it wasn’t a film festival but a film awards competition called the Alaska International Film Awards.

For a $35 submission fee (or $50 if not submitted early), her film was given to a jury that hands out more than 20 awards. But the films were not shown to the public. The e-mail went on to say that she could purchase a fancy crystal trophy and to encourage her to post on her film’s website that it had won the awards. She decided not to pay for the trophy.

Peter McBride went through a similar experience when he submitted his documentary “Chasing Water” to the Mountain Film Festival last year. An e-mail he received said that his film had won the Best Environmental Documentary award, and it noted that he could attend a dinner in Mammoth Lakes, California, to receive it. The price? Eighty dollars a plate — plus the travel and lodging expenses he’d have to pay out of his own pocket to attend. He ultimately declined, but days later he received an e-mail stating that for $155 (plus shipping) the festival would send him his award. Like Cohen’s, his film would not be shown to the public.

“Out of all the festivals I applied to, this was the most suspicious,” says McBride, whose film played at more than 60 film festivals, 15 of which he attended. “When I spoke to someone from the festival, I said, ‘It’s a little weird that you are asking me to pay to receive the award,’ and they said, ‘We’re just a small operation.’ I just sucked it up this time and paid [for the award]. I passed it off to the people who funded the film.”

The Mountain Film Festival handed out more than 30 awards in 2012.

Filmmakers aren’t the only ones who have grown suspicious of the legitimacy of these competitions. Well-established film festivals have been linked to them because of their similarity in name and have had to take action to make the distinction clear.

Tony Sheppard, president and founder of the Anchorage International Film Festival, first heard about the Alaska International Film Awards in 2008. Then calling itself the Alaska International Film Festival, it shared an acronym with the Anchorage fest, which caused confusion among filmmakers about which festival they actually were submitting to, according to Sheppard. That led to him looking deeper into the other AIFF.

“It had a P.O. box locally, but it says ‘suite,’ so it’s very misleading,” Sheppard says. “I also called, and I didn’t get a-hold of anybody.” Sheppard decided to put a notice on the Anchorage website that made clear that it had no affiliation with the other AIFF and that filmmakers should be cautious of engaging with it. “We actually had the FBI look into them, but they said there was nothing they could do,” he says.

Two years later, the Alaska fest gained attention again when Anchorage blogger Steven Aufrecht wrote a post on the difference between the two AIFFs that suggested the Alaska fest was a scam. In response, the Alaska fest’s attorney sent a letter accusing him of libel. Aufrecht’s attorney, Anchorage media lawyer John McKay, who also had assisted the Anchorage fest in its encounters with Alaska, sent a letter to Alaska’s attorney that Aufrecht posted on his blog stating that the threat of a libel suit is “without legal or factual basis.”

Sheppard says he also tried to get the Alaska fest’s listing taken off of Withoutabox but he was unsuccessful. However, his actions did force Alaska to change its name to “Film Awards,” though the web address for the site is still alaskafilmfestival.com.

Cohen and Sheppard both say they were never able to speak to anyone involved with the Alaska Film Awards. (Indiewire’s calls and e-mails to the competition were not returned.)

For Chuck Boller, executive director of the Hawaii International Film Festival, things got a little scary when he tried to learn more about the Honolulu International Film Festival. According to reports, Boller ended up filing a lawsuit against the owners of the Honolulu festival stating that having the same acronym, HIFF, caused confusion among media that covered one festival but referenced it by using the other fest’s name. There was also an incident where a filmmaker who won an award from the Honolulu fest mistakenly showed up at the Hawaii fest instead. In court papers, Boller also states that he was threatened over the phone by the Honolulu festival’s owner. The case has since been settled out of court. (Boller would not comment for this story).

The Honolulu International Film Festival has changed its name to the Honolulu Film Awards and since speaking to this reporter has updated its submissions page to read that it does not screen films to the public. On its Withoutabox listing, however, it still states, “the top films from each category will be screened in a traditional film festival format for the public.”

When reached for comment, Honolulu Film Awards event director Sean D. Stewart deflects most questions about the competition by saying that he’s only the “local representative.” “I pretty much come in when I do the festival, and I speak and present the awards,” he says. The 2012 event involved the presentation of 35 awards.

Stewart, who has been the event director for three years, is in fact a “success coach for creative entrepreneurs,” as he puts it, adding that he’s been trained under the top coaches, including motivational speaker icon Tony Robbins. And it seems that his closest connection to the film industry is his father, Hollywood screenwriter Douglas Day Stewart (“The Blue Lagoon,” “An Officer and a Gentleman”). On YouTube, Stewart has a video of himself addressing the attendees at last year’s awards. It shows him handing out certificates to the winners then giving what he describes as an “inspirational talk” on how to continue their careers.

“I felt like I was in a room full of rubes,” says Casey Casseday, who attended the Honolulu Film Awards event to receive the Best Coming of Age award for “The Green Rush,” which he wrote and produced. “I’m sure some people need that kind of encouragement, but it’s not for me.”

All of the competitions mentioned in this story state on their websites that accepted films are not physically screened for the public.So according to McKay, the Anchorage lawyer, what these competitions are doing is perfectly legit.

“If they don’t misrepresent what they’re doing and don’t trade off the hard work of established film festivals to mislead folks, what they’re doing is legal,” he says. “I think the question is really: Do people understand what these places are doing? They haven’t always been up front about what they’re doing.”

But who is behind these competitions and festivals? They all seem to be identical in how they are presented online and to filmmakers, but there is no company name or organization that is consistently present on the sites. Was there anyone behind the curtain?

With some persistent digging, Indiewire has discovered that all of these entities have been owned at one time, or are still owned, by a group of individuals in Nevada.

For more of Indiewire’s investigation into the shadowy underbelly of the film festival world — and who may be behind it – read Part Two.

This Article is related to: Filmmaker Toolkit and tagged , , ,


Comments

D roosendahl

the BIG SND film festival is a hoax, scamming filmmakers, many film festivals are a scam, out here in L A we have one or two as well, this sndla dot com is fake stating that they snd are taking donations for refugee’s and after expenses they snd will donate, The Big Snd film festival is demanding filmmakers fill the theater by buying prepaid tickets immediately after submitting.

Tyrone D Murphy

Hi all, this is why the Universal Film & Festival Organization started. We created a code of practice for film festivals to adopt and we now have 230 member festivals – This is voluntary and no fees or costs whatsoever. Many festivals won’t adopt a code of practice, some because they can’t be bothered, some because they just don’t have to, some because it may interfere with business or some are just downright scammers, and they are many of the latter out there .We also run the Universal Film Magazine which exposes scam festivals and festivals that blacklist filmmakers– again, it’s free and non-profit. Worth keeping an eye on this as we have some huge exposes in the bigger festivals coming up in the next few months. If you have a story let us know.
Looking at the different submission providers you have pretty much the same problem, the ones we have seen will take any festival at all, despite history or allegations of fraud made against a festival. There is no due diligence, no scrutiny or no caution or care, just sign em up and the money is rolling in. We covered this a while back in our magazine, and the one submission provider that removed the festivals we exposed from their database was Festhome. We are not connected to any of the submission providers and don’t have any allegiance to any, we believe that they all should take steps to protect filmmaker’s money and intellectual property from fraudulent festivals. It’s relatively a simple process to stop fraud at festivals and we commend Festhome for removing the scammers. We would encourage other submission providers to do the same and lead the way; this would demonstrate transparency to the filmmaking community and will ultimately be good for business.
I met with Col Needham a couple of years back at the IMDb offices in Bristol UK, this was when we set up UFFO and were just starting out with a couple of festivals wanting to do the right thing. I asked Col Needham if he would consider supporting what we were trying to achieve, a code of practice, but he had no interest at all, Col Needham is the founder of IMDB/withoutabox.
So we are still trying to get the message out there on a code of practice for film festivals and always looking for help

Tyrone D Murphy

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!

Sonja

Huh. This subject is fascinating and important, and I posted here hoping to learn better sleuthing techniques from others, but for some reason my post was deleted almost immediately.

Very strange, now that I see what is still posted. I appreciated this article, I think it meets good journalistic standards, and I raised questions about going forward. Blanket statements about online submission services (see below) are not accurate or helpful. Nor do I imagine that this is the last word on misleading online contests. They will think up something new.

I gave a true first name and email address. I wonder what that's about? In case someone is about to delete this — hi!

Frank Desmond

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

JASON GUERRASIO IS AN IDIOT

Jason, what festival will you slander next? I can't wait to see you make a bigger fool of yourself!!!

Eric

Yeah, because most filmmakers stand a chance screening at Sundance or Tribeca. Give me a break with this ridiculous article Jason.

It should be noted that Jason has also attached the Manhattan Film Festival – a festival that often waives submission fees, invites filmmakers back without charging a submission fee and also shares ticket revenue. Jason works for the Tribeca Film Institute which is affiliated with the Tribeca Film Festival. I reckon his intentions here are nothing more than slander to keep the little festivals down.

Sandy Hook Filmmaker

I've not shown with these guys, in fact I don't submit my work to specific organizations that called themselves "awards", so I can't judge. But based on your piece on the Manhattan Film Festival, I'm inclined to take caution in the idea that this too, is suspicious.

Filmmakers, take this "series" of articles with a grain of salt and shot of common sense. Some of the readers have uncovered that the author represent another, much larger festival organization and it's possible he could be disseminating this material on their behalf. It's also possible he's just a shit head.

Conrad

A major part of the problem is withoutabox.com. They require film festivals to take submission fees, otherwise the fest will have to pay the site a substantial sum of money to become listed. It's tough to find the right moral balance when operating a festival. With that said, the talk about having to purchase your trophies etc. is hypocritical. Indiewire prides itself on receiving "webby" awards, which also have to be purchased.

Nelson

Note that there seem to be several "Mountain Film"-like festival names, including MountainFilm in Colorado and at least one other (Banff Mountain Film). Please be more specific in citing names.

Grey

They should have investigated film festivals like NY International Independent Film & Video Festival along with Hoboken International Film Festival which isn't even screened in Hoboken or the extra nefarious Garden State Film Festival, they are all terrible festivals run by scam artists

Curtis

Everyone should see the outstanding documentary "Official Rejection" written and directed by Paul Osborne. Worth the time. It's a documentary following the exploits of a group of filmmakers as they take their independent feature, Ten 'til Noon, along the film festival circuit, and the politics, pitfalls, triumphs and comic tragedies they encounter along the way. Full of interviews with important players in the indie world, this is a must see for young filmmakers on the what happens when the shooting stops.

Curtis

Everyone should see the outstanding documentary "Official Rejection" written and directed by Paul Osborne. Worth the time. It's a documentary following the exploits of a group of filmmakers as they take their independent feature, Ten 'til Noon, along the film festival circuit, and the politics, pitfalls, triumphs and comic tragedies they encounter along the way. Full of interviews with important players in the indie world, this is a must see for young filmmakers on the what happens when the shooting stops.

Curtis

Everyone should see the outstanding documentary "Official Rejection" written and directed by Paul Osborne. Worth the time. It's a documentary following the exploits of a group of filmmakers as they take their independent feature, Ten 'til Noon, along the film festival circuit, and the politics, pitfalls, triumphs and comic tragedies they encounter along the way. Full of interviews with important players in the indie world, this is a must see for young filmmakers on the what happens when the shooting stops.

Curtis

Everyone should see the outstanding documentary "Official Rejection" written and directed by Paul Osborne. Worth the time. It's a documentary following the exploits of a group of filmmakers as they take their independent feature, Ten 'til Noon, along the film festival circuit, and the politics, pitfalls, triumphs and comic tragedies they encounter along the way. Full of interviews with important players in the indie world, this is a must see for young filmmakers on the what happens when the shooting stops.

Curtis

Everyone should see the outstanding documentary "Official Rejection" written and directed by Paul Osborne. Worth the time. It's a documentary following the exploits of a group of filmmakers as they take their independent feature, Ten 'til Noon, along the film festival circuit, and the politics, pitfalls, triumphs and comic tragedies they encounter along the way. Full of interviews with important players in the indie world, this is a must see for young filmmakers on the what happens when the shooting stops.

Eric

Yeah, because most filmmakers stand a chance screening at Sundance or Tribeca. Give me a break with this ridiculous article Jason.

It should be noted that Jason has also attached the Manhattan Film Festival – a festival that often waives submission fees, invites filmmakers back without charging a submission fee and also shares ticket revenue. Jason works for the Tribeca Film Institute which is affiliated with the Tribeca Film Festival. I reckon his intentions here are nothing more than slander to keep the little festivals down.

martha may

The Universal Film & Festival Organization was founded to support and implement best business practices for film festivals throughout the world.

UFFO,is a global voluntary organization and is not-for-profit. It was created to bring together the highest quality of Film Festivals and the film making community by encouraging film festivals to become sound in best business practice. To date we have been very successful in this endeavor.

This is the real deal for "best business practices for film festivals"

The UFFO best business practices is completely voluntary, it is free and easy to implement. In addition it is a blueprint for filmmakers in deciding which film festivals to do business with

UFFO is also an open international organization and membership is open to all creative individuals, filmmakers, film schools and film festivals

G. Slaight

Seriously, how naive is this writer? As if ALL film festivals aren't in it for the money. I suppose Sundance is one big charity organization right? I mean, c'mon. As a screenwriter who participated in one of the festivals mentioned in the article (and had a good time I might add), I'm insulted by the snobbery, ignorance, and elitism displayed in this hack piece. I'll submit my work whoever I damn well please, thank you. And you nor anybody else has a right to tell me my achievements or accolades I receive along the way are somehow any less "prestigious" or important because they don't happen to be from the top 5 biggest festivals in the world.

Laurie Kirby

Thank you for this article. The mission of the IFFS is to promote best practices in the film festival industry. This certainly exposes the seamy side that serves no one's interest but the unscrupulous purveyors of this nonsense. The problem needs to be addressed on many levels. As in all areas of life, there are those that take advantage of an otherwise positive experience whenever possible. That sadly, is the human condition.

I would suggest the following:

1. Filmmakers need to do their due diligence when applying for festivals. Seek recommendations, referrals, testimonials, etc. from peers and other festivals.
2. Withoutabox has a responsibility to its customers and needs to find a way to rate and vet these unscrupulous festivals. Their monopoly will not survive if those who prey on innocent filmmakers are allowed to use their services continue to exploit filmmakers through the site. It is not enough to say they are just a conduit.
3. We, as an industry, need to have a forum to alert others when we know or learn about this. It is our duty to do the best we can to assist naive filmmakers and should contact authorities when we see dubious practices, be it Better Business Bureau, State Attorney Generals, Withoutabox or the media in general.
4. There are no easy answers but we owe it to our filmmakers to try and alleviate these terrible practices that cast a negative impression on our otherwise honorable industry.
Laurie Kirby, Esq., Executive Director

Chase

How is this any different from the Webby Awards ? A lot of contests give certificates for free but charge for trophies. This is an investigative piece? I was expecting something earth shattering.

Janeatte Walker

What kind of hit piece is this? My husband won an award (well deserved I might add) for his short film at the California Film Awards in 2011 and we attended the event. It was a lovely event and we quite enjoyed ourselves. My husband worked for over 3 years making that film and the recognition he received was well deserved and certainly appreciated by us. That's my 2 cents at least.

Roger Cohn

In other news, film festivals are a business. Shocker! How are these any different than any awards event? You forgot to mention that true independent films have absolutely no shot at getting into Sundance. Sorry, not everyone's gonna win an Oscar. So what if there are lower tier awards events. And…? If we don't like it, we don't have to submit.

Steve Aufrecht

Thanks for this piece and the link. Film makers work too hard to waste their money on phantom festivals. And The head of the Anchorage International Film Festival is Tony, not Tom, Sheppard. I posted a three part post – after the threatening attorney letter –
1. What's a Scam?
2. What's a Film Festival?
3. A comparison of the authenticity of the Anchorage International Film Festival and the Alaska International Film Festival.
You can find find all three at
http://whatdoino-steve.blogspot.com/2010/07/whats-scam.html

kmf

thanks for doing this…about time….

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