As any filmmaker can tell you, rejection from a film festival stings. But it shouldn’t be because the festival is operating as a sham. The overwhelming majority of film festivals are legitimate forums for independent films that are run by professional directors and programmers that adhere to the highest ethical standards — and definitely are not profit-driven.
Unfortunately, there are a few disreputable “so-called” festivals that prey on innocent and/or naïve filmmakers. As Jason Guerrasio observes in “An IW Investigation: The Dark Underbelly of the Film Festival Circuit” (Jan. 16 & 17), some festivals engage in disreputable business practices such as accepting submissions from filmmakers but never screening any movies, or demanding and even receiving money from filmmakers for “awards.”
Ultimately, the problem of disreputable festivals needs to be addressed on many levels, by different stakeholders, but it is not going away anytime soon. In the interim, therefore, it pays for the independent filmmaker to be especially vigilant. In short, filmmakers should perform due diligence before submitting their films directly or indirectly (i.e., through a film festival submission service such as Withoutabox) to unknown or lesser-known festivals.
I would suggest the following:
1. Be a detective! Seek out other filmmakers, credible consultants and industry insiders and ask them about the reputations of these festivals.
2. Google, Google and Google! Always keep an eye out for red flags. Read online reviews of the festivals, and use the Internet to determine what films, if any, have been screened in the past at the festivals, who (if anybody) attended the festivals and where they were held (or not held) in the past.
3. Pick up the cell phone! Call the festival before submitting your film. There should be a person on the other end of the line or someone who returns your call who can candidly answer your questions about submissions, acceptance, rejection, consideration for awards, etc. If you can’t reach anyone or he/she provides evasive answers, think twice before submitting your film. Naturally, be polite, and don’t call immediately before or during the festival.
4. Don’t be a victim! Speak out if you have already been victimized by a particular festival’s disreputable conduct. There are indie-related Internet message boards (Withoutabox) and media outlets, the Better Business Bureau and consumer watchdog agencies where you can describe the disreputable conduct and/or register your complaints. In a few cases (e.g., the festival organizer absconds with the filmmakers’ money without screening any movies), such conduct may even constitute civil or criminally actionable fraud that warrants investigation by a District Attorney or Attorney General’s office. You owe it to yourself and your peers to take action that will discourage (if not stop) the disreputable conduct of those few festivals giving our industry a bad name.
Laurie Kirby is the Executive Director of the International Film Festival Summit (IFFS). The mission of the IFFS is to promote best practices in the film festival industry. It meets annually in Austin with representatives of hundreds of festivals to share information, examine trends & network. It also holds free webinars year round that address current festival issues.