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Toward Transparent Festival Economics: $500 Screening Fees or $50,000 in Financing?

Toward Transparent Festival Economics: $500 Screening Fees or $50,000 in Financing?

A couple of weeks ago, Sean Farnel caused a bit of a flutter with his Indiewire article “Fair Trade for Filmmakers: Is It Time For Festivals To Share Their Revenue?.” This week, “Searching for Sugar Man” took home the Oscar for Best Documentary. Where’s the connection?

You have to go back a few years – to a time when “Searching for Sugar Man” was being pitched at film festivals around the world, including raising some of its money at Sheffield Doc/Fest in the MeetMarket. Director Malik Bendjelloul told film blog Moviescope,

The project was pitched in a few pitching forums in 2008, including Sheffield Doc/Fest’s MeetMarket which is where it got off the ground. As a first-time director, it’s pretty hard to get attention for your project. You can send DVDs and emails to potential funders and investors, but it’s important to meet with people. Pitch forums such as MeetMarket are a great way for independent filmmakers to create awareness about their project and to get to meet important contacts and establish professional relations. I would certainly encourage other independent filmmakers to take advantage of them; not just because you can meet people, it also brings a lot of input into your project on a creative level. To talk to people about your project can give birth to new ideas.”

Sheffield Doc/Fest is a film festival that gives a filmmaker access to raising production funding. A film festival that makes sure all the right people were there for filmmakers like Malik, with staff who did their absolute best to match the filmmakers with meetings they would never be able to get by themselves.

There are other film festivals who do that, too. It’s almost impossible to put a value on that service. On a basic level, you can measure the value of the deals in dollars, which would far outstrip the screening fee model proposed by Sean. But what about subsequent films? What about other collaborations sparked from those meetings? Very hard to quantify.

Also up for an Oscar this year was “5 Broken Cameras,” another documentary that points to the Sheffield MeetMarket as helping raise the money for the production. Producer Guy Davidi said, “MeetMarket was a great opportunity for us. Pitching in intimate roundtable ses­sions was a big comfort. It reduces tension and com­petitiveness and makes the whole thing much more relaxed and fun. We created important connec­tions.” 

Similar comments come from the makers of “Planet of Snail” and “Give Up Tomorrow.” Last year, we spent months trying to gather accurate statistics of how much money was raised in the MeetMarket and collected information from filmmakers that added up to £26 million worth of finance since MeetMarket launched in 2006 and an estimated further £136 million thereafter.

Indie documentaries would struggle to exist without marketplaces like MeetMarket. Other film festivals that give a massive shot in the arm to documentary include IDFA, Hot Docs, TIFF, Sundance and Tribeca. There are also more regionally specific or genre-specific forums in Israel, Eastern Europe, Scandinavia and, more recently, Taiwan and Japan.

There may indeed be hundreds of film festivals without a benefit of industry activity to documentary makers, but they offer full houses, engaged audiences and fabulous Q&As — not to mention travel and accommodation for the filmmaker.

And then there are film festivals with large sponsors and large government backing that don’t offer industry connections. Those rare film festivals should pay a screening fee. But most film festivals are struggling nonprofits.

Festivals with an industry arm can argue that it’s of greater use if they spend their money building a thriving and inspiring marketplace for filmmakers where they might indeed be able to raise £50,000 in sales or £200,000 in production funding rather than spend their budget on £500 screening fees. While some festivals do indeed over-emphasize the market revenues available to attending filmmakers, most festivals (and not just the big international ones Sean regards as exceptions) offer business opportunities and industry networking of a value that dwarfs any possible screening fee.

For those film festivals who are doing the job of industry support for filmmakers, it does not make sense to say that a screening fee is preferable compared to the impact of a festival with a thriving, fruitful and enjoyable marketplace.

Back to “Sugar Man,” which chose Sheffield as the platform for its European premiere in 2012.

As Bendjelloul told Moviescope: “It [felt] particularly great that ‘Searching for Sugar Man’ [was] selected to open [2012’s] Sheffield Doc/Fest. It all started in Sheffield four years ago, and Sheffield is one of the great documentary festivals in the world. I think a society benefits a great deal from a healthy film scene; often, what sparks your interest in foreign places or new activities are images you’ve seen in the movies. Films create value that is hard to measure in money. I think when the government supports filmmakers it’s never wasted money, not even from a strictly commercial point of view; film gives so much back in terms of inspiration and ideas.”

Accusing festivals of not sharing revenue has rightly been mocked in the comments on Indiewire and across social networks. The substantial majority of festivals are either not-for-profits or simply don’t make a profit, even if they want to. Any revenue is plowed back into delivering the festivals. Most are staffed by lovers of film who work long hours for little financial reward or praise. These people are not the enemy of the filmmaker. The reaction of most filmmakers to this article demonstrates that they realize this. The focus on screening fees is often the preserve of sales agents and distributors, for whom the profit margins can be slim, especially with wild cards such as documentaries. Online platforms are also in a similar position to the sales agent in terms of the margins.

Any debate about how to get more money for filmmakers is welcome, but is it possible that Sean aiming his ire in the wrong direction? He’d struggle to find anyone in non-profit film festivals who would be unwilling to “pay the fucking filmmakers” [as he asks them to do in his article] if the budget was there, but maybe there are others in the indie film industry whose accumulation of revenue goes uncriticized while festivals take the heat.

If we’re to find a new financial model of survival for documentary filmmakers, it will require full disclosure of the contractual basis of the relationship between funders and filmmakers – where the money goes, who owns what and who gets what in the split.

Filmmakers deserve more money for their hard work on making their films. It’s time to look at who’s really benefiting from, and piggybacking on, their success. Analyze the budgets – are there any people in the budget earning fees for hard-to-define roles? Is all film funding going directly to the filmmakers? If not, where is it getting stuck along the way? Analyze the contracts – who gets what in the back end, so to speak?

Could we open a dialogue about all this and try to identify where the money is going and why and how can we improve the transparency, and direct more money to those making the films? A thorough study on this and exactly where the money goes would be incredibly useful. From the very start of the project to the very end of the production and delivery… with who gets what along the way, would be a great body of information for the documentary maker. Then we will see what proportion of a filmmaker’s production budget and subsequent revenues is going where. Who among us could take on the task of mapping this? It would be a great reference tool for producers and directors and more.

Heather Croall is Director of the Sheffield International Documentary Festival (Doc/Fest) and Producer of Crossover Labs. She has been one of the screen industry’s leading proponents of the emerging field of new media.

This Article is related to: Filmmaker Toolkit


Tim Levin

The Universal Film Magazine was today published (issue 9) which includes an expose article about the Newport Film Festival and the Film Festival Guild giving themselves many of the festival awards for a number of years

Mandy Leith

Great article Heather, and interesting discussion of an important topic. As a longtime filmmaker and successful screening program coordinator for 10 years (OPEN CINEMA), it's fascinating to realize that there is so much disagreement on some fairly basic points with respect remuneration and financial management within the industry. I agree with Sujewa, it's time for an industry wide audit, to see where we can tweak this equation for the benefit of the whole film business.

It seems to me that there are at least 2 distinct goals that festivals and screening programs fulfill and in my opinion, they should not necessarily be lumped together and traded off each other. Film screening programs and film industry networking markets have two distinct audiences and purposes, which often combine nicely at a festival, however the economic impact and financial implications for each should to be considered separately IMO.

On the one hand, festivals fulfill the vital goal of programming films for public screening. In this respect festivals are distributors of a sort; a distributor generally pays the content provider a percentage of sales or some payout based on sales. I strongly believe that a screening fee and/or honorarium for the filmmakers MUST be factored into exhibition budgets, otherwise it is simply unfair to the producers of the content: the filmmakers.

On the other hand, festivals like Sheffield also host fabulous industry markets and education opportunities that are a vital aspect of film production, mentoring and financing. The purpose and deliverables for film markets are quite different from screening programs: providing networking and educations opportunities for filmmakers and giving funders and buyers an array of product to consider buying.

Heather, if I'm reading your post correctly, I'm hearing you say that your fabulous mentoring and development market is a trade-off for the filmmakers' screening fee. While I understand the economic reality, it doesn't seem fair or even healthy to think of replacing a filmmaker screening fee to help finance the film market or educational opportunity. Apples and oranges in business planning terms.

Don't get me wrong, our little program operates on financial vapour so I understand the economic struggle that festivals and screening programs are facing. But even with a miniscule annual budget of $20K, we build the filmmaker screening fee into the budget and manage to make it work. I think that we need to look carefully at the economic algorithms involved. Most important, we need to be really careful not to make the filmmakers the fall-guys of a broken financial model. Let's face it, if filmmakers can't make it financially, we have no industry at all.

Perhaps the industry as a whole need to become more entrepreneurial and if the financial model isn't working, we need to take an objective wholistic look at the numbers and adjust accordingly. The fact that festivals are barely scraping by and not paying staff isn't a good reason not to pay filmmakers. It's a good reason to take a long hard look at how this whole shebang is working (or not) working.

karen Whitehead

I am a first time indie filmmaker, and I attended Sheffield throughout production of my indie feature "Her Aim Is True" revealing the hidden story of a woman who pioneered rock and roll photography although no one knows about her, or her stunning archive. The vital connections I made at Sheffield have opened the doors for me to reach wider audiences. Like Sugar Man, I did a lot of begging and borrowing to make the film, and I was often told to "give up" or just "wait" which is tricky to do when your subject matter is already in her 90s and the story is in danger of being lost. What Sheffield gave me was confidence to pursue my goal. I don't think my determination would have been as strong if it had not also been for the mentoring I got with industry professionals at every festival session I attended. My film will be premiering this Spring. For that, I owe a debt of gratitude to Sheffield.

Rona Edwards

Well Done Heather. As the co-author of The Complete Filmmaker's Guide to Film Festivals we've interviewed tons of programmers and most festivals barely make it, most are in the red. They get little support from sponsors and/or city governments (as is the case in the U.S.). They produce these festivals for the love of film, their town and want to expose films and talent that might not get that theatrical release or broadcast. I understand filmmakers wanting a share of profits – but the rude awakening is, there is very little generally speaking for the majority of festivals worldwide. And for those smaller festivals that do make a profit, they usually put it all into the following year's festival or in economic downturn times, it amortizes out – the profits and loses. And btw money doesn't always equal opportunity – you would put a slew of festivals out of business if the common practice became paying filmmakers and then they'd have no place to showcase their films.

Elliot Grove

A well organised article Heather, and as a fellow British film festival (Raindance) let me endorse what you have said.

I produce shorts and features as well as run a film festival. Cringeworthy as it may seem, is is far more difficult getting a festival budget and producing it, than it is in making a movie. And after 21 years I have yet to be paid a cent for my time and effort on the festival. Maybe festivals should ask for a share of the box office filmmakers earn from distributors who find their film at their festival?


Heather, forget screening fees for a moment (though many festivals pay them already, just not openly and fairly)….do you agree that all filmmakers invited to present their work at a festival should have their full travel expenses covered with an additional expense honourarium? Can we at least agree on this as a starting point toward a better deal for filmmakers? Without ire (really, i literally have no ire), Sean. (ps.we seem to have differing reads on the response to the original article…and if that piece was indeed "mocked" as extensively as you suggest, then why the need for such a defensive and deflective rebuttal?)

Rinaldo Quacquarini

Thanks Indiewire for acknowledging us as the source of Malik Bendjelloul's comments. One correction: we're a print magazine… in our 7th year… rather than a 'film blog' (no disrespect to film blogs everywhere!) Thanks. Ed-In-Chief, movieScope

Sujewa Ekanayake

Good article. I specially like this quote: "…I think a society benefits a great deal from a healthy film scene; often, what sparks your interest in foreign places or new activities are images you’ve seen in the movies. Films create value that is hard to measure in money. I think when the government supports filmmakers it’s never wasted money, not even from a strictly commercial point of view; film gives so much back in terms of inspiration and ideas." I think I saw something like the idea I am about to mention being discussed a few years back, but, probably a good idea to do the following & update it every year, & expand the research to include benefits to filmmakers: 1 – figure out & share info re: positive economic impact of independent filmmaking & exhibition activities (including film festivals) – locally, nationally, globally (for govs/tax & revenue purposes, & additional benefits such as promoting a place re: tourism, etc), 2 – quantify the $s associated with the entire indie filmmaking industry (real indie, not counting post-film festival level) each year (how much $s are spent by indie filmmakers who make the 15,000+ or whatever the number is – the movies submitted to this year's Sundance, etc – those $s get spent at businesses, and as pay, etc – overall a positive thing for areas where those movies get made I think, and companies the filmmakers buy needed items from – (apple should have a healthy indie film grant, i am sure we filmmakers spend a lot of $s on apple products each year :)), and 3 (more relevant to this discussion) add up all of the benefits that all film festivals in a given country provide to independent filmmakers – what's the $s amount? Perhaps it is a very large number, and 4 – where can things be improved – as a basic idea, the concept of giving a % of ticket sales to filmmakers is not a crazy idea (i personally find the lack of interest in even seriously thinking about that idea/opposition to it by some indie fest programmers, etc baffling) — maybe it cannot be done in a way that makes sense $s wise, but, without there being enough information available for people to take a look at, I can see why some people would think that giving a % of ticket sales to filmmakers is a good idea/solution.

Related – this may never happen or probably would take a lot of work – something like a union for indie filmmakers. Indie filmmakers collectively bargaining w/ film festivals for benefits, % etc as content providers.

Though, when expenses & benefits are broken down the current state of things might be justified, at first glance it does look like that film festivals are a rather large industry, with quite a bit of money flowing through it (exactly how big I do not know, not enough info available at this point).

So, basically, both film festivals and indie filmmakers have a lot of work to do if we want to figure out if film festivals are indeed a possible new source of exhibition related revenue for indie filmmakers or if they are mostly marketing, publicity, fundraising (possibly), and career development opportunities.

All real life conditions aside, it would be AWESOME if the film festival scene/industry/whatever can be organized to function as an exhibition & revenue source for indie filmmakers (it already is for some, but I am saying as a regular thing – a new regular function of film festivals). For this to happen we may need new thinking/thinkers in the film festival industry and also on the indie filmmaker side. I think a lot of people are just set in the old ways and cannot see the validity (if any) of the arguments being made by both sides.


Nick Fraser

Sean might do better to complain about the often pathetic sums of money given to documentaries by public broadcasters with huge overheads. He could also look at the grotesque delays in payment of broadcasters. He could also examine the activities of the many ‘social action’ organizations whose names now come linked to films after extremely small contributions to the budget. Or the near-numberless non-profits busying themselves with outreach programmes. He could indeed look into what has become the sale of executive producer titles in relation to a contribution to the film once it is finished — by now a fairly common practice in the U.S. Or, finally, the large credits demanded by foundations attached to corporate interests in return for modest sums.

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