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Sundance and True/False Programmers Discuss Festival Economics at Full Frame

Sundance and True/False Programmers Discuss Festival Economics at Full Frame

This past weekend the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival hosted a speakeasy chat around the issues raised in the series of Indiewire articles that followed my Fair Trade For Filmmakers piece in this space. Props. It’s a queasy discussion for many festivals, evident in some of the defensiveness that has informed certain responses to the topic thus far. Yet, it’s also an opportunity for those festivals progressive enough to reimagine the role their events may have in tangibly supporting independent filmmaking.

Full Frame is one such event, as is True/False. T/F co-conspirator David Wilson, who joined Sundance’s Caroline Libresco and I in leading the discussion, seized the moment. Wilson announced that True/False festival would be offering filmmaker honorariums at next year’s event. It was the third time he received applause during the talk, that fucking scene stealer.

Libresco pointed to broader issues around filmmaker support and remuneration (“Why are filmmakers always the last to get paid?”), but our moderator was having no deflections (as worthy a discussion as it may be). So we stayed on topic. The notion that any sum that a festival could pay a filmmaker is small change next to the way way more massive financial obstacles faced by creators doesn’t wash with me. If it’s that minuscule, then pay it. As one very respected filmmaker/producer attending put it (and I paraphrase), “It’s always nice to be a able to tell your mom and dad that you’re getting paid for your work.”

We all agreed that, as a first step, the imperative of any film festival should be negating all costs incurred by a filmmaker in attending their event (more applause for Wilson!). I confessed that my 35% rule was a provocation, maybe even a bit of a red herring, and that the whole point of the discussion, for me, is getting a better deal, and tangible value, for filmmakers presenting their work at festivals.

Travel expenses and honorariums are a great start. And here are a few other practical suggestions for those festivals looking to make their events more filmmaker friendly:

Here’s the video of the panel courtesy of the Full Frame Documentary Festival

ELIMINATE OR SIGNIFICANTLY REDUCE SUBMISSION FEES. These fees 1) offset the administrative expense of the submission process 2) generate revenues and 3) provide a minimal barrier to entry, helping to stem the flood of submissions. Still, they are also taxes on the unconnected, especially as most credible festivals derive only minuscule portions of their programme from truly unsolicited submissions. And if filmmakers are to pay a fee, then perhaps festivals could consider some kind of feedback mechanism, even if it’s the most perfunctory of human acknowledgments that a work was, indeed, seen.

IF YOU LOVE SOMEBODY, SET THEM FREE. Yes, I just quoted a Sting song. Most festivals invite films as they roll through their programming process, yet do not issue declination letters until well after they’ve locked their programmes. Filmmaker’s fates hang in the balance, and often they lose months waiting on decisions that may have been made many weeks before they are notified. While a festival’s shortlist is invariably rather long, even longer is that list of films that are decisively ruled out early in the process. Festivals should cut those filmmakers loose as early as possible. Sure, it might be can of rattlesnakes, but figure it out. Share a bit of the pain with the filmmakers, but set them free.

GIVE THEM THEIR AUDIENCE. Here I pay tribute to the great Les Blank, who always sold DVDs of past work directly to audiences following screenings of his films. I once helped him out after a Hot Docs screening of All In This Tea. He pocketed a few hundred bucks in twenty minutes, pulling discs out of rucksack he carried around. In the digital age every festival has a website page for each film in the programme. They also have large email lists. How about allowing direct donations to filmmakers via a paypal link on the festival website? Or, actively promoting digital releases with direct marketing to the festival audience? This comment, by James Belfer, was one of my favourites generated by the Fair Trade pieces: “If festivals gave me my audience I could do incredible things with it. I could A/B test SEO and inbound marketing techniques. [huh?] I could use it use it as a springboard towards self-distribution. I could even make new friends and family for my film. These things lead to a stronger audience overall, a higher chance of becoming cash flow positive, and maybe even leverage to show proof of concept when negotiating distribution deals. Don’t give me money, give me my audience.”

ISSUE ATTENDANCE REPORTS. Oh, here I go, pushing buttons again, but this was also mentioned on the panel at Full Frame. Wouldn’t it be useful for producers to use the data from a film festival screening or run as negotiating leverage, or even for distributors to be able to report festival box office to drive up the screen averages? This is a raw idea, but we’d all like to know exactly how many people are watching films at film festivals, wouldn’t we? Never mind the elusiveness of VOD numbers, even less is known about festival box office numbers.

Somebody recently advised me that I should never write more than 1000 words on the internets, so I stop here. In fact, I’m passing the torch on the issue. I’m no evangelical. There’s a comments section below in which to provide your constructive suggestions, or your anonymous snipes. I’ll offer my favourite comment a complimentary festival consultation (which I honoured, last time, btw). I’ll also continue to collate the whole shebang on Storify. God speed. There are other bridges to burn.

Sean Farnel will be learning more about transmedia, and fine tequila, next week at Ambulante. He’s working on something amazing. Many things, actually.

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Tim Hobbs

Hi Sean, thanks for keeping this good and vital discussion going. As you and David rightly pointed out, festivals have more or less become the de-facto art house circuit in North America, and are providing the only meaningful theatrical release for most films. I'd add that a meaningful theatrical release is arguably becoming more, not less, important in the digital era, as the primary way of marketing small films to elevate them from the chaotic manifold of content online. This is all reason enough for the problems you raise to be taken very seriously, not just by filmmakers and festival people, but by everyone involved in the value chain — including the audience that cares if good independent films are able to be created for them in the first place.

To critique the framing of this ongoing discussion, it has been largely assumed that 'filmmakers' are coextensive with the economic units that are their films. Caroline was right to briefly bring up the unjustifiable disparity of festival treatment for producers and other key members of the filmmaking team, but a constituency that needs to be brought into this discussion in even a bigger way are the investors.

Filmmakers are certainly not coextensive with the economic units that are their films. That is even more true in narrative features than in documentaries, as narrative features are both more expensive and less eligible for grant money. This actuality is what undercuts many of the justifications from the 'festival-side' of the discussion. Hospitality is nice, striving to make festivals costless for the filmmaker is something to strive for, networking for career opportunities is great — but many of these sort of things are benefits to the filmmaker, and for the most part indirect at best to the economic unit of the film.

This discussion at its heart is ultimately about building a much healthier and more sustainable ecosystem in which filmmakers can survive and even mature into careers. We all have a stake in that. It requires all players to address, directly, the economics of the situation.

Admirably, your provocation pitting 'sides' against one another worked to spark the discussion. But we will ultimately fail to address or solve the core problems if the framing of this discussion enables the sides to defend entrenched positions — we will get stuck in a debate pitting defenders of the status quo and the power structure against others trying to make incremental progress. It seems to me we need much grander solutions. There are ultimately not even 'sides' to the debate, we all should be on the same one. Thank you for continuing to keep the discussion going.

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