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by Jason Guerrasio
January 17, 2013 10:00 AM
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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

"For the people who bought in, the thrill of running a film festival quickly faded to horror when they realized how hard it was."

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.

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10 Comments

  • Jerry Hoffman | August 2, 2013 2:56 PMReply

    Anyone has an opinion on the New York City International Film Festival? I was doing a research on film festivals to submit my film in New York. And, I came across their site. So, I did some more searching and found some reports of them in Ripoff Reports. They also have a bad reputation on some twitter accounts stating how the founder Roberto Rizzo is a scam artist. Wonder if anyone submit their film to this festival and what are your opinion. Thanks.

  • Truthisgravey | September 18, 2013 12:07 PM

    Don't trust NYCIFF and Roberto Rizzo. Read this article, freepressreleases.com/filmmakers-claim-exploited-scammed-nyciff-film-festival/463778

    I saw that he was an extra on the Smurfs movie. I suspect he has no clout and a want to be. Therefore, he chose to start a film festival to make money. I guess Woody Allen needs to add that, those that can't, teach, well, now it is those that can't, start their own festival.

  • Carly | July 31, 2013 1:40 AMReply

    “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.”

    This comment coming from Rooftop Films, an organization that has consistently rejected many of my short films. Many of the fests you attack in your articles have shown my work, why should I listen to you? IndieWire, you're goons!

  • Shawn W | February 18, 2013 3:00 PMReply

    Yawn.... Who cares?

  • Jonas Walker | January 25, 2013 1:26 PMReply

    Personally I don't see why this bothers anyone. What's the big deal? They're offering filmmakers a chance to get their films out there, meet some other filmmakers, and have fun. Not everybody is going to get accepted to Sundance, after all. If people don't like the festivals nobody is pointing a gun to their heads to participate. And the article evens says that the festivals do everything they advertise they do. I don't see how this is news. The film snobs need to lighten up some. If you're too good for small festivals like this then I guess we'll see you at the Oscars.

  • Michael g. | January 22, 2013 12:37 PMReply

    Excellent article that only brushes the surface of the scams out there. It's misrepresentation that is at the heart of this. Organizations which call themselves film festivals and don't show films to the public, simply exist to take money from credulous filmmakers. Sure filmmakers might enjoy the dinner and hanging out with other filmmakers - that's mostly a circle jerk (join a local legit film society and network that way instead). Since these awards are frequently not based on merit, but primarily on the fact that you pony up the fee, it gives the filmmaker a false sense of their own abilities. There are plenty of other second and third tier film fests which are legit, so if the only way you can get into a festival or to earn an award is to purchase access, you might think about a different career.

  • Jazzy J. | January 22, 2013 12:10 PMReply

    Too many movies anyways. Making a good film includes accounting formally and aesthetically for your socio-historical time...you can't rely on past patterns to work for you. That's exactly what these scam artists are take advantage of: belief in awards, clout, right to celebrate your creative accomplishment (this is not a right), bad movies. Dan Nuxoll is absolutely correct about reputation construction. And blind submissions through Withoutabox is lazy. Withoutabox is lazy. It only exists because filmmakers are so abundant, they have become a reliable consumer base. Withoutabox does nothing to help filmmaking as an art.

    Jerzy J: Why do you want a statue? Make your own.
    Justin T: Are you kidding me? Go to Red Lobster and save the plane fare.

  • Jerzy J. | January 17, 2013 11:36 PMReply

    I guess the writer thinks we should only submit our films to the biggest festivals like Sundance and Cannes. Only problem is that no one gets in to those. At least no one I know. I kinda like having smaller fests like these to submit to. Gives me a better chance of bringing home a statue. 4 awards and counting....

  • Justin Tabuenke | January 17, 2013 11:10 PMReply

    So let me get this straight. These festivals charged filmmakers if they wanted to buy an extra trophy and/or attend a fancy dinner? Um, yeah, so does just about every festival I've ever attended with "Young Lacy". I guess these guys that are complaining would rather everything be free? Maybe Obama can nationalize all film festivals and then there will be no more entry fees and we can all win the Best Picture Award. LOL.

  • Yvette | April 12, 2013 12:32 AM

    I'm not sure some folks on here understand what this article is about.

    At a legitimate film festival you pay your submission fee to enter a film. The funds from submissions are normally used to offset costs to hold an actual physical film festival that can be attended and watch films.

    These scam film festivals take your submission fees, watch your films in the comfort of their home without an audience and because they are most-likely not anyone special....so the films are being judged by... you got it...no one special. Then Mr. No One Special picks a few favorites and mails out a cheap certificate to say "you've already won a million bucks!" Oops... that's another scam.

    So those of you on here thinking that others are telling you that only major festivals are all you have is not what they're saying.

    They are trying to protect you from being scammed out of your money.

    There are lots of great, affordable and legitimate small film festivals with amazing guest speakers and audiences to screen your film.

    If a festival is not screening your film publicly, that is not a film festival!