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.
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.
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.