Click to Skip Ad
Closing in...
Celebrating 17 Years of Film.Biz.Fans.
by Jason Guerrasio
January 16, 2013 10:32 AM
32 Comments
  • |

An IW Investigation: The Dark Underbelly of the Film Festival Circuit, Part 1

When the Sundance Film Festival hands out its grand jury prizes Jan. 26 in Park City, it will be an evening full of elated filmmakers, both new and established, filled with satisfaction and an anticipation of what’s to come for their films as they are recognized at the country’s premiere festival. On the same night, 750 miles southwest in La Jolla, CA, a similar event, the California Film Awards, will be taking place in a swanky ballroom overlooking the Pacific Ocean. This one, however, will do almost nothing to help the winning filmmakers get their work seen by anyone.

It’s supposed to be a special time in a filmmaker’s life: submitting his movie to film festivals. It can be as strenuous (and expensive) as making the film, but the filmmaker will (theoretically) finally get the satisfaction of showing his hard work to an audience. Thanks to online festival-submission giant Withoutabox, this has become much easier, as with a few keystrokes a filmmaker can submit to an unlimited amount of film festivals throughout the world.

But buried in this vast catalogue are an increasing number with questionable intentions. Since 2008, a string of film/screenwriting competition events, or events that call themselves film festivals but do not screen films to the public, have popped up on Withoutabox that are misleading filmmakers into thinking that they are submitting to regional festivals set in beautiful locales when in fact they are sending their work to mere online competitions that may or may not have an event to celebrate the award winners.

These operations seem to have flown under the radar of most in the film community, since filmmakers that blindly pay submission fees to as many festivals as they can afford often then move on unless they’ve gotten an acceptance notice. At the same time, with the large number of winners these events have, the chances of grabbing an award are very good, so if a filmmaker does win one why on Earth would he complain? Even so, some have grown suspicious.

READ MORE: Ted Hope Says To Best Serve Audiences, Film Festivals Need A Reboot

Producer Kristi Denton Cohen submitted her film “The River Why” to festivals in 2010 and thought she had done her due diligence. She submitted to fests that have a bit of clout while also choosing some smaller ones that might have been a good fit for her film’s outdoor feel. The acceptance e-mails rolled in, including one that said “The River Why” had received the festival’s Best Narrative Feature and Best Actor awards. Since she couldn’t recall ever being invited to the fest’s screenings, Cohen took a closer look at the e-mail and realized it wasn’t a film festival but a film awards competition called the Alaska International Film Awards.

"The River Why"

For a $35 submission fee (or $50 if not submitted early), her film was given to a jury that hands out more than 20 awards. But the films were not shown to the public. The e-mail went on to say that she could purchase a fancy crystal trophy and to encourage her to post on her film’s website that it had won the awards. She decided not to pay for the trophy.

Peter McBride went through a similar experience when he submitted his documentary “Chasing Water” to the Mountain Film Festival last year. An e-mail he received said that his film had won the Best Environmental Documentary award, and it noted that he could attend a dinner in Mammoth Lakes, California, to receive it. The price? Eighty dollars a plate — plus the travel and lodging expenses he’d have to pay out of his own pocket to attend. He ultimately declined, but days later he received an e-mail stating that for $155 (plus shipping) the festival would send him his award. Like Cohen’s, his film would not be shown to the public.

“Out of all the festivals I applied to, this was the most suspicious,” says McBride, whose film played at more than 60 film festivals, 15 of which he attended. “When I spoke to someone from the festival, I said, ‘It’s a little weird that you are asking me to pay to receive the award,’ and they said, ‘We’re just a small operation.’ I just sucked it up this time and paid [for the award]. I passed it off to the people who funded the film.”

The Mountain Film Festival handed out more than 30 awards in 2012.

32 Comments

  • Sonja | June 21, 2014 9:24 PMReply

    Huh. This subject is fascinating and important, and I posted here hoping to learn better sleuthing techniques from others, but for some reason my post was deleted almost immediately.

    Very strange, now that I see what is still posted. I appreciated this article, I think it meets good journalistic standards, and I raised questions about going forward. Blanket statements about online submission services (see below) are not accurate or helpful. Nor do I imagine that this is the last word on misleading online contests. They will think up something new.

    I gave a true first name and email address. I wonder what that's about? In case someone is about to delete this -- hi!

  • Frank Desmond | April 23, 2014 7:16 PMReply

    Almost all this film festivals are listed in Filmfreeway. BE AWARE.

  • JASON GUERRASIO IS AN IDIOT | August 14, 2013 3:32 PMReply

    Jason, what festival will you slander next? I can't wait to see you make a bigger fool of yourself!!!

  • Eric | August 5, 2013 12:09 PMReply

    Yeah, because most filmmakers stand a chance screening at Sundance or Tribeca. Give me a break with this ridiculous article Jason.

    It should be noted that Jason has also attached the Manhattan Film Festival - a festival that often waives submission fees, invites filmmakers back without charging a submission fee and also shares ticket revenue. Jason works for the Tribeca Film Institute which is affiliated with the Tribeca Film Festival. I reckon his intentions here are nothing more than slander to keep the little festivals down.

  • Sandy Hook Filmmaker | August 5, 2013 12:02 PMReply

    I've not shown with these guys, in fact I don't submit my work to specific organizations that called themselves "awards", so I can't judge. But based on your piece on the Manhattan Film Festival, I'm inclined to take caution in the idea that this too, is suspicious.

    Filmmakers, take this "series" of articles with a grain of salt and shot of common sense. Some of the readers have uncovered that the author represent another, much larger festival organization and it's possible he could be disseminating this material on their behalf. It's also possible he's just a shit head.

  • Conrad | August 2, 2013 9:41 AMReply

    A major part of the problem is withoutabox.com. They require film festivals to take submission fees, otherwise the fest will have to pay the site a substantial sum of money to become listed. It's tough to find the right moral balance when operating a festival. With that said, the talk about having to purchase your trophies etc. is hypocritical. Indiewire prides itself on receiving "webby" awards, which also have to be purchased.

  • Nelson | August 1, 2013 9:31 AMReply

    Note that there seem to be several "Mountain Film"-like festival names, including MountainFilm in Colorado and at least one other (Banff Mountain Film). Please be more specific in citing names.

  • Grey | August 1, 2013 2:31 AMReply

    They should have investigated film festivals like NY International Independent Film & Video Festival along with Hoboken International Film Festival which isn't even screened in Hoboken or the extra nefarious Garden State Film Festival, they are all terrible festivals run by scam artists

  • Sandy Hook Filmmaker | August 5, 2013 12:04 PM

    The Hoboken International Film Festival is a joke among New Jersey indie filmmakers. They plaster their website and FB with celebrity photos but no filmmaker I know that has attended the festival has ever seen a celeb there. Not that any of that matters - I think it's image building. Festivals need to work on functioning as a service and not worry about appealing to mass media and entertainment circles. Dodgy series of articles.

  • Jerry Hoffman | August 2, 2013 2:57 PM

    Any words on New York City International Film Festival?

  • Conrad | August 2, 2013 9:31 AM

    Can you elaborate on why these festivals are scams? That's a strong word.

  • Curtis | July 31, 2013 11:01 PMReply

    Everyone should see the outstanding documentary "Official Rejection" written and directed by Paul Osborne. Worth the time. It's a documentary following the exploits of a group of filmmakers as they take their independent feature, Ten 'til Noon, along the film festival circuit, and the politics, pitfalls, triumphs and comic tragedies they encounter along the way. Full of interviews with important players in the indie world, this is a must see for young filmmakers on the what happens when the shooting stops.

  • Sandy Hook Filmmaker | August 5, 2013 12:07 PM

    Indeed the film festival circuit is a pain in the ass and often takes enormous research to weed out the festivals that are likely to bypass your particular movie project but it's not as bad as the film makes it out to be. I think people need to stop worrying about getting into festivals like Sundance, Cannes and Tribeca and support the lower tier indie fests (which this author seems have targeted). Keep swinging filmmakers, and ignore the noise lower tier festivals. It ain't worth it to quit!

  • Curtis | July 31, 2013 11:01 PMReply

    Everyone should see the outstanding documentary "Official Rejection" written and directed by Paul Osborne. Worth the time. It's a documentary following the exploits of a group of filmmakers as they take their independent feature, Ten 'til Noon, along the film festival circuit, and the politics, pitfalls, triumphs and comic tragedies they encounter along the way. Full of interviews with important players in the indie world, this is a must see for young filmmakers on the what happens when the shooting stops.

  • Curtis | July 31, 2013 11:00 PMReply

    Everyone should see the outstanding documentary "Official Rejection" written and directed by Paul Osborne. Worth the time. It's a documentary following the exploits of a group of filmmakers as they take their independent feature, Ten 'til Noon, along the film festival circuit, and the politics, pitfalls, triumphs and comic tragedies they encounter along the way. Full of interviews with important players in the indie world, this is a must see for young filmmakers on the what happens when the shooting stops.

  • Curtis | July 31, 2013 11:00 PMReply

    Everyone should see the outstanding documentary "Official Rejection" written and directed by Paul Osborne. Worth the time. It's a documentary following the exploits of a group of filmmakers as they take their independent feature, Ten 'til Noon, along the film festival circuit, and the politics, pitfalls, triumphs and comic tragedies they encounter along the way. Full of interviews with important players in the indie world, this is a must see for young filmmakers on the what happens when the shooting stops.

  • Curtis | July 31, 2013 10:59 PMReply

    Everyone should see the outstanding documentary "Official Rejection" written and directed by Paul Osborne. Worth the time. It's a documentary following the exploits of a group of filmmakers as they take their independent feature, Ten 'til Noon, along the film festival circuit, and the politics, pitfalls, triumphs and comic tragedies they encounter along the way. Full of interviews with important players in the indie world, this is a must see for young filmmakers on the what happens when the shooting stops.

  • Eric | July 31, 2013 12:16 AMReply

    Yeah, because most filmmakers stand a chance screening at Sundance or Tribeca. Give me a break with this ridiculous article Jason.

    It should be noted that Jason has also attached the Manhattan Film Festival - a festival that often waives submission fees, invites filmmakers back without charging a submission fee and also shares ticket revenue. Jason works for the Tribeca Film Institute which is affiliated with the Tribeca Film Festival. I reckon his intentions here are nothing more than slander to keep the little festivals down.

  • martha may | January 27, 2013 11:34 AMReply

    The Universal Film & Festival Organization was founded to support and implement best business practices for film festivals throughout the world.

    UFFO,is a global voluntary organization and is not-for-profit. It was created to bring together the highest quality of Film Festivals and the film making community by encouraging film festivals to become sound in best business practice. To date we have been very successful in this endeavor.

    This is the real deal for "best business practices for film festivals"

    The UFFO best business practices is completely voluntary, it is free and easy to implement. In addition it is a blueprint for filmmakers in deciding which film festivals to do business with

    UFFO is also an open international organization and membership is open to all creative individuals, filmmakers, film schools and film festivals

  • G. Slaight | January 25, 2013 1:38 PMReply

    Seriously, how naive is this writer? As if ALL film festivals aren't in it for the money. I suppose Sundance is one big charity organization right? I mean, c'mon. As a screenwriter who participated in one of the festivals mentioned in the article (and had a good time I might add), I'm insulted by the snobbery, ignorance, and elitism displayed in this hack piece. I'll submit my work whoever I damn well please, thank you. And you nor anybody else has a right to tell me my achievements or accolades I receive along the way are somehow any less "prestigious" or important because they don't happen to be from the top 5 biggest festivals in the world.

  • Laurie Kirby | January 21, 2013 12:55 PMReply

    Thank you for this article. The mission of the IFFS is to promote best practices in the film festival industry. This certainly exposes the seamy side that serves no one's interest but the unscrupulous purveyors of this nonsense. The problem needs to be addressed on many levels. As in all areas of life, there are those that take advantage of an otherwise positive experience whenever possible. That sadly, is the human condition.

    I would suggest the following:

    1. Filmmakers need to do their due diligence when applying for festivals. Seek recommendations, referrals, testimonials, etc. from peers and other festivals.
    2. Withoutabox has a responsibility to its customers and needs to find a way to rate and vet these unscrupulous festivals. Their monopoly will not survive if those who prey on innocent filmmakers are allowed to use their services continue to exploit filmmakers through the site. It is not enough to say they are just a conduit.
    3. We, as an industry, need to have a forum to alert others when we know or learn about this. It is our duty to do the best we can to assist naive filmmakers and should contact authorities when we see dubious practices, be it Better Business Bureau, State Attorney Generals, Withoutabox or the media in general.
    4. There are no easy answers but we owe it to our filmmakers to try and alleviate these terrible practices that cast a negative impression on our otherwise honorable industry.
    Laurie Kirby, Esq., Executive Director

  • martha may | January 27, 2013 11:32 AM

    Laurie Kirby is now "promoting best business practices for film festivals" this is the UFFO remit, a non for profit organization the is "promoting best business practices for film festivals" or their magazine that exposed fraudulent festivals and blacklisting festivals Universal Film Magazine.

    SO what is the IFFS doing about fraud? nothing, now the IFFS are jumping on the bandwagon and taking the high ground. What about the festivals that Laurie Kirby was involved in that went out of business and went broke owing thousands to contractors. Have they now been paid?

    Perhaps Laurie should apply best business practices to the submits the IFFS put on. The IFFS summit is Paris last year was a complete fiasco as the IFFS kicked off members of the panel for complaining about the running of the summit and hotel bills. Th4e Paris fiasco recently let directly to the forming of the Film Festival Academy who are now in direct competition with the IFFS

  • Chase | January 17, 2013 11:25 PMReply

    How is this any different from the Webby Awards ? A lot of contests give certificates for free but charge for trophies. This is an investigative piece? I was expecting something earth shattering.

  • Eric | August 5, 2013 12:10 PM

    It's no different. In fact, it's no different from applying to college really. You pay a non-refundable submission fee, you get in or don't get in. If you get an award, GREAT! The thing to be wary of is whether or not you have to PAY for your award. No filmmaker should have to purchase their trophies. If the organization cannot afford to give away trophies, they should stick with certificates only.

  • Janeatte Walker | January 17, 2013 10:57 PMReply

    What kind of hit piece is this? My husband won an award (well deserved I might add) for his short film at the California Film Awards in 2011 and we attended the event. It was a lovely event and we quite enjoyed ourselves. My husband worked for over 3 years making that film and the recognition he received was well deserved and certainly appreciated by us. That's my 2 cents at least.

  • Jen | June 4, 2014 8:56 PM

    ooops, meant to reply to the above post.

  • Jen | June 4, 2014 8:56 PM

    Fun fact (coming from an actual winner): you also have to buy a Tony Award if you're not a top listed producer (unlike the oscars, all the main producers get a Tony but most have to purchase the actual statuette). Ditto the drama desk, etc... It's not as sketchy as it sounds, and these "festivals" (contests) aren't doing anything other than what they say they're doing. It's a good ego boost to fledgling filmmakers, so what?

  • Eric Norcross | July 31, 2013 12:24 AM

    I won an award at MFF, which Jason has just published an article attacking. By doing so, he has attempted to devalue my achievement, and your husband's achievement for that matter. Jason, the "journalist" is a writer who works for Tribeca. It seems he's on a mission to promote the bigger festivals as the only events worth screening at. His articles are blatantly slanderous.

  • Roger Cohn | January 17, 2013 10:47 PMReply

    In other news, film festivals are a business. Shocker! How are these any different than any awards event? You forgot to mention that true independent films have absolutely no shot at getting into Sundance. Sorry, not everyone's gonna win an Oscar. So what if there are lower tier awards events. And...? If we don't like it, we don't have to submit.

  • Eric | August 5, 2013 12:12 PM

    Mind you, Oscars are paid for too... thought thousands if not millions of dollars in advertising and constant PR PR PR PR to academy voters. It's all money, always has been.

  • Steve Aufrecht | January 17, 2013 2:06 AMReply

    Thanks for this piece and the link. Film makers work too hard to waste their money on phantom festivals. And The head of the Anchorage International Film Festival is Tony, not Tom, Sheppard. I posted a three part post - after the threatening attorney letter -
    1. What's a Scam?
    2. What's a Film Festival?
    3. A comparison of the authenticity of the Anchorage International Film Festival and the Alaska International Film Festival.
    You can find find all three at
    http://whatdoino-steve.blogspot.com/2010/07/whats-scam.html

  • kmf | January 16, 2013 3:05 PMReply

    thanks for doing this...about time....