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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.

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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"
"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.