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

By Jason Guerrasio | Indiewire January 16, 2013 at 10:32AM

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.

Filmmakers aren’t the only ones who have grown suspicious of the legitimacy of these competitions. Well-established film festivals have been linked to them because of their similarity in name and have had to take action to make the distinction clear.

“We actually had the FBI look into them, but they said there was nothing they could do."

Tony Sheppard, president and founder of the Anchorage International Film Festival, first heard about the Alaska International Film Awards in 2008. Then calling itself the Alaska International Film Festival, it shared an acronym with the Anchorage fest, which caused confusion among filmmakers about which festival they actually were submitting to, according to Sheppard. That led to him looking deeper into the other AIFF.

“It had a P.O. box locally, but it says ‘suite,’ so it’s very misleading,” Sheppard says. “I also called, and I didn’t get a-hold of anybody.” Sheppard decided to put a notice on the Anchorage website that made clear that it had no affiliation with the other AIFF and that filmmakers should be cautious of engaging with it. “We actually had the FBI look into them, but they said there was nothing they could do,” he says.

Two years later, the Alaska fest gained attention again when Anchorage blogger Steven Aufrecht wrote a post on the difference between the two AIFFs that suggested the Alaska fest was a scam. In response, the Alaska fest’s attorney sent a letter accusing him of libel. Aufrecht’s attorney, Anchorage media lawyer John McKay, who also had assisted the Anchorage fest in its encounters with Alaska, sent a letter to Alaska’s attorney that Aufrecht posted on his blog stating that the threat of a libel suit is “without legal or factual basis.”

Sheppard says he also tried to get the Alaska fest’s listing taken off of Withoutabox but he was unsuccessful. However, his actions did force Alaska to change its name to “Film Awards,” though the web address for the site is still

Cohen and Sheppard both say they were never able to speak to anyone involved with the Alaska Film Awards. (Indiewire’s calls and e-mails to the competition were not returned.)

This article is related to: Festivals, IW Investigation, Filmmaker Toolkit: Festivals, Filmmaker Toolkit

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