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

Indiewire 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.
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Honolulu Film Awards logo

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"
"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.

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 alaskafilmfestival.com.

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.)

For Chuck Boller, executive director of the Hawaii International Film Festival, things got a little scary when he tried to learn more about the Honolulu International Film Festival. According to reports, Boller ended up filing a lawsuit against the owners of the Honolulu festival stating that having the same acronym, HIFF, caused confusion among media that covered one festival but referenced it by using the other fest’s name. There was also an incident where a filmmaker who won an award from the Honolulu fest mistakenly showed up at the Hawaii fest instead. In court papers, Boller also states that he was threatened over the phone by the Honolulu festival’s owner. The case has since been settled out of court. (Boller would not comment for this story).

The Honolulu International Film Festival has changed its name to the Honolulu Film Awards and since speaking to this reporter has updated its submissions page to read that it does not screen films to the public. On its Withoutabox listing, however, it still states, “the top films from each category will be screened in a traditional film festival format for the public.”

When reached for comment, Honolulu Film Awards event director Sean D. Stewart deflects most questions about the competition by saying that he’s only the “local representative.” “I pretty much come in when I do the festival, and I speak and present the awards,” he says. The 2012 event involved the presentation of 35 awards.

Honolulu Film Awards still

Stewart, who has been the event director for three years, is in fact a “success coach for creative entrepreneurs,” as he puts it, adding that he’s been trained under the top coaches, including motivational speaker icon Tony Robbins. And it seems that his closest connection to the film industry is his father, Hollywood screenwriter Douglas Day Stewart (“The Blue Lagoon,” “An Officer and a Gentleman”). On YouTube, Stewart has a video of himself addressing the attendees at last year’s awards. It shows him handing out certificates to the winners then giving what he describes as an “inspirational talk” on how to continue their careers.

“I felt like I was in a room full of rubes,” says Casey Casseday, who attended the Honolulu Film Awards event to receive the Best Coming of Age award for “The Green Rush,” which he wrote and produced. “I’m sure some people need that kind of encouragement, but it’s not for me.”

All of the competitions mentioned in this story state on their websites that accepted films are not physically screened for the public.So according to McKay, the Anchorage lawyer, what these competitions are doing is perfectly legit.

“If they don’t misrepresent what they’re doing and don’t trade off the hard work of established film festivals to mislead folks, what they’re doing is legal,” he says. “I think the question is really: Do people understand what these places are doing? They haven’t always been up front about what they’re doing.”

But who is behind these competitions and festivals? They all seem to be identical in how they are presented online and to filmmakers, but there is no company name or organization that is consistently present on the sites. Was there anyone behind the curtain?

With some persistent digging, Indiewire has discovered that all of these entities have been owned at one time, or are still owned, by a group of individuals in Nevada.

For more of Indiewire’s investigation into the shadowy underbelly of the film festival world — and who may be behind it – read Part Two.

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