Celebrating 17 Years of Film.Biz.Fans.
by Jason Guerrasio
January 16, 2013 10:32 AM
28 Comments
  • |

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

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.

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.

You might also like:

28 Comments

  • 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.

  • 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....