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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.
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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





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