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by Sean Farnel
February 6, 2013 10:52 AM
49 Comments
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Fair Trade for Filmmakers: Is It Time For Festivals To Share Their Revenue?

Courtesy of the Sundance Institute's Instagram feed
Over the past 20 years or so, film festivals have beget more film festivals like rabbits on alkyl nitrates. Even the Sundance Kid, progenitor of the contemporary independent film festival, questioned, on the opening of his event's 35th edition in Park City, if there were too many of these cinema shindigs. "There's a festival in every neighborhood," he told the press. "I don't know about the overriding value except that we'll get the chance to see more films."

"Film festivals are crucial exhibition circuits, because they nurture independent films, showcase national cinemas, and bring international films to ever-increasing audiences," rightly notes Jeffrey Ruoff in his introduction to the instructive study "Coming To A Festival Near You: Programming Film Festivals." "In recent decades, as art cinemas have closed, and as cities have explored new ways to enhance tourism and culture exchange, more festivals have appeared every year. There are now several thousand throughout the world."

Nobody seems to know exactly how many, or even a close approximate, film festivals exist, though we do know that the vast majority of them are in Europe and North America. Perhaps this accounts for their high standing on the list of Stuff White People Like. In my city, Toronto, it's oft said there is in excess of 75 festivals, an assumption a glance at the weekly movie listings validates. There is always at least one film festival going on in Toronto, and usually it's more than that.

But I disagree with Robert Redford's suggestion that there may be too many. As Ruoff and many others have indicated, they've become essential to the distribution and exhibition of independent cinema. The problem is that there are too many film festivals that operate on old notions of what and who festivals are for and about. There are too many festivals that think they are Sundance, or Berlin, or Cannes, or Toronto. There are too many red carpets, markets, pitches, panels, passes, cocktails, crudités, canvas bags, galas, special presentations, opening nights, press releases, prizes etc.

Why don't any of the festivals seers implement the most obvious solution? Pay the fucking filmmakers.
Mostly, though, there are too many festivals that believe they are force multipliers, that an invitation to their event lends a film prestige, or buzz, or sales, or media coverage, or a direct path to awards season glory. Worse is that most indie filmmakers have bought into this notion, and therefore gift their work to these events, which in turn sell tickets and sponsorships as well as receiving government and philanthropic funding. Within the film festival ecosystem there seems to be a rift between the cultures of gift and commodity exchange. Those familiar with Lewis Hyde's "The Gift" will recognize the dichotomy.

Hyde's book, published in 1983, is a contemporary classic, hailed as essential reading by literary greats such as Margaret Atwood, David Foster Wallace, Zadie Smith and Jonathan Lethem. "The Gift" eludes précis, but hinges on the notion that a work of art, and the labor behind it, is a gift, embodied with the inherent values and social relations that distinguish gifts from commodities. Yet within a market-driven logic the gift economy becomes problematic. Namely, how does an artist who has chosen to labor with a gift survive in a culture dominated by market exchange?

This will be a familiar dilemma for any independent filmmaker who has had his or her work presented on the international film festival circuit. It's likely even more applicable to those unable to crack that nut, who through submission fees pay for the privilege of rejection. If somebody were to add up the revenues generated by film festivals, even just through submission fees, accreditation, and public ticket sales, I submit that it would be a significant number. And those are just the direct earned revenues. Perhaps the best way to account for the growth of film festivals, then, is through simple economics: most of them get their content for free.

Of all the chatter about how festivals can save independent film, why don't any of the festivals seers implement the most obvious solution? Pay the fucking filmmakers. Let's call it the 35% rule: 35% of earned revenues at film festivals should go directly back into the pockets of filmmakers. It's not an arbitrary number. Typically this is the percentage of gross box office revenues (though it's often higher) which are remitted to the rights holders in the theatrical market.

The contemporary international film festival circuit is, primarily, an exhibition circuit. Hoity-toity notions of curatorial independence and prestige rapidly break down when one analyzes the way films flow from the major festivals through the speciality and B-level fests down to the smallest of local events. For example, over 85% of the documentaries that premiered at Sundance 2012 went on to play five or more film festivals. Several played more than 20 festivals. That's exhibition, not curation.

In a recent New York Times article about the trauma of being rejected by Sundance, the neophyte filmmaker Robyn Miller (who with his brother created "Myst") shrugged off the declination. "The festival model is old," he said. He's right. For festivals to be truly relevant to independent creators we need from them less pseudo-pomp and more direct revenue sharing. The first step: festivals need to start paying filmmakers for the privilege of presenting their work.

Sean Farnel is an independent writer and strategist. He tends to prefer documentaries, but is warming up to make believe. His very occasional blog is RippingReality.com. He'll be at Berlin.

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49 Comments

  • Roi Frey | March 25, 2014 2:50 PMReply

    Jewish film festivals have been paying as well. And quite high fees too. They pay flat fees per screening rather than a percentage, which I think is an easier way to do it. I guess that like the LGBT festivals, they are not trying to claim to be force multipliers. They are exhibition tools, bringing niche content to niche audiences.
    On another note, 35% is what the rights holders get paid in theatrical. The rights holders are normally the distributors, who take out their P&A costs, then their percentage. Then the sales agents come in and take their cut. So by the time the filmmaker gets anything there's not much left at all. Not a fair trade by any means. With VoD becoming more and more popular, I believe that's the space for real Fair Trade film distribution. But you're right, it would be great if all these little festivals pay up. And then they will probably disappear quite fast...

  • Cassandra | February 14, 2013 10:10 PMReply

    Gay & lesbian film festivals around the world have been paying screening fees for years - whether directly to filmmakers or to distributors. I find it a bit odd that no one running those fests has chimed in (and there's just one mention of it in the comments of Tom Hall's follow-up article). Clearly those festivals have figured out a way to allocate some money towards screening fees while continuing to operate - including throwing parties and accommodating guests. Perhaps they made it work because, with a couple of exceptions, g&l fests haven't historically presumed to be "force multipliers" with the ability to offer prestige, sales or major media coverage.

  • Tim | February 14, 2013 4:08 AMReply

    This is an interesting discussion, and a vital one for anyone who cares about independent film, especially film as an art form. I think it would be useful to frame the subject by all of us first acknowledging the sad fact that, even though most filmmakers and festivals have the best of intentions, the status quo of independent film as an industry is nevertheless dysfunctional in so many ways. We must also all acknowledge that, despite our best intentions, we are all still complicit in perpetuating the dysfunctionality as players within the ecosystem and as consumers in the marketplace.

    If the logic we're using here is that of good intentions and "fairness", the solvency/insolvency of a festival itself is actually irrelevant if their very existence is almost entirely dependent on insolvent films and insolvent filmmakers, and the festival is not creating enough value for those insolvent filmmakers. But, if the logic is just business, well then let's be clear to admit it and just call it what it is. There are good festivals in some of the richest parts of the country who sell expensive gala tickets and spend a lot of money flying their programmers all over the world, and it would seem the ethical imperative is certainly on them to either be breaking new films in a big way or paying filmmakers.

    "Fair trade" is good language to use, because regular people are familiar with it, and because we are dealing with very similar problems related to the supply or value chain of products that consumers buy. Film festivals and film societies, in their capacities of curators, tastemakers, and film markets, are in a perfect position to use their influence to shape the ecosystem to fairer outcomes and to educate their audiences about the fairness of the supply chain they rely on to consume their content.

    The status quo is dysfunctional largely because the logic of risk and return in independent film is essentially inverted, with various layers of distributors taking a very large percentage of the aggregate upside that likely bears no relation to their risk-taking. There are a few very good reasons why that is able to persist, and a main one is because the system of independent film in the US is built upon a large supply of speculative and eventually insolvent films and insolvent filmmakers that is seemingly never-ending, as it is fueled by the desperation of current filmmakers and the hopes of the next generation waiting to take their place.

    Anyone who cares about independent film should care about this issue, because it is a recipe for continual mediocrity in the art form, and it doesn't allow even much of the best talent to grow into real filmmaking careers. Hopefully, a combination of educating the audience so they won't let Hollywood crowd out independent film as much, greater VOD access and a more over-the-top world, and conscious decisions to buy more direct will eventually bring us to a fairer place. But film festivals are in a position to lead by example, not least by buying direct themselves through ideas like revenue sharing -- and generally putting their money where their mouth is to add value in as many other ways as they can and becoming real long-term partners in the films they believe in.

  • Sujewa Ekanayake | February 13, 2013 12:24 PMReply

    Both articles (this one and the response to it by Tom Hall) are good. things being where they are right now, as a filmmaker i have a Start of Distribution expenses item in my budgets for current projects, and cost of submitting to film festivals, etc is covered under that (meaning when I fundraise that's one of the essential expenses that i try to raise $s for). On the film fest end, I like what NewFilmmakers (& probably others) does - as a part of the submission process they create a digital copy of the film & set up options to sell downloads, etc (i believe), anyway, additional services such as those will probably make most filmmakers happy. it's interesting that we have this convo at all, it's possible that indie filmmaking & film festivals have grown to be a unique aspect of american culture, i don't think any other country produces as many indie films or as many indie film festivals (and this is probably a positive thing or can be framed as a positive thing).

  • Thomas Mathai | February 8, 2013 4:52 PMReply

    Why can't more film festivals be like music festivals and art shows? Every musician or artist I've met promotes and sells their work. Musicians especially depend on merchandise sales.

    Is it because both the festivals and filmmakers count on theatrical deals being made and don't want to do anything to jeopardize that? At least with the short films, it should be possible to set up an area to buy the DVD and merchandise.

  • Stuart | February 10, 2013 7:32 AM

    Great idea Thomas - but one that would require distributors, executives, etc to be more flexible in their systems.
    And there we get closer to the real problem area here?

  • Michael Ryan | February 8, 2013 3:03 PMReply

    I think this is an important conversation.

    I think that every film festival has to be able to answer the question: Does our festival add value to films & filmmakers? And every filmmaker has to ask themselves a similar question when they submit their film: Will this festival add value to my film and to my career?

    I come at it from the festival side, because I'm the director of a festival for short films by young filmmakers. (the YoungCuts Film Festival) We could cheerfully agree to Sean's suggestion because 35% of bupkis is still zip.

    We believe that we need to earn the submission fees that we charge. We try to do that by offering feedback where appropriate, giving advice, hiring young filmmakers for the short educational films we produce and promoting short films submitted to us.

    For example, we give other film festivals free access to our collection of submitted films and organize the films in various categories to make it easier for other festivals to find short films that they want to program - and then facilitate them getting those films. Basically, acting as a very specialized film library; last week we created a gallery just of short films about food for a specialized film festival.

    But we also run into the frustration on the other end - the festivals that just want us to tell all our Alumni to submit to them and we have to explain to them that we don't want filmmakers to SUBMIT to more festivals, we want to help them be PROGRAMMED by more festivals.

    The one thing that I am sure of is that there isn't a blanket solution. Each film festival has to regularly justify its own existence and each filmmaker has to regularly decide what they need from festivals for each new project and each step of their career.

  • Mandy Leith | February 8, 2013 12:58 PMReply

    Excellent article Sean, and a great conversation thread. But as you say, there are 100 different kinds of festivals so it's hard to generalize with a one-size-fits-all solution. Just as the Inuit have 100 words for snow, perhaps we need to develop 100 different terms for film festivals. That could help filmmakers, distributors and audience to understand, discern and even negotiate their relationship to the fair trade investment/return equation they are buying into.

    As a filmmaker, I increasingly hear my peers complaining that local film festivals don't recognize or support their work or their cause - they feel alienated by the programming and lack of community-minded support for the local industry. I'm not talking about programming local films necessarily, even a nod of acknowledgement would be welcome. I also run a small non-profit documentary screening program, so I understand the needs of programming and curating with an eye to revenue, but I feel that film festival organizers need to be educated as to the real needs of filmmakers. We need to find ways to integrate the two very different worlds of the filmmaker and the festival.

    Our little program, OPEN CINEMA isn't a festival per se, as we program once a month instead of during a few concentrated days, but we are in the same business. It's core to our mandate to pay the filmmaker a screening fee to the tune of about 25% of our revenue. It always shocks me to realize that there are festivals that don't do this. Why not? Isn't that the same kind of farm worker exploitation that we can now choose to opt out of at the grocery store till by buying Fair Trade products? Perhaps it's time to develop some practical Film Fair Trade guidelines and assignations to help create accountability, awareness and solidarity within the film festival and exhibition and distribution business.

  • Andrew Rodgers | February 8, 2013 12:39 PMReply

    The biggest problem I have with this article -- and I have many -- is that it completely ignores one of the biggest benefits that film festivals offer filmmakers.

    For practitioners of many other forms of art, finding a place to share your work with audiences isn't that complicated. As a young painter, for instance, all you really need is someone willing to place your work on a wall somewhere. (Obviously some walls, such as those at MOMA, are infinitely more desirable, but I digress.) The story isn't dissimilar for emerging writers, dancers, actors, sculptors, etc. Finding public exhibition for your work is not a herculean task.

    But if you're an emerging filmmaker who values a theatrical experience, where exactly do you go to share your work with a room full of people? In other words... how do you practice your craft? Unlike the countless open mics and coffee shop performance opportunities that exist for beginning musicians who want to fine tune their work see how audiences respond to their artistic choices, for example, there is no comparable infrastructure available for filmmakers. That is... other than film festivals.

    Put simply, film festivals (at least the good ones) offer filmmakers the opportunity to showcase their work to (usually) passionate and eager audiences... and gain tremendous insights from the experience. Watching audiences watch your film helps you see “what works” and what doesn't. You can get a direct and immediate response, for instance, to your choice of a particular joke, jump cut or jingle. And talking with audiences in a Q&A afterward gives you the chance to see what was understood or missed completely in your work. As I see it, the simple act of screening your film at a festival and being present to experience it can help you become a better filmmaker. There are, I believe, many other benefits that filmmakers receive from screening their work at film festivals as well -- many of which were already addressed elsewhere in the comments -- so I won't go into them further here.

    Let me just end on this: if financial compensation is your central consideration as an emerging filmmaker, then I encourage you to rent a theater and four-wall your film to take your share of the enormous piles of gold that we festivals have been hiding from you all these years.

  • Max | February 8, 2013 4:30 PM

    Is theatrical exposure valuable anymore?

    Filmmakers can easily showcase their work online. In fact YouTube and Vimeo are now conscious of the fact that filmmakers should make some money and have partner programs. There are even websites that act as curators for high quality content and point to the YouTube or Vimeo links.

    If the filmmaker wants to create a theatrical experience, that's possible too. A consumer HD projector and a burned Blu-Ray is very high quality for a low cost. Just like the young painter, all that's needed is a wall somewhere.

  • Michael Medeiros | February 7, 2013 11:26 PMReply

    This is a conversation that needs to be continued. It's not necessarily the time for hard pronouncements on either side of the equation. The film festival as a system is in turmoil, is flawed, is broken, is working, is empowering, is corrupt, is all of those things. But this is, at least a start to the conversation. And that's what's important, just as the conversation about festivals as a starting point to distribution was begun a few years ago. It is not farfetched that the explosion of film festivals has something to do with an ocean of free product. But lumping all festivals together is as misleading as lumping all humans together. They are a varied lot, as are their goals, intentions, and effectiveness. I for one look forward to the development of this conversation. Michael Medeiros / director, Tiger Lily Road. You can find us on FB and youtube.

  • NOBORU | February 7, 2013 4:41 PMReply

    Very interesting read, certainly something to have a conversation about.

    Note to some commentators:
    In no way, when i read this article, did I feel like the writer was suggesting that these film festivals should be a full on complete Return On Investment motto for indie filmmakers. What I got from it was: Should "some" of the revenue (if any) be "shared" with the people who provided the content for the festival. After all, no content = no festival, agreed? And vice-versa, but not necessarily.

    One factor needs to be included in this conversation and that is of advertising space. Surely everyone notices the amount of ads scattered throughout the venue, on the walls, stands, on the website, in the magazine, on screen before the movie begins, etc. I've been to many film festivals big and small, and even the small ones have ads everywhere. By the way, not just any company, I'm talking major brands like Coca-Cola and like.

  • Kat | February 7, 2013 4:34 AMReply

    Sean may know about the business of festivals, but what he knows are the ones with loads of money in comparatively wealthy public-subsidy-heavy countries, like HotDocs. unrepresentative of 99% of festivals.

    This model he suggests would kill the majority of the world's film festivals - I wonder how filmmakers would feel about losing their main arenas for getting funding and sales? Oh but I forgot - according to Sean, festivals only pretend to be a place where deals get done, sorry.

  • seafar | February 7, 2013 2:01 PM

    Then we agree, 1% of festivals can be leveraged re: sales/marketing. Having constructive discussions with anonymous commentators is difficult. The point of the piece was to open up a conversation I've been having privately for years, with filmmakers, distributors and festival people. Feel free to connect with me off this board if you want to continue. I'm interested in all perspectives on this. Really. Or...I've made a proposal. What's yours?

  • Kat | February 7, 2013 8:34 AM

    I wasn't saying the 99% gave sales/funding, but anyway, here's some that do - Cannes, Toronto, Berlin, IDFA, Sheffield, London, IFP, Sundance. All proven as places for funding and sales. Any good to you?

  • seafar | February 7, 2013 6:41 AM

    please provide some specific examples of the festivals to which you refer....you know, the 99% which are "the main areas for getting funding and sales"....this would be useful information for filmmakers seeking funding. and sales.

  • Richard Sowada | February 6, 2013 9:34 PMReply

    Interesting article. I've been part of a non-profit film festival in Australia for more than a decade and have no issue paying/negotiating filmmakers screening fees - within reason. There are other dynamics though which can squeeze festivals. Venues will often take 50% of revenue or the equivalent in venue hire. Sales agents will often request $1500 or more for screening fees whatever the size of the festival and distibutors here take 25% (which should eventually filter back to the filmmaker as the cumulative progresses). Take that final point (or any combination above) as the norm for a film: 50% of box goes to venues, 25% goes to distributor, 25% festival out ot which comes the logistic of getting the film to screen. It aint the festival that's making the cash. For smaller festivals sales agent rates are becoming increasingly prohibitive.

    Festivals can be enormously capital and labour intensive with big logistics - even for small events - and the margins also can be heartbreakingly minor for the effort - much the same as making a film. The way around that is to show less films and perhaps one's that make more money but do we really want that?

    I think the sense that film festivals are being exploitative is not right overall (but there may be some). Many festivals - like many filmmakers - go into things with high ideals of actually making a difference in and to the community - not to make money or sell tickets but to make a difference. That's the key to me. But like I said, we regularly pay screening fees and it's important that everyone shares in the success.

    I do think though that festivals are/will face some challenging times over the next few years with increasing costs and the disintegration of true independent venues that were prepared to support adventure. It's going to literally be be a real test of character for many.

  • seafar | February 7, 2013 6:49 AM

    i'm not suggesting that festivals have been exploitative. only that the financial model around which film festivals have been constructed are no longer serving independent creators. I'm not so hung up on percentages. it was a provocation. the principle is that filmmakers should have a share in the sales. would you start a music festival and expect the bands to play for free? open a gallery and give away the paintings?

  • Ian Clark | February 6, 2013 8:12 PMReply

    Ps. Apparently this comment box don't like my quotation marks, apostrophes, or em dashes. Sorry people..

  • Ian Clark | February 6, 2013 8:05 PMReply

    This was an interesting read. Definitely had me going back/forth in feeling aligned with/against it. As a filmmaker, I LOVE the idea of getting paid for my work, but that’s absolutely not why I am driven to make art. Mr. Farnel, you pose a wonderful question, “…how does an artist who has chosen to labor with a gift survive in a culture dominated by market exchange?”

    I also run a small festival with friends, so when I approach this writing from that perspective, and as an underdog, it feels a bit idealistic. Seemingly, this is a more relevant conversation in relation to some of the larger festivals or government-sponsored ones, but even then I wonder if it’s so easy? I'm certainly not the guy to ask.

    KAT and RUK made valid points below that I would echo—it’s crucial not to assume all festivals operate under the same logic.

    Our festival is one that does maintain a very small budget for screening fees and related artist expenses, but this only goes so far; it would be impossible as we currently operate to pay every single filmmaker for showing his/her respective work. Don’t get me wrong, I wish that we could do this. There are so many factors that go into deciding how/when these funds can be used: venue rentals, equipment rentals, specialty staff, liquor licenses, box office (we receive 50% of ours), show times, and community dynamics all factor in.

    Other grassroots festivals may differ, but what follows is a description of us. We are five individuals who work tirelessly throughout the year and do this with very little, if any, compensation—I'm talking pennies per hour if you penciled it out. Ultimately we do what we do because we love art and believe in community. From the outset, the idea was to create a platform that allowed us to meet other artists and show their works, and we all wear multiple hats to make that happen. Other festivals are probably in a similar boat. Two of our staff just gave up what meager stipends they would have received to be used toward an opening night dinner for artists—a combined amount that didn't exceed $500.

    I write extensively and with complete honesty to offer a glimpse into what the littlest guys do in order to exist. My thought is that filmmakers ought to use their best judgment and not let a screening fee be the deciding factor in whether or not they share their work with a community.

  • seafar | February 7, 2013 6:54 AM

    i've written elsewhere that filmmakers should support smaller, true labour of love run events, and the ones that provide very special experiences. probably should've have included that in the above piece:
    http://povmagazine.com/articles/view/towards-a-filmmaker-bill-of-rights-for-festivals

  • M | February 6, 2013 6:51 PMReply

    The problem with that model is that festivals will start valuing different things as they begin programming films that will generate revenue instead.

  • M | February 6, 2013 6:50 PMReply

    The problem with that model is that festivals will start valuing different things as they begin programming films that will generate revenue instead.

  • Greg Snider | February 6, 2013 4:04 PMReply

    Film festivals are in the business of "selling the dream" to filmmakers. That dream is often that someone may want to purchase and distribute their film. This sometimes happens, but for the vast majority it does not.
    So what does a filmmaker's festival entry fee get them?
    If you are fortunate enough to get your film screened at a festival, you get to the opportunity to see it on a big screen with an audience of strangers.
    You get to hear and see what people think of your film.
    You get to meet other filmmakers, editors, dp's, composers, etc. - all possible future collaborators. I work as an editor and most of my jobs have come from personal contacts made at film festivals or someone having seen a film I worked on at a festival.
    You get the opportunity to hear how other filmmakers have navigated the filmmaking process, festivals and distribution.
    You get to see lots of great films.
    Screening in one festival may get you the opportunity to screen in another festival.
    If you happen to win an award at a festival, you can use that to help sell your film and dvd's.
    A few festivals have cash prizes - and I applaud them for that. But many worthy festivals simply don't have the kind of revenue to pay for screening or awarding films.
    So - submit your film - go to some fests whether you get in or not - talk to some people - have a few beers and enjoy yourself.

  • Nick | February 6, 2013 3:53 PMReply

    Let's all just come together and agree that collectively film festivals and filmmakers are both the worst at business, and probably life.

  • Raymond McCormack | February 6, 2013 3:46 PMReply

    There's festivals and then there's festivals. When Sean was the programmer at HotDocs, they showed one of my films in competition. They paid $1000 towards an airfare and provided a few nights hotel. One of the screenings was free in. The film was picked up by Mongrel and the Documentary Channel. We didn't expect or ask for a share of BO. We were subsequently invited to screen at numerous lesser festivals where we did ask for 50% of BO, some festivals agreed some didn't. We ended up screening at 75, it could have been twice that, if we'd "gifted" our work.

  • Doug Hawes-Davis | February 6, 2013 4:47 PM

    Do you feel it was a mistake not to "gift" your film to more festivals and have it seen at 150 or 75 or do you feel you made the right decision turning away those who could or would not pay?

  • Chris Holland | February 6, 2013 2:10 PMReply

    Doesn't this article get written every few years, and rebutted immediately? If there were an economic incentive for paying filmmakers, festivals would. The truth is that festivals can create awesome film programs without paying a dime, so they do. Want someone to pay you for your film? Make it so good that audiences trip over themselves to pay you for it.

  • Ichnard | February 6, 2013 2:23 PM

    Gee, well maybe let's look at who it is that's rebutting the argument.

  • Jones | February 6, 2013 2:05 PMReply

    This article is spot on in a number of ways. It's just crazy that there is hostility to the idea that filmmakers get paid to screen their work at an event that exists only because of their work. It may not be an easy thing to do, but at the very least it should be what every festival _aspires_ to do. Festival people get angry when this subject is broached, but it's fucking outrageous that in most cases the filmmaker takes yet another financial loss in order to participate in an event that charges admission for their work.

    Also- i'm really happy to see someone finally point out that most US festivals are just rehashing the programming of Sundance (and a few of the other major fests). I'm so tired of festivals claiming they've "discovered" a film cribbed from a major fest. If a film you've programmed played Sundance, you are not discovering it- you are exhibiting it.

  • Slusho | February 6, 2013 2:04 PMReply

    I think the issue is the notion that festivals implicitly offer to filmmakers an equivalent to the unfortunately common (in the film industry) ol' "do this for free -- you won't get paid but it'll be GREAT EXPOSURE." But exposure for what? For a lot of films the festival circuit is the beginning and the end, there's no theatrical run to follow. I don't blame the festivals for this preconception, and I don't think most make those kinds of promises -- but it is is one that filmmakers, especially new ones, need to be disabused of. These days, if you're a filmmaker, taking your film around to more than a handful of festivals seems like a lousy proposition if you're hoping to make some money back and it hasn't been acquired. You'd do better to have your premiere, get whatever press you can, and then turn your attention toward digital sales or a semi-theatrical self-distro.

  • PervertedByLanguage | February 6, 2013 1:48 PMReply

    Thanks for the article, Sean; we'd all agree that filmmakers should get "f**king paid," but there are a few things you've glossed over, and surprisingly so, for someone so familiar with festivals:

    1. The article complains about red carpets, galas, special presentations, prizes, etc, which is certainly true; that kind of glitz and overdone glamor isn't for the majority of the attendees, or even for the filmmakers. However, they exist to please those who actually fund the majority of film festivals: the board members, sponsors, and corporate donors, people who usually have little interest in "cinema" beyond star-f**king and attending fancy parties. While institutions like Hot Docs, TIFF, and other Canadian festivals (and many European ones) can rely on government support and funding (or used to be able to, anyway), American ones are usually forced to rely on private individuals (read: millionaires) or corporations, which means catering to their whims for the kind of big events you so rightfully decry.

    2. The 35% argument sounds good, but as you mention that typical theatrical revenue goes to the rights holder, which, for a film lucky enough to be playing commercially in a theater, means the distribution company, not the filmmaker. That company will then take its own cut, for promotion, distribution, press handling, business, etc, leaving the filmmaker with something like 5-15%, depending on their deal. In festivals (as I'm sure you're aware), festivals take on the role of that distribution company, providing press, promotion, theater booking, etc; as someone else mentioned below, they are also most likely merely renting the theater, and aren't gaining any concession income.

    3. Finally, would you really want filmmakers to choose which festivals to play in purely on the basis of how much money they could receive, rather than the many other gains they could get? I would argue that many first-time indie filmmakers would be better off screening at passionate, committed, and well-respected (yet small and poorer, alas) festivals than behemoths like Tribeca.

  • DHALL | February 6, 2013 2:04 PM

    I think Pervertedbylanguage hit the nail on the head.

    This was a lame article. I know Sean is not a journalist, but I think it's ridiculous that he feels the need to chime in and defend his work in the comments section. So much for being objective...especially for someone who "tends to prefer documentaries."

  • CONFUSED | February 6, 2013 1:27 PMReply

    Another article saying best case scenarios that filmmakers want to hear but without saying why the current situation exists, or how suggestions of how to implement these changes. We can all dream but most of us have to deal with reality.

  • RUK | February 6, 2013 1:07 PMReply

    Film festivals don't pay filmmakers cause they can't fucking afford it! Few Festivals make any money so where this 35% split would come from is perplexing.

    Most festivals are not bringing in submission amounts generated by 5000+ entries a la SXSW, Sundance, Tribeca, TIFF -l et's call them corporation festivals. These tests (not all) own real estate, equipments and have very serious funding. They are the exception!

    Many film festivals (check their 990s online) are not corporation festivals. They are dirt poor, struggling non profits with cultural agendas who get buggered by the department of labor, distributors and celebrities who want lodging and limo service (not affordable either). The tests pay laughable salaries to skeleton staffs and pay out big sums to venues (which they don't own), technicians & equipment companies. Those costs are NEVER reduced. The three film festivals I have worked for were all like indie features.... They ran off of passion, paltry fundraising, earned income (which you want to reduce by 35%) and grants (which barely exists in the USA anymore).

  • Kat | February 6, 2013 1:03 PMReply

    Filmmakers get sales and investment at the world's top festivals, worth sums far in excess of a screening fee. It's preposterous to dismiss that as worthless in your article, Sean.

    There are bad festivals, but you've just lumped into one big box marked "shysters" some of the world's best supporters of filmmakers. As someone who's worked for a festival and knows how hard the staff work there, for very little pay, you should know better than to insult them like this.

  • Tad Swann | February 6, 2013 12:51 PMReply

    This is a reckless argument for one main reason: While festivals can act as an alternative to the traditional exhibition circuit in terms of providing a place for people to see and discover films, most could not act as an alternative revenue stream for filmakers/distributors/sales agents. Festivals operate on a completely different financial model. Losing 35% of tickets sales could have a serious impact on whether a festival can afford to stay in existance.

    For example, tradition movie theaters make the majority of their money at the concession stands, not the ticket stand. Festivals that take place in traditional movie theaters—probably the majority of them nowadays—don't see any of that popcorn and soda money. And chances are if a festival is taking place in a multiplex, the festival is paying something to the theater to fourwall the space and cover the cost of the projectionist.

    It's easy to look at the festivals mentioned in the article, like Sundance, Toronto or Berlin, and wonder about the money that is obviously involved, but most festivals do not operate at that level. Few have that level of corporate or, if they're not in the US, government support. Most are probably just making enough to get by and cover their costs from year to year, especially considering the decline in sponsorship that many festivals are struggling with right now.

    Filmmakers do deserve to be recognized and paid for their work. Looking to the festival world to do so, however, is not going to work. Forgive the cliche, but you're proposing to rob Peter to pay Paul.

  • seafar | February 6, 2013 12:46 PMReply

    Spalding - I'm very fluent in the economics of festivals, big and small (my first job out of film school was doing a little bit of everything for my hometown festival in Northern Ontario and I've run budgets at big and medium sized events). I didn't have the time or space to write a book on the subject...it's a starting point for a discussion. The economics of festivals do not favour filmmakers....there are about 100 different types of festivals...some are labour of loves and some are big business (Tribeca was a poor example, it's a for-profit business with a non-profit division)....but why start a festival if sustaining the creative life of the filmmaker is not very very high on your agenda...why charge fees and admissions if you do not attend to share this revenue...at the medium and larger events, why is everybody else being paid to attend EXCEPT the filmmakers...I've also written on the subject recently for POV, which covers the dilemmas of "little guy": http://povmagazine.com/articles/view/towards-a-filmmaker-bill-of-rights-for-festivals

  • Brent | February 6, 2013 12:43 PMReply

    Can each filmmaker pay a % of net loss if festival doesnt make money? That'd be fair!

  • Brent | February 6, 2013 5:04 PM

    Like all businesses it takes time to turn a profit.

    Seafar, if films want to make $ off festivals I suggest they dont submit to them. Do it themselves if their film is so marketable on its own. Your article is based on a simple principle, thats just not realistic or practical!

  • seafar | February 6, 2013 12:48 PM

    if your festival cannot attract a big enough audience to sustain itself...then don't start a festival.

  • Adam B | February 6, 2013 12:34 PMReply

    @Colonel - Sean Farnel was the director of programming for Hot Docs, North America's largest documentary festival, for six years. To say that this column comes "from someone who knows very little about the business side of film festivals," I fear, reveals more about the depths of your own knowledge.

  • ADAM B | February 6, 2013 2:12 PM

    You not having met one does not mean they don't exist. Think you can program a festival that consists of 200+ documentaries, over 11 days, without knowing your way around a spreadsheet? Really?

    As someone below mentioned, Sean previously programmed for TIFF, and is a regular at everything from Berlin and SX to True/False, Camden and Tribeca. I'm not commenting on the disparity between big and small festivals, but the idea that Mr. Farnel "knows very little about the business side of film festivals" is sheer folly.

  • RUK | February 6, 2013 1:41 PM

    Hot Docs is in Canada and is one of the more affluent fests. Maybe Hot Docs has a 35% profit that they can afford to share with filmmakers. If so, I recommend that they do so.

    On the other hand, I have never met a programmer who understands what a spreadsheet is or knows ANYTHING about business and economics.

  • Colonel | February 6, 2013 12:40 PM

    Well perhaps the keyword there then is "largest." As Spalding pointed only very few festivals make any sort of money to be able to pay filmmakers. I've worked for festivals large and small for 10 years now and the idea that FF can afford to pay out to filmmakers is absurd.

  • Spalding | February 6, 2013 12:34 PMReply

    Most festivals do pay screening fees to filmmakers, sales agencies and distributors. Those that don't can't do so simply because they can't afford it. Most festivals can barely afford to pay a staff, much less filmmakers.

    The vast majority of film festivals are struggling to stay alive. Many of them don't make profits and are mainly labors of love. Even large festivals such as Tribeca are struggling to make money. This assumption that film festivals are some kind of untapped profit center for filmmakers is absurd. Maybe Sundance, SXSW or TIFF, but precious few others.

  • Colonel | February 6, 2013 12:00 PMReply

    You do realize that there are only a handful of film festivals that actually make money. The rest are non profits that are lucky to be surviving. This is an incredibly shortsighted column from someone who knows very little about the business side of film festivals.

  • General | February 6, 2013 12:15 PM

    Sean was the director of programming at Hot Docs for years and worked at TIFF before then, he knows plenty about festivals.

  • Gen | February 6, 2013 11:17 AMReply

    Brilliantly said, and about time filmmakers got paid at festivals.