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Toward Transparent Festival Economics: $500 Screening Fees or $50,000 in Financing?

By Heather Croall | Indiewire February 28, 2013 at 11:45AM

A couple of weeks ago, Sean Farnel caused a bit of a flutter with his Indiewire article “Fair Trade for Filmmakers: Is It Time For Festivals To Share Their Revenue?." This week, "Searching for Sugar Man" took home the Oscar for Best Documentary. Where’s the connection?
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'Searching for Sugar Man'
'Searching for Sugar Man'

Back to "Sugar Man," which chose Sheffield as the platform for its European premiere in 2012.

As Bendjelloul told Moviescope: "It [felt] particularly great that 'Searching for Sugar Man' [was] selected to open [2012’s] Sheffield Doc/Fest. It all started in Sheffield four years ago, and Sheffield is one of the great documentary festivals in the world. I think a society benefits a great deal from a healthy film scene; often, what sparks your interest in foreign places or new activities are images you’ve seen in the movies. Films create value that is hard to measure in money. I think when the government supports filmmakers it’s never wasted money, not even from a strictly commercial point of view; film gives so much back in terms of inspiration and ideas."

Accusing festivals of not sharing revenue has rightly been mocked in the comments on Indiewire and across social networks. The substantial majority of festivals are either not-for-profits or simply don’t make a profit, even if they want to. Any revenue is plowed back into delivering the festivals. Most are staffed by lovers of film who work long hours for little financial reward or praise. These people are not the enemy of the filmmaker. The reaction of most filmmakers to this article demonstrates that they realize this. The focus on screening fees is often the preserve of sales agents and distributors, for whom the profit margins can be slim, especially with wild cards such as documentaries. Online platforms are also in a similar position to the sales agent in terms of the margins.

Any debate about how to get more money for filmmakers is welcome, but is it possible that Sean aiming his ire in the wrong direction? He’d struggle to find anyone in non-profit film festivals who would be unwilling to “pay the fucking filmmakers” [as he asks them to do in his article] if the budget was there, but maybe there are others in the indie film industry whose accumulation of revenue goes uncriticized while festivals take the heat.


If we're to find a new financial model of survival for documentary filmmakers, it will require full disclosure of the contractual basis of the relationship between funders and filmmakers – where the money goes, who owns what and who gets what in the split.

Filmmakers deserve more money for their hard work on making their films. It’s time to look at who’s really benefiting from, and piggybacking on, their success. Analyze the budgets – are there any people in the budget earning fees for hard-to-define roles? Is all film funding going directly to the filmmakers? If not, where is it getting stuck along the way? Analyze the contracts - who gets what in the back end, so to speak?


Could we open a dialogue about all this and try to identify where the money is going and why and how can we improve the transparency, and direct more money to those making the films? A thorough study on this and exactly where the money goes would be incredibly useful. From the very start of the project to the very end of the production and delivery... with who gets what along the way, would be a great body of information for the documentary maker. Then we will see what proportion of a filmmaker's production budget and subsequent revenues is going where. Who among us could take on the task of mapping this? It would be a great reference tool for producers and directors and more.


Heather Croall is Director of the Sheffield International Documentary Festival (Doc/Fest) and Producer of Crossover Labs. She has been one of the screen industry’s leading proponents of the emerging field of new media.