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Film Festival Fever, Part 2: After the Dancing Dies Down

Film Festival Fever, Part 2: After the Dancing Dies Down

by Anthony Kaufman




[Continued from Part One, which was published yesterday]


When one begins to branch out from the "A" list festivals, the
landscape becomes fuzzy and the line between some exploitative fest in a
New York basement and a quality, regional one in a Southern metropolis
appears only clear after the entry fees are in and the print is perhaps
lost somewhere en route. Navigating through the growing number of festivals
is no easy task. Books have been written. Panels endlessly discuss it.
Filmmakers are constantly on the watch for getting scammed and a growing
sense of suspicion exists as to where to submit and if admitted, whether to
go or hold out for somewhere else. Off the record, many of the directors
interviewed for this article, especially those who were still seeking
distribution, spoke as if on eggshells, afraid of offending the next festival
director or perhaps afraid of being perceived as difficult or bitter by
potential distributors.


"There is competition among the festivals," says Nick Davis, "If you go to
one, you might piss off another and if those festivals require premieres,
then you're going to be banned." The "Premiere" issue is a major factor for
filmmaker's strategizing through the festival circuit. Because, for
example, Telluride, Sundance and the LAIFF want world premieres, then
filmmakers are restricted to only one of them and in the process, remain
waiting by the mailbox as months and other festivals pass them by. Another
director Josh Becker, whose film "Running Time" played at the New York
Underground complains, "It's perfectly reasonable for the big festivals to not
want to show your film if it's already been at a big festival; some exclusivity
is good for everybody. But to reject a film that has only screened at an
'Underground' festival, or some rinky-dink festival where they couldn't
wrangle up 30 viewers, is utterly ridiculous."


While the "Premiere" problem complicates one's chances of admission to
certain festivals, so too do the dreaded entry fees. Many filmmakers
simply refuse to pay them. "There were a number of fests that would have
been nice to have been in," says Scott Saunders, "but I just wouldn't pay
it. I wouldn't do it for $20 and it's a matter of principle. With publicity
packages, etc.,. there are significant costs with any screening you do,
even if you don't have to fly yourself out there." Kat Smith agrees, "I
also have a personal policy that I won't pay an entry fee over $40." And
Davis drives the point home, "When you have no money left, do you really
want to pay $45 to get into a festival that you've never heard of?"


Yet entry fees are a necessary part of the process. The rumor that these
fees put cash in the pockets of festival organizers is mostly incorrect according to organizers interviewed for this article -- or at least in regards
to most domestic festivals. With few exceptions (Telluride's exorbitant $75,
Chicago Film Festival's enormous $150, and WorldFest's record-breaking
$160), most fests charge in the $30-$40 range, a price that Mark Fishkin
assures me goes "just to cover insurance, return mailing, and pay and feed the
staff who tracks everything and views submissions."


Festivals do not have high profit margins, according to organizers, and if they did, it wouldn't be from filmmaker's $35 checks. Financed primary by ticket sales, ad sales, and corporate sponsorships, the "money still doesn't cover the cost of the fest," says Mark Monello, whose Orlando festival -- with a $35 fee -- has never turned a profit in its history. Christian Gaines says of the HIFF's
$25 fee and roughly 12% acceptance rate, "It's really a processing fee, for
a while we didn't charge anything." Even WorldFest's J. Hunter Todd defends
his high fees, claiming the festival to be a non-profit entity with more
perks for winning films than most festivals, e.g. cash prizes, publicity,
and contacting agents and other festivals.


SXSW charges only $20 for its films, but finances its operations mostly
through its conference registration fees which run between $95-$225. Like
the LAIFF (roughly $45), SXSW does not have any budget for airfare, a sticking
point for many starving artists. Most film festivals arrange with airline
sponsors to provide for discounted or complementary tickets for attending
filmmakers. It is clear from talking to festival directors that feature
filmmakers get first priority while shorts-makers are characterized as an
inferior breed, and if lucky, receive hotel accommodation.


Picking a festival is like choosing what boarding school to send your child
to. What is the facility like? Do they have new supplies? What is the
headmaster's mood? What will the other children be like? And will your
child shine among them? This last question is best answered by a festival's
efforts to get a film press. Mark Fishkin says, "We think that there's
different strategies for different films and different filmmakers, whether
it is in their interests to be press screened or not. Sometimes it is,
sometimes not." Mill Valley has two full-time "veteran publicists" says
Fishkin, "promoting the festival and the films."


However determined publicists are, Fishkin insists that filmmakers must be
realistic about their expectations from a festival. "What are the goals you
want to accomplish," he tells filmmakers to ask themselves, "What are the
limitations, how far do you want them to go?" He makes the point that, "How
can a team of publicists accomplish much when they're dealing with so many
films?" SXSW and Seattle claim they have publicists who actively pursue
press for their films, as does Hawaii, Los Angeles, and most of the name
big city festivals. "Most of the festival's have been good about press,"
says Scott Saunders, advising filmmakers to send festivals the most press
materials that they can afford, as soon as they can, "The sooner the
better."


The film festival experience is filled with peaks and pitfalls. The
boarding school can range from a multi-million dollar private institution
filled with modern equipment and mean inhabitants to a garage filled with
gregarious cohorts with warm hearts and cold beers -- or vice versa. One does
not necessarily outweigh the other. There are as many horror stories about
projection disasters at Sundance as at small underground festivals. Filmmaker
Josh Becker claims, "The only festival, I thought, that was run well and had
consistently good projection was in Helsinki, Finland." If it takes a trip to
Helsinki to see a good screening of your most precious child, when there are
so many film festival's in this country, we're all in trouble.

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