Full Frame

In his Indiewire article "Fair Trade for Filmmakers," former Hot Docs programmer Sean Farnel made the case that film festivals owe something more to filmmakers than the honor of being selected. They owe them money. His contention that festivals should give filmmakers a cut of the ticket sales yielded strong reactions.

Last week at the 2013 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, Farnel appeared with True/False co-director David Wilson and Sundance senior programmer Caroline Libresco to discuss the article and making the festival experience better for filmmakers. Here's some highlights:

What inspired you to write the article?  

Sean Farnel: I was programming at Hot Docs and we were often asked for screening fees. We had a 'no screening fee' policy . . . And yet we did pay screening fees from time to time when I really wanted a film. If it was going to be five hundred bucks or a thousand Euros or whatever, we'd find a way, we'd do it . . . I thought it was unfair because usually these fees would never find their way to the filmmaker because they weren't in the normal revenue line. . . And I thought if a few distributors are getting that money for us why can't we figure out a way  to spread this money around to independent filmmakers?

A commercially released film gets 35 percent of ticket sales. But how does a festival run compare to a theatrical run?  

Sean Farnel: Toronto has like seventy film festivals. That is the art-house repertory life of the city. If you did the numbers, the festivals combined do better numbers. . . But none of those revenues are cycled back to distribution or the filmmaking chain. 

In an ideal world, how much should filmmakers get paid in screening fees?

Sean Farnel: The goal for me is thirty-five percent.

David Wilson: I think ten percent, even as a more far-off number, is a more realistic number.

Sean Farnel: And reach for the stars, maybe you'll make the moon.

David Wilson: I think my goal would be to make attending a festival a zero-sum for filmmakers. As an initial first thing. You know, even when we're doing flight and lodging and doing food and voucher for restaurants; they're still spending money. It's still going to cost them. 

Caroline Libresco: I just don't think [screening fees are] relevant to the conversation . . . I think it raises the larger question: To what extent can we support artists in the U.S. at large? I don't think screening fees at film festivals would solve that problem on even a miniscule level.

Bare minimum, what should a festival offer filmmakers?

David Wilson: Flight and lodging. Every small festival in the country can do at least that. If you can't do that, I'm not sure why you're a festival.

Let's forget screening fees. What else could festivals do to make the experience better for filmmakers?

Sean Farnel: Festivals invite people as they go in the [submission] process, yet they never let filmmakers know until the end. Ninety-five percent of the people are going to be declined from most of the festivals, but they don't find out at the end . . . Why can't filmmakers be notified when there's a definitive "no" to their film? So they can move on and find another strategy? Yet they have to wait months in some cases for a "no."

David Wilson: It's so much nicer to think your film lasted all that way!

Caroline Libresco: It would create a frenzy among the filmmaking community if decisions were given before the end.

Sean Farnel: But it's a change in culture. Things in the culture have to change. And that's a major snag for a filmmaker to wait three months to find out they didn't get into Sundance. To have to regroup to miss a lot of deadlines as they're waiting. And you've lost three to six months of the life cycle of your film.

How about submission fees. Why are they so expensive?

Sean Farnel: There are submission fees because it's an expensive process to administer. Yet, I still tell filmmakers to refuse to pay them because in reality they're unevenly applied. Most filmmakers that we know, we waive the fees for them. It was, I thought, a very unfair practice in terms of evenly and justly applying those fees. And usually it was I thought a tax on the poor. You were making the filmmaker with the least chance of getting into the festival pay the fee.

Anything else filmmakers should know before submitting to festivals?

Sean Farnel: It's an honor to be selected. It's difficult to be selected in the film festival circuit. But it's also a business transaction.