By Indiewire | Indiewire March 3, 1999 at 2:0AM
What's the Deal with the New York International Independent Film and
Highly criticized in a Village Voice article in October 1997, the six-year-old NY International Independent Film and Video Festival (NYIIFVF) looks to be unfazed, having just completed its first event of '99 last January. When indieWIRE writer Dave Ratzlow was sent to cover the now tri-annual event last September, he discovered a whole range of opinions on the fest, from a few satisfied customers to a number of disgruntled participants, the most serious of whom was filmmaker Will Lyman who contacted indieWIRE alleging the festival forged a check in his name for $1,200.
Forgery verses Draft
Lyman's expensive dealings with the NYIIFVF began when he received a phone call from the festival, wanting to see his short film, "Leaving the Post." Lyman submitted it and the festival called back and told him they wanted it. But the entrance fee was $300. Lyman says they told him that "Miramax and CBS had gone to a preview screening and were very interested in it." Seduced by the big names, Lyman paid the money and geared up for his New York debut.
Then Lyman received a second call -- regarding the festival's webpage services. The festival promised "a designer, a PR person that would put materials together, a coordinated plan of attack," says Lyman. The top package, which included a webpage on the fest's site for three years among other services, would cost the filmmaker $1,200, according to Lyman. Lyman admits that he initially agreed, in this second call, to purchase the package, but says he never mailed in his check. In fact, he claims that the person he spoke with told him, "You don't have to send us the check until we get it up and running."
Lyman went to the 11-day event and says he was sorely disappointed. The opening night gala, billed as an "Exhibition and Gala Celebration at Madison Square Garden" was actually held in the neighboring Garden Bar and Grill, according to the filmmaker. Although scheduled as a convention that also celebrated artists and sculptors, Lyman described it as "a total waste of time, because nobody comes and all it's filled with is jugglers and craftspeople."
While at the festival, Lyman explains he decided that if and when the festival organizers asked for their check, he would refuse. But he soon discovered that it was too late -- when he got back to his home in Boston, his bank statement showed a $1,200 debit. Soon after, he received from his bank a photocopy of the draft in the amount of $1,200 with a signature that wasn't his. It turned out that the signature belonged to NYIIFVF Executive Director, Stuart Alson.
Bank Boston, Lyman's bank, told the filmmaker that the debit -- called a "draft" -- was an accepted method of payment. However, although Lyman agreed to purchase the $1,200 package of services over the phone, he maintains that he never authorized a draft and has since had the bank cancel the $1,200 debit. Subsequently, Bank Boston refunded Lyman the money. Unfortunately, the whole process was repeated -- draft, withdrawal, cancellation, refund -- when a second $1,200 draft was cashed on his account. Lyman was then instructed by his bank to cancel his present checking account so that it wouldn't happen again.
indieWIRE verified with the Massachusetts and New York State Banking regulators that a bank may properly pay a draft (an order for payment) presented to the bank from a non-signatory of an account. A New York regulator further confirmed that a merchant may present such a draft, drawn on a consumer's account, so long as the merchant can prove their authorization to do so. Lyman maintains that he never gave written authorization for the process of the drafts, but the New York regulator indicated that phone authorization is often used by merchants to obtain permission for drafts. The burden of proof however, is on the merchant and the New York regulator indicated that a tape of the phone authorization, for example, would be acceptable.
Festival Answers Allegations
Festival Director Adam Zoblotsky, who says he handled the matter personally, says Lyman agreed to pay the money, but then later bounced his check. Zoblotsky says, "He paid over the phone with a check and then decided to cancel everything. He had a confirmation number, we had his account information, and most businesses do handle tele-check over the phone." Zoblotsky maintains that Lyman knew the transaction was taking place: "We agreed to it; he wanted booth space, I gave him booth space; he wanted a website, I gave him a website, and the guy just changed his mind. So he bounced a check and didn't pay for services rendered."
In a conversation with Zoblotsky following the September event, he responded to some questions about the generally high cost of those services, like expensive entrance and promotional fees. Zoblotsky insisted that no one was forced to pay anything above the $300 entrance fee. For higher-priced packages, filmmakers could receive, by Zoblotsky's account, a booth space at the Madison Square Garden event, the creation of websites or website links, trailers for the films (which are made on their own equipment and screened on monitors at the opening night), and additional promotion and PR for their films. Zoblotsky would not elaborate on the specifics of the festival's PR efforts.
When pressed about charging filmmakers an extra $300 for something as simple as linking a website, Zoblotsky justified the claim by stating their website offers "high visibility" for filmmakers. According to Zoblotsky, this visibility includes advertising the website on the Madison Square Garden Marquee, on the 7th and 8th avenue sides 3 times every hour, and the inclusion of the site on magazine advertisements, tickets, programs, and all promotional materials. Zoblotsky also said that the website, "depending on the season, gets between 10-15,000 hits per week."
Participating filmmakers in the Fall event offered a slew of differing opinions on the festival. Luciano Saber, producer, writer and star of the crime drama "Placebo Effect" considers himself one of the lucky ones to have gotten into the festival. "I was very satisfied with the festival. We had virtually a full house and I didn't expect that," he said. Immediately following the screening, he conducted half a dozen conversations with some press and producers and got quite a few business cards.
"At first, I was thrown off on how expensive it was to apply to the festival. I was aggravated," said Jim Kras, one of the producers of "Brokers." "But we definitely got our money's worth. After the fact, I couldn't complain." Kras explained that Stuart Alson helped the filmmakers get in contact with distributors, helped get people down to the screenings and got them an article in BackStage about the co-directors of the film, David Goldberg and Allie Dvorin. "I could definitely go to bat for him. He really took us under his wing," added Kras.
A publicist with recent experience at last Fall's event, however, felt sorry for the filmmakers who went to the NYIIFVF, without knowing what a "real festival" is like. "[NYIIFVF is] taking a lot of money from people who really don't have any," the publicist said. "It's a shame."
Jojoe Spaid, fresh from last month's January NYIIFVF, recently contacted indieWIRE with some concerns about the festival. Spaid, like Lyman, received a last minute call from Zoblotsky. "I was shocked by the hard sell," says Spaid. "Adam gave me a spiel about how I was a late entry, but I could still get the film in if I could pay him over the telephone. I did a really scary thing. I gave him my checking account number."
"Unfortunately, this festival serves a niche; it's a bottom feeder's festival," continues Spaid. "You need to know what you're getting into. And Adam and Stuart are not going to tell you. It's like a campaign of disinformation until you show up." However, Spaid explains, "If you can't get it screened anywhere else, okay -- 300 bucks and a lot of disorganization, and you have to be in charge of your film in riding Stuart and Adam, because they're probably going to shaft you when you're not looking."
The NYIIFVF website can be found at http://www.nyfilmvideo.com.
[Dave Ratzlow contributed to this article.]