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Where Would the Money Come From? On Film Festivals, Distribution and the Economies of Change

By Tom Hall | Indiewire February 13, 2013 at 8:57AM

"Fair Trade for Filmmakers," an article by Sean Farnel that we published last week, attracted a lot of attention from filmmakers, festival programmers and other industry members, who carried on an intense debate in the comments about the feasibility of Sean's suggestion that festivals pay filmmakers a percentage of their event's earned revenues. We invited Tom Hall, the Director of the Sarasota Film Festival, to write a response to the piece and offer a perspective from someone currently involved in running a major regional festival.
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Many of us, my own festival included, are going to need to constantly re-examine what that value truly is and can be.

This gets to the real heart of one of Sean’s arguments-- that festivals believe they are “force multipliers” and have a misperception of their role and the real value that they exchange for the “gift” of exhibiting a film. By and large, this is less and less true (although certainly there are those among us with delusions of grandeur). Just look at the situation with premiere status.

When I started programming the Nantucket Film Festival in 2002, we would fight battles to ensure an East Coast Premiere or some other meaningless status, not because it mattered to the film, per se, but because it mattered in the perception of press and sponsors that the festival was seen as a place to premiere work. Today, that argument is pretty much dead; aside from the largest festivals, premiere status is irrelevant for most if not all festivals. 99% of festivals must concentrate on delivering value in a hyper-local world while establishing and maintaining a national presence in other ways.

But Sean is certainly right that the value proposition of film festivals has already shifted and many of us, my own festival included, are going to need to constantly re-examine what that value truly is and can be. This is an area where festivals can and must become better-- by offering support and audience building for filmmakers throughout a film's entire lifecycle. Integrating long tail awareness for films is a big part of the future, and festivals whose organizations can capitalize on social media, local partnerships and integrated support for driving revenue opportunities to VOD and other platforms can play a major role in supporting artists over the long term.

READ MORE: Why the Hell is One of the Most Well-Respected Doc Fests in Columbia, Missouri?

Film festivals, and again I include myself here, have done a lousy job of making this case for value in the face of our economic realities. Assumptions about the submission process and the idea that programmers hold “hoity-toity notions of curatorial independence and prestige” are really just an expression of justifiable frustration that festivals have not been transparent about their processes and their economic realities. I would also suggest that, in a competitive non-profit fundraising environment, projecting uncertainty and economic frailty is a certain way to make your situation worse.

Confidence breeds investment, and negative perceptions have as much to do with the seasonal and regional nature of the organizations as it does with a lack of a national voice that can gather data and create a landscape analysis of the domestic festival world. I, and many colleagues from across the country, have recently begun meeting under the guidance of the IFP in the hopes of creating a national organization of festivals that can help us all get our arms around these new challenges confronting our organizations, information that we hope will create far greater transparency for filmmakers, distributors and festival partners.

And so, instead of questioning the motivations of film festivals, the overwhelming majority of which are run by very good people looking to help connect films with audiences, a reality check seems in order; in almost all cases, there is no profit to share and the loss of revenue from ticketing would create another economic disadvantage in an already difficult environment. That said, festivals must work with filmmakers to help create real value for their films, value that capitalizes on the rapidly changing marketplace without repeating the failed models of the past.

This article is related to: Filmmaker Toolkit: Festivals, Filmmaker Toolkit: Distribution, Sarasota Film Festival





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