Running a festival like Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, I assumed that all festivals were the same, striving to the last dollar and the last minute of sleep to deliver the best possible experience for filmmakers from the time they hit the "submit" button to the time they board their flight home. But as a festival director, I learned the hard way that filmmakers are not always treated very well when they are accepted into a film festival. If we are lucky, we attend other festivals as jurors, panelists or moderators. These trips provide great opportunities to learn from other festivals what to do and what not to do. Every Full Frame staff person had an opportunity to attend a professional event this year, and each person came back enriched, renewed and full of ideas.
But, as a juror or panelist, I have also had experiences that would disturb most filmmakers: out-of-focus screenings, empty theaters, cold food, spider-filled accommodations, and perhaps most memorable, being left in the middle of the woods without a ride.
So when IFP gathered a group of festival directors together to explore the idea of an association of film festivals, I was game. And I was not shocked when the director of a venerable festival said, "Lets face it, we are all competing with one another." That was the very same festival where I got left in the middle of the woods!
Three years later, I am proud to say that the 200 members of the IFP Festival Forum (soon to be a stand alone organization called the Film Festival Alliance) believe in collaboration, not competition, and this is a very good thing for filmmakers on the festival circuit and for the audiences who come to see films.
Founded with a belief in collaboration and excellence, the Festival Forum's overall goal is to establish best practices, share operational and curatorial efficiencies, advocate for the needs and interests of film festivals and create professional development opportunities for festival organizers. By doing so, the festival circuit will be able to provide filmmakers with better service, hospitality and opportunity which aligns with the goals and missions of our membership.
But the majority of festivals in the United States are quite small. Some are seasonal, with budgets well under $500,000, and many are very new. Like U.S.-based filmmakers, festivals do not receive much government funding as our foreign counterparts do, and few grants are specifically targeted for film festivals’ general support. Up until now, there has been no formal way for film festival professionals to communicate and learn from one another on a consistent basis.
Luckily, our programming best practices were established and agreed upon by the likes of Sundance, Tribeca, Sarasota, The New York Film Festival, Full Frame and others. Festival directors like Mark Fishkin of Mill Valley and Lesli Klainberg of the Film Society at Lincoln Center—and many, many others—have provided feedback and guidance to the all-volunteer executive committee to establish a baseline of what filmmakers can and should expect when they travel to our fests. White papers and monthly webinars are all accessible via our website. And through our bi-annual meetings, at IFP’s Independent Film Week in New York and at the Art House Convergence in Utah (just prior to Sundance), we learn from one another, and find answers to leadership questions only other festival directors, programmers and producers can understand.
"There are a few bad actors out there," said Jody Arlington, acting director of the IFP Festival Forum. "But the vast majority want to serve filmmakers, audiences and their communities to their best abilities, and crave a deeper understanding of how to solve common problems. By establishing and collectively agreeing on a baseline for best practices, we can level up everyone’s game, and help festivals understand and best serve the filmmaking community they depend on for their events. Make no mistake, filmmakers are the heart and soul of the festival eco-system, and good festivals take good care of them."
At a recent panel the Forum held at Art House Convergence, moderated by Jolene Pinder of the New Orleans Film Society, members shared their approach to filmmaker hospitality. While having plenty of alcohol on hand was an overriding theme, the True/False Film Festival, for example, buys chauffeur's licenses for the volunteer drivers, and all undergo background checks.
It is well known that T/F also provide rooms for all of their filmmakers, but costs for hotels vary widely depending the festival location. Brain Tamm, executive director of Independent Film Festival Boston said, "Boston has the third most expensive hotel costs in the US, so even our reduced rate at hotels is $250 per night. We’d like to do more, but we put up as many filmmakers as we can, whether they’ve made a short or a feature."
Most of the complaints about film festivals are easily remedied, but filmmakers’ festival nightmare stories abound: my link was not watched, or watched all the way through, there was no tech-check and the film did not play, I was left at the airport with no ride, my screening had no audience, the volunteer driver was a texting, speeding teenager and I feared for my life…I have heard all of these and more. So with this in mind, the Festival Forum has created a baseline for what should be considered Best Practices by film festivals: Film Festival Programming Best Practices.
The fact is that most film festivals are run by people who love film and the makers who create them. Some lack professional experience, some lack resources and some have just had a bad year when a key employee or funder drops out. But the film festival circuit in the United States is vibrant, healthy and a more powerful distribution tool for independent film than a short run in New York or LA. More people see, appreciate, market and later boost sales of these films from our houses when you look at the circuit as a whole. Film festivals are the best showcases of theatrical exhibition for independent film left in the U.S. marketplace. And with all due respect to our colleagues working in online distribution, the plethora of established and humming film festivals in the United States is testament to the fact that audiences still want to see films together in a theater, and if they can hear from the filmmaker firsthand, they will come and pay to do so.
The Festival Forum will work to make sure that the filmmaker experience is the best one possible, and that our fellow festival organizers have the tools and resources to deliver the best event for them and their audiences. That's why we do our jobs in the first place.
Deirdre Haj is director of the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, NC. Haj created Full Frame's free year-round screening series and PNC Roadshow and the "A&E IndieFilms Speakeasy" discussion venue. Under her leadership the festival is now a PGA qualifying festival for both long and short form documentary films, as well as an Oscar qualifying festival for short form documentary. Haj oversaw the creation of the Full Frame Theater and its new offices in 2012. She serves on the executive committee of IFP's Festival Forum, and previously consulted for the Motion Picture Association of America and Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.