Back to IndieWire

Toward Transparent Festival Economics: $500 Screening Fees or $50,000 in Financing?

Toward Transparent Festival Economics: $500 Screening Fees or $50,000 in Financing?

A couple of weeks ago, Sean Farnel caused a bit of a flutter with his Indiewire article “Fair Trade for Filmmakers: Is It Time For Festivals To Share Their Revenue?.” This week, “Searching for Sugar Man” took home the Oscar for Best Documentary. Where’s the connection?

You have to go back a few years – to a time when “Searching for Sugar Man” was being pitched at film festivals around the world, including raising some of its money at Sheffield Doc/Fest in the MeetMarket. Director Malik Bendjelloul told film blog Moviescope,

The project was pitched in a few pitching forums in 2008, including Sheffield Doc/Fest’s MeetMarket which is where it got off the ground. As a first-time director, it’s pretty hard to get attention for your project. You can send DVDs and emails to potential funders and investors, but it’s important to meet with people. Pitch forums such as MeetMarket are a great way for independent filmmakers to create awareness about their project and to get to meet important contacts and establish professional relations. I would certainly encourage other independent filmmakers to take advantage of them; not just because you can meet people, it also brings a lot of input into your project on a creative level. To talk to people about your project can give birth to new ideas.”

Sheffield Doc/Fest is a film festival that gives a filmmaker access to raising production funding. A film festival that makes sure all the right people were there for filmmakers like Malik, with staff who did their absolute best to match the filmmakers with meetings they would never be able to get by themselves.

There are other film festivals who do that, too. It’s almost impossible to put a value on that service. On a basic level, you can measure the value of the deals in dollars, which would far outstrip the screening fee model proposed by Sean. But what about subsequent films? What about other collaborations sparked from those meetings? Very hard to quantify.

Also up for an Oscar this year was “5 Broken Cameras,” another documentary that points to the Sheffield MeetMarket as helping raise the money for the production. Producer Guy Davidi said, “MeetMarket was a great opportunity for us. Pitching in intimate roundtable ses­sions was a big comfort. It reduces tension and com­petitiveness and makes the whole thing much more relaxed and fun. We created important connec­tions.” 

Similar comments come from the makers of “Planet of Snail” and “Give Up Tomorrow.” Last year, we spent months trying to gather accurate statistics of how much money was raised in the MeetMarket and collected information from filmmakers that added up to £26 million worth of finance since MeetMarket launched in 2006 and an estimated further £136 million thereafter.

Indie documentaries would struggle to exist without marketplaces like MeetMarket. Other film festivals that give a massive shot in the arm to documentary include IDFA, Hot Docs, TIFF, Sundance and Tribeca. There are also more regionally specific or genre-specific forums in Israel, Eastern Europe, Scandinavia and, more recently, Taiwan and Japan.

There may indeed be hundreds of film festivals without a benefit of industry activity to documentary makers, but they offer full houses, engaged audiences and fabulous Q&As — not to mention travel and accommodation for the filmmaker.

And then there are film festivals with large sponsors and large government backing that don’t offer industry connections. Those rare film festivals should pay a screening fee. But most film festivals are struggling nonprofits.

Festivals with an industry arm can argue that it’s of greater use if they spend their money building a thriving and inspiring marketplace for filmmakers where they might indeed be able to raise £50,000 in sales or £200,000 in production funding rather than spend their budget on £500 screening fees. While some festivals do indeed over-emphasize the market revenues available to attending filmmakers, most festivals (and not just the big international ones Sean regards as exceptions) offer business opportunities and industry networking of a value that dwarfs any possible screening fee.

For those film festivals who are doing the job of industry support for filmmakers, it does not make sense to say that a screening fee is preferable compared to the impact of a festival with a thriving, fruitful and enjoyable marketplace.

Back to “Sugar Man,” which chose Sheffield as the platform for its European premiere in 2012.

As Bendjelloul told Moviescope: “It [felt] particularly great that ‘Searching for Sugar Man’ [was] selected to open [2012’s] Sheffield Doc/Fest. It all started in Sheffield four years ago, and Sheffield is one of the great documentary festivals in the world. I think a society benefits a great deal from a healthy film scene; often, what sparks your interest in foreign places or new activities are images you’ve seen in the movies. Films create value that is hard to measure in money. I think when the government supports filmmakers it’s never wasted money, not even from a strictly commercial point of view; film gives so much back in terms of inspiration and ideas.”

Accusing festivals of not sharing revenue has rightly been mocked in the comments on Indiewire and across social networks. The substantial majority of festivals are either not-for-profits or simply don’t make a profit, even if they want to. Any revenue is plowed back into delivering the festivals. Most are staffed by lovers of film who work long hours for little financial reward or praise. These people are not the enemy of the filmmaker. The reaction of most filmmakers to this article demonstrates that they realize this. The focus on screening fees is often the preserve of sales agents and distributors, for whom the profit margins can be slim, especially with wild cards such as documentaries. Online platforms are also in a similar position to the sales agent in terms of the margins.

Any debate about how to get more money for filmmakers is welcome, but is it possible that Sean aiming his ire in the wrong direction? He’d struggle to find anyone in non-profit film festivals who would be unwilling to “pay the fucking filmmakers” [as he asks them to do in his article] if the budget was there, but maybe there are others in the indie film industry whose accumulation of revenue goes uncriticized while festivals take the heat.

If we’re to find a new financial model of survival for documentary filmmakers, it will require full disclosure of the contractual basis of the relationship between funders and filmmakers – where the money goes, who owns what and who gets what in the split.

Filmmakers deserve more money for their hard work on making their films. It’s time to look at who’s really benefiting from, and piggybacking on, their success. Analyze the budgets – are there any people in the budget earning fees for hard-to-define roles? Is all film funding going directly to the filmmakers? If not, where is it getting stuck along the way? Analyze the contracts – who gets what in the back end, so to speak?

Could we open a dialogue about all this and try to identify where the money is going and why and how can we improve the transparency, and direct more money to those making the films? A thorough study on this and exactly where the money goes would be incredibly useful. From the very start of the project to the very end of the production and delivery… with who gets what along the way, would be a great body of information for the documentary maker. Then we will see what proportion of a filmmaker’s production budget and subsequent revenues is going where. Who among us could take on the task of mapping this? It would be a great reference tool for producers and directors and more.

Heather Croall is Director of the Sheffield International Documentary Festival (Doc/Fest) and Producer of Crossover Labs. She has been one of the screen industry’s leading proponents of the emerging field of new media.

Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

This Article is related to: Toolkit and tagged

Get The Latest IndieWire Alerts And Newsletters Delivered Directly To Your Inbox