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It’s Not All about the Money: How Filmmakers Should Decide Which Film Festivals Are Worth Going To

It's Not All about the Money: How Filmmakers Should Decide Which Film Festivals Are Worth Going To

The “Fair Trade for Filmmakers” debate has been raging for a few weeks now (See the original post from Sean Farnel and responses from Heather Croall, Tom Hall and Brian Newman. And also a blow-by-blow of a Full Frame Festival panel on the topic and a recap of that panel from Farnel), and as of yet, no filmmaker has explained exactly how they navigate the festival world.  To do that, documentary producer Daniel Chalfen has offered his two cents on what festivals do for his films…

The mildly raging debate about film festival compensation to filmmakers has been interesting and challenging. Until now though the filmmaker voice has been conspicuously silent. Of course filmmakers must be compensated for their labor, but there appears to be a distasteful underlying perception behind the premise of this discussion to date: That filmmakers can’t ascertain what is best for themselves. That the Full Frame Documentary Festival panel on the subject consisted only of festival insiders (albeit two who moonlight as filmmakers) and not career producers or directors is emblematic of the paternalism behind this. There is a definite quid pro between film festival and filmmaker, so filmmakers need to speak out.

I have screened films in festivals as diverse as the Tribeca Film Festival, the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival and the Rochester Gay & Lesbian Video and Film Festival. I consider each submission and invitation very carefully. There are different, specific reasons behind every festival I apply to and attend. Primarily, it is a business decision: Will this festival directly or indirectly create revenue for the film? But I also have other considerations: Is it good networking? Is it located in a place where one of my characters can attend and bring her family and friends to? Does it serve a community that I want to get a particular story in front of? Would it make a good vacation?

If a festival invites a film but won’t pay a screening fee or cover travel and accommodation for a filmmaker (who may want to attend for one or more of the reasons above) then I may decide to turn down an invitation. For others, I make the calculation that simply having the film there and sometimes going out of pocket to attend are valuable for the commercial or intellectual life (commercial and intellectual) of the film. We’ve been persistent and resourceful enough to get a film made, but that’s only half the job. Distribution is the other half, so we need to be persistent and resourceful through this process too, and strategizing our way through the festival circuit is a principal part of that. Festivals are still crucial stepping-stones in the commercial exploitation of most films.

Film Festivals should be part of a filmmaker’s long-term strategy that needs to be calculated from pre-production. The more strategic filmmakers become – targeting festivals that genuinely offer something whether it is profile, connections, money, or just a good time – the more adaptive film festivals will have to become if they want choice content, and this will be a win-win for everyone.

In other words: Festivals, do what you need to according to your economics. It boils down to simple supply and demand. As filmmakers we have the ability to increase the demand for our films by making a great film and by promoting it. Some festivals will need to pay in order to get the films they want (or lose choice content).  For others, the value of being a part of them alone is worth far more than a charitable stipend of a few hundred dollars (which is really what we are talking about). For many festivals, those that lie somewhere between the extremes of Sundance and the Mid-Valley Video Festival, festivals will have to find a middle ground that balances their own and the filmmakers’ needs. And how festivals handle this depends on their own ambition: some may want to remain small, local festivals; others may have grander ambitions, for which funds will need to be raised, including through allocations to filmmakers. Just as the cream rises to the top with films, so too will the best of the festivals.

And filmmakers, be picky: Don’t accept an invitation to a festival that pays nothing and doesn’t help grow the potential revenue of the film (or offer other personal or professional benefits). Similarly, though, don’t turn your nose up at good opportunities that may not involve an immediate or direct revenue stream.

And if we really want to get into the major issues surrounding financing for and compensation to filmmakers, I can suggest a couple of alternatives to focus on ….

Daniel J. Chalfen is a producer and the co-founder of Naked Edge Films. His credits include “State 194,” “The Revisionaries,” “Code of the West,” “Gone,” “Donor Unknown,” “Budrus,” “The Disappearance of McKinley Nolan,” “War Don Don,” “Meeting Resistance,” “39 Pounds of Love,” and the forthcoming “Silenced” and “The Life and Mind of Mark DeFriest.” These films have screened at festivals including the Tribeca Film Festival, SXSW, the Toronto International Film Festival, the Berlin Film Festival, HotDocs, Silverdocs, the Camden International Film Festival, True/False, the Full Frame Documentary Festival, and hundreds of others.

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