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Sundance and True/False Programmers Discuss Festival Economics at Full Frame

Sundance and True/False Programmers Discuss Festival Economics at Full Frame

This past weekend the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival hosted a speakeasy chat around the issues raised in the series of Indiewire articles that followed my Fair Trade For Filmmakers piece in this space. Props. It’s a queasy discussion for many festivals, evident in some of the defensiveness that has informed certain responses to the topic thus far. Yet, it’s also an opportunity for those festivals progressive enough to reimagine the role their events may have in tangibly supporting independent filmmaking.

Full Frame is one such event, as is True/False. T/F co-conspirator David Wilson, who joined Sundance’s Caroline Libresco and I in leading the discussion, seized the moment. Wilson announced that True/False festival would be offering filmmaker honorariums at next year’s event. It was the third time he received applause during the talk, that fucking scene stealer.

Libresco pointed to broader issues around filmmaker support and remuneration (“Why are filmmakers always the last to get paid?”), but our moderator was having no deflections (as worthy a discussion as it may be). So we stayed on topic. The notion that any sum that a festival could pay a filmmaker is small change next to the way way more massive financial obstacles faced by creators doesn’t wash with me. If it’s that minuscule, then pay it. As one very respected filmmaker/producer attending put it (and I paraphrase), “It’s always nice to be a able to tell your mom and dad that you’re getting paid for your work.”

We all agreed that, as a first step, the imperative of any film festival should be negating all costs incurred by a filmmaker in attending their event (more applause for Wilson!). I confessed that my 35% rule was a provocation, maybe even a bit of a red herring, and that the whole point of the discussion, for me, is getting a better deal, and tangible value, for filmmakers presenting their work at festivals.

Travel expenses and honorariums are a great start. And here are a few other practical suggestions for those festivals looking to make their events more filmmaker friendly:

Here’s the video of the panel courtesy of the Full Frame Documentary Festival

ELIMINATE OR SIGNIFICANTLY REDUCE SUBMISSION FEES. These fees 1) offset the administrative expense of the submission process 2) generate revenues and 3) provide a minimal barrier to entry, helping to stem the flood of submissions. Still, they are also taxes on the unconnected, especially as most credible festivals derive only minuscule portions of their programme from truly unsolicited submissions. And if filmmakers are to pay a fee, then perhaps festivals could consider some kind of feedback mechanism, even if it’s the most perfunctory of human acknowledgments that a work was, indeed, seen.

IF YOU LOVE SOMEBODY, SET THEM FREE. Yes, I just quoted a Sting song. Most festivals invite films as they roll through their programming process, yet do not issue declination letters until well after they’ve locked their programmes. Filmmaker’s fates hang in the balance, and often they lose months waiting on decisions that may have been made many weeks before they are notified. While a festival’s shortlist is invariably rather long, even longer is that list of films that are decisively ruled out early in the process. Festivals should cut those filmmakers loose as early as possible. Sure, it might be can of rattlesnakes, but figure it out. Share a bit of the pain with the filmmakers, but set them free.

GIVE THEM THEIR AUDIENCE. Here I pay tribute to the great Les Blank, who always sold DVDs of past work directly to audiences following screenings of his films. I once helped him out after a Hot Docs screening of All In This Tea. He pocketed a few hundred bucks in twenty minutes, pulling discs out of rucksack he carried around. In the digital age every festival has a website page for each film in the programme. They also have large email lists. How about allowing direct donations to filmmakers via a paypal link on the festival website? Or, actively promoting digital releases with direct marketing to the festival audience? This comment, by James Belfer, was one of my favourites generated by the Fair Trade pieces: “If festivals gave me my audience I could do incredible things with it. I could A/B test SEO and inbound marketing techniques. [huh?] I could use it use it as a springboard towards self-distribution. I could even make new friends and family for my film. These things lead to a stronger audience overall, a higher chance of becoming cash flow positive, and maybe even leverage to show proof of concept when negotiating distribution deals. Don’t give me money, give me my audience.”

ISSUE ATTENDANCE REPORTS. Oh, here I go, pushing buttons again, but this was also mentioned on the panel at Full Frame. Wouldn’t it be useful for producers to use the data from a film festival screening or run as negotiating leverage, or even for distributors to be able to report festival box office to drive up the screen averages? This is a raw idea, but we’d all like to know exactly how many people are watching films at film festivals, wouldn’t we? Never mind the elusiveness of VOD numbers, even less is known about festival box office numbers.

Somebody recently advised me that I should never write more than 1000 words on the internets, so I stop here. In fact, I’m passing the torch on the issue. I’m no evangelical. There’s a comments section below in which to provide your constructive suggestions, or your anonymous snipes. I’ll offer my favourite comment a complimentary festival consultation (which I honoured, last time, btw). I’ll also continue to collate the whole shebang on Storify. God speed. There are other bridges to burn.

Sean Farnel will be learning more about transmedia, and fine tequila, next week at Ambulante. He’s working on something amazing. Many things, actually.

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