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Filmmakers Should Avoid Online Film Festivals, Unless They Ask These Questions — Opinion

Many filmmakers are wondering if they should accept offers from online programs. Here are the hard questions they should ask.

A staff of the International Human Rights Documentary Film Festival One World 2020 walks through empty cinema due to the coronavirus outbreak in Prague, Czech Republic, 10 March 2020. Festival was postponed with immediate effect. The National Security Council announced on 10 March that events with over 100 people in the Czech Republic will be cancel due to coronavirus measures. According to Council, theater, music, cinema and other artistic, sporting, religious events, markets, fairs, public and private, are prohibited from 10 March at 6 pm. At the same time, all schools and universities will be closed from 11 March.Covid-19 coronavirus measures in Czech Republic, Prague - 10 Mar 2020

A staff member of the International Human Rights Documentary Film Festival One World 2020 walks through an empty cinema due to the coronavirus outbreak in Prague, Czech Republic

MARTIN DIVISEK/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Brian Newman is the producer of “The Outside Story” (Tribeca Film Festival, 2020), and founder of Sub-Genre, a consultancy helping brands make and distribute films. 

As the coronavirus crisis continues, most film festivals are being forced to postpone, and many have opted to launch online versions of their events. But as these new versions of film festivals keep popping up, I am getting asked by filmmakers: “Should we participate in this?” Or, more often: “Am I missing something? Why would we do this?”

My answer is always the same: If you are launching a brand-new film that is still seeking distribution, no. If you have a short, or an older film, or one where you have locked in distribution (and if your distributor agrees), or one where you are doing a DIY release — sure, consider it. But if you are trying to premiere a feature film, and you don’t yet have distribution, then as of now you can’t consider these online festivals because buyers consider them a conflict with their distribution of your film. They do NOT see it as word-of-mouth building, or good PR, or a way to test/prove audience demand. They see it as a distraction at best, and lost income, or a loss of control or a loss of premiere status at worst.

That’s why you don’t see many feature films premiering as part of the recent SXSW/Amazon deal (rumors are that the less-than-generous terms didn’t help). And that’s why Tribeca quickly announced that its new “We Are One” mega-festival isn’t intended for most new films, either. Because until Ted Sarandos, or someone else at Netflix, gives the greenlight for films to premiere at online festivals before streaming, no one is going to do it.

I am helping about 11 films with their festivals and distribution right now (brand-film clients and one film that I produced), and most of them are in festival limbo-land. Dozens of festivals have emailed to say they’re launching an online/virtual festival (it’s not virtual unless you’re in VR, but that’s another post), and they ask whether the selected film wants to participate. Of those letters, only two addressed why the filmmaker might want to participate, and how the system would work. Only one offered any kind of compensation to the filmmakers. But even when the festival offered compensation, that wouldn’t work for my clients with new films.

There remains too much danger that distributors will see this as a problem. But still, kudos to those two festivals. Even though my clients couldn’t accept their offers, we had something to consider, and it was clear that the festival had thought about how this impacted the filmmaker.

It seems to me that film festivals launching these new online events are thinking about many things – how to serve local audiences; how to keep their brands alive; how to salvage some part of their festival; how to not lose as much money; how to build a new model. All of these are good and valid things to consider that might be solved by an online festival. I remain skeptical,  but too few are thinking about the impact on filmmakers.

Film festivals have two main sets of constituents — audiences and filmmakers — and you can’t build a program for the former and forget the latter, but that’s precisely what’s happening. Too few people are asking, “How can we build something that best helps filmmakers?” And that’s the question that matters, especially at a time when most filmmakers have lost all of their income, and when they are under severe duress. Remember, festivals, even as they struggle, might bounce back next year. But a film stuck in limbo could completely disappear, along with the career of the filmmaker who made it.

I’ve spoken with many festival directors in the past few weeks, and a common refrain is that they wish Netflix/Amazon/et al. would see things their way and say these online festival premieres are okay. Many even signed a pledge advocating for a new business model around premieres. But none of the major/market festivals signed this pledge, nor did any of the most important buyers. If what you’re offering is going to hurt filmmakers, why offer it? It shifts the problem to the filmmakers, and in the best case, they look like jerks for not participating; and in the worst case, they do participate and possibly ruin the marketability of their films.

As I speak with other producers, another common question arises: Are any of these festivals gathering input from filmmakers on what they want? Many filmmakers are afraid to ask this question out loud because they don’t want to jeopardize their relationships with the gatekeepers who are often so crucial to their film’s success. Filmmakers need more people advocating for improved festival business models that help audiences discover films without jeopardizing their future success.

Festivals need to invite these conversations and have them more transparently, because while figuring it out won’t be easy, this is a field-wide issue, and it needs robust debate and solutions that take into account all stakeholders. If we’re going to use this crisis to build a new business model, let’s not do it in a vacuum; instead, let’s step back and use this opportunity to build a new system that’s better than the old one.

So, what do filmmakers want? In my conversations, a few things keep coming up. First, we need to acknowledge that in the current climate, we don’t just need festivals for industry discovery, we also need them to help audiences discover films. But this means the discovery/premiere aspect of festivals needs to be timed to the release of the film to the public. That probably means most festivals — all but the biggest industry ones — need to rethink their “discovery” programming and focus on bringing audiences to films that have distribution sorted out, and that are just about to launch. This probably means that festivals need to think differently about how and when they promote themselves and their films (a lot earlier for both). And we need to figure out how to push those audiences to films post-festival as well (via email lists with opt-ins, on social media, etc.)

We also need to discuss compensation. There was an argument — one that I believed in for a long time as a festival programmer — that discovery and promotion were enough. But in an online world, there needs to be compensation for filmmakers, even when your festival is struggling. Now is the time to make that argument with board-members, donors and sponsors.

But we also need to acknowledge that compensation will never be enough for films that are seeking distribution. This may necessitate creative partnerships (between festivals and distributors), and a renewed focus on other areas that help filmmakers. For example, there needs to be data transparency — to filmmakers, among festivals, to distributors, and in some cases, to the public. Filmmakers need to know how many people saw their film, how much of it they watched, and be able to use this data to build a case for their film with distributors, press and other audiences.

Filmmakers also want more opportunities to network with other filmmakers and industry representatives, even if this only takes place online. They also love the chance to win an award that might help bring them more attention, but they’re starting to miss the cash prizes that many festivals have cut due to austerity.

We need to have these conversations now, as the field develops solutions that are bound to become not just temporary band-aids, but long-term changes to the system. Festivals are understandably rushing to develop online systems that can help them survive the crisis. Filmmakers appreciate this need, and many of them owe their careers to scrappy festival directors who took a chance on their films. The two need to work together to develop systems that can allow both to not just survive, but thrive, going forward.

An earlier version of this article appeared in the Sub-Genre newsletter.

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