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Numerous Distributors Pulled Films from Online Film Festivals in 2020, New Survey Reports — Exclusive

The survey addresses many of the challenges of the online festival circuit and includes feedback from 100 filmmakers, festival representatives, and distributors.

Banners promoting the now cancelled 34th annual SXSW music,film and technology conference fly on West 6th street in Austin.Texas.City officials cancelled the festival due to concerns over novel Corona COVID19 virus.This is the first cancellation in the festival's 34 year history.Last year's festival drew over 100,000 attendees over a two week period.It was scheduled to start today. | usage worldwide Photo by: Jeff J. Newman/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Banners promoting the cancelled 34th annual SXSW music, film, and technology conference

Jeff J. Newman/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Results of a new survey released Thursday quantify the tensions and opportunities present in a pandemic-changed independent film ecosystem. Among the findings: Filmmakers want more revenue-sharing, networking opportunities, and data from online festivals, while rifts between festivals, distributors, and filmmakers adjusting to this new normal present opportunities for all parties to rethink how their relationships work.

The survey polled over 100 filmmakers, some 50 festival representatives, and over 25 distributors with varying questions. The effort was undertaken by indie film and Slamdance co-founder Jon Fitzgerald, film consultant Brian Newman, and Film Festival Alliance co-director Lela Meadow-Conner. Read the full report here.

Fitzgerald told IndieWire he hopes filmmakers, festivals, and distributors look at the survey results as a starting point to help them navigate the industry’s current volatility. He expects he and his colleagues to conduct follow-up polls as the landscape continues to evolve during a pandemic that’s expected to continue well into next year — and as the industry is likely changed forever.

After SXSW and Tribeca were forced to cancel their in-person festivals back in the spring as the pandemic began, it became clear that some longstanding industry policies created hurdles for widespread adoption of online festivals. Among them were concerns about maintaining geographic premiere status and the threat that an online debut posed to distribution prospects. Such concerns prompted a pledge spearheaded by Seed&Spark signed by festivals and distributors committing to rule changes.

The survey results suggest the scale of an issue: Almost 80 percent of festival respondents reported that distributors withdrew confirmed titles from their festival’s lineup after learning the festival would be held online. Half of the festivals surveyed reported programming issues based on other festivals’ premiere status requirements.

Long before virtual festivals were even possible, distributors have been mindful that one set of eyeballs watching their movie at a festival could mean one less set paying to see it in a commercial theater. And premiere status — world premiere, Los Angeles premiere, East Coast premiere, etc. — is important for festivals to set themselves apart.

While in-person festivals address this challenge by limiting the number of screenings or size of audiences, online festivals offer geoblocking and audience caps — tactics employed by TIFF, New York Film Festival, Hot Docs, and scores of regional festivals this year.

The survey shows a near 50-50 split of festival respondents reporting the use of geoblocking. Among those that didn’t use geoblocking, 41.7 percent reported an increase in sales/attendance compared to prior years. One-third of respondents that did not geoblock capped audience levels to match theater capacity from normal years. AFI FEST announced after its online October event that its audience had more than doubled compared to last year, with viewers in all 50 states.

“As we see the festival circuit continue to evolve in the post-pandemic era, it is likely that we will see more caps and less geo-blocking. Whether that continues to equate to increased audiences remains to be seen,” the report reads.

Almost half of the festivals surveyed reported regularly paying screening fees, with an average of $300 for features and $50 for shorts. The majority said they will continue to use that model, rather than a revenue share of box office income, for virtual offerings.

But the uniqueness of online festivals prompted filmmaker respondents to demand change. Nearly 70 percent said they will require a percentage of ticket sales for online screenings. Among those that said they require pay to screen at a festival, 52.3 percent said they preferred revenue sharing, while 47.7 percent said they preferred a flat fee.

Once festivals return to in-person programming, 83.3 percent of filmmaker respondents said they would be willing to waive their fee or revenue share if the festival covers transportation and/or accommodations, a common way festivals compensate filmmakers.

“Its a double-edged sword. You’re seeing festivals that used to spend a lot of money on hospitality programs, they’re not having to do that anymore,” Fitzgerald told IndieWire. “Some festivals are seeing it as more of an opportunity to move into revenue sharing.”

Among them is the Calgary International Film Festival, which offered a 45-percent box-office share to filmmakers whose films screened online in September, Artistic Director Brian Owens said in an interview included in the report. The Canadian festival was geoblocked to Alberta and neighboring provinces Saskatchewan and Manitoba, which have no major festivals that Calgary would encroach on with its online effort.

Films that screened only in person yielded a $250 fee, low enough to ensure the festival could recoup the cost due to theater capacity restrictions. Online screenings were initially capped at 500 viewers. Two titles had their caps expanded to meet audience demand. Five films reached the cap but were not expanded due to distributor demands, according to Owens.

While some festivals are sharing revenues, many continue to keep data to themselves: 95 percent of filmmakers said they received no data from festivals. The report says that filmmakers want more transparency around online screenings. That information could include things as basic as where a viewer lives or other data that could help in marketing and distribution decisions — especially important to the filmmakers whose movies don’t end up with major distributors.

“The bottom line is that the pandemic has changed the dynamic of film festivals all over the world,” Fitzgerald said. “The festivals that will successfully pivot are going to be the ones that can take a lot of the findings from this report and put them into play.”

Fitzgerald is already putting that thinking into action. On Thursday, Filmocracy Fest, which he helped organize, will go live with a program built in response to some of the survey results.

The inaugural festival will share troves of data with filmmakers, screenings can be capped — or not — and geoblocks can be customized based on filmmakers’ specific goals and needs. Networking opportunities are baked into the Filmocracy platform, which the American Film Market used for its online edition last month.

While everyone is looking forward to the opportunity to once again watch movies in person together again, Fitzgerald foresees a post-pandemic festival landscape that will remain altered by the pandemic. Festivals are seeing the power that online programming has to reaching audiences at any time of the year, while festival survey respondents indicated a desire to collaborate with their peers.

Filmocracy Fest runs December 3 – 6. IndieWire readers can use the code IWGUEST to get 15 percent off tickets or passes.

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