The One Question Every Festival Needs to Ask Itself: Why?

The One Question Every Festival Needs to Ask Itself: Why?
The One Question Every Festival Needs Ask Itself: Why?

After stumbling on a post on Brian Newman’s blog responding to recent articles on Indiewire about the role of film festivals in filmmakers’ lives and careers, Indiewire sent Newman an email with a few  questions and asked if he would publish an enhanced entry on Indiewire.  The result is below.

Brian Newman is the co-founder and CEO of Crowd Play, a company
developing new projects at the intersection of film and technology and is the founder of Sub-Genre, a film and new media consultancy meant to help
filmmakers, artists and organizations develop new media projects and
bring them to an audience. Previously, Brian was the CEO of the
Tribeca Film Institute (TFI), the nonprofit arm of the Tribeca Film Festival, the
executive director of IMAGE Film & Video Center, producer of the
Atlanta Film Festival. He has also held positions at the IFP and the South
Carolina Arts Commission. Brian serves on the boards of Muse Film & Television and Rooftop Films.

Former Hot Docs Director of Programming, Sean Farnel
kicked up a bit of a shitstorm recently by re-igniting the age-old
debate on whether
festivals should pay filmmakers for playing their films.

Soon enough the festival blogosphere raised its head and shot down
the argument once again. Tom Hall did a great job of laying
out the economic issues 
faced by all fests. Heather
Croall did a good job of bringing
up the other value 
a fest brings to filmmakers, and
in a brilliant comment to her post from Nick Fraser, we got some finger
wagging at some other culprits in the not-paying-the-filmmaker-enough

This argument comes up time and again. I remember
my first visit to Sundance as head of the Atlanta Film Festival over
ten years ago, when John Vanco (now of IFC Film Center) brought up this
argument to great debate at a Slamdance panel, and I’m sure it has
come up many a time before and since. Each time, the arguments on both
sides of the issue are the same, but I’m left feeling like we’re
having the wrong debate altogether.

Let me concede that both sides have a good argument.
For example, we have ample evidence that some fests can pay fees and
thrive: LGBT Fests and Jewish Film Fests are often run by nonprofit,
struggling entities, but they routinely pay fair fees for films they
program and haven’t gone out of business. As Barbara Hammer explained
to me in my first programming job, LGBT filmmakers quickly realized
that the largest market for showing their films was on the festival
circuit, and they organized and demanded screening fees to showcase
their films. The festivals responded, and its now routine to expect
fee payments for both short and feature work that shows in such festivals.
I happen to have managed an LGBT fest once, Out on Film, also in Atlanta,
and while our budget was slim, we managed to make it work. That said,
the majority of LGBT filmmakers aren’t getting rich from this arrangement,
and arguably their work is getting seen less as such festivals must
often take less risk to ensure making their money back, and often turn
down good works because they can’t afford the minimum fee within their
limited programming budget.

On the other hand, there are many good fests that
provide such a great environment for filmmakers that perhaps the filmmakers
should be paying them for the opportunities they’re getting. Seriously,
people pay a booker to put them in theaters all the time now, and good
festivals do your marketing, fill a theater and arguably help drive
awareness for good films. While not many people are arguing for this
arrangement, the general response to Sean’s post is accurate: festivals
are usually struggling entities that can’t afford fee payments, but
good ones provide travel and accommodation, lots of booze and networking
opportunities and can be valuable to a filmmaker.

But whether or not a festival can or should pay is
ultimately just the first question we should ask, and then we should
quickly move on to the deeper, thornier questions that might actually
lead to some meaningful change. Such as? Well, such as: why have film
festivals at all?

I can tell you this – nine out of ten of them
can’t justify their existence anymore with a straight face. That still
leaves a lot of good ones who can, but having run some fests, and having
studied the history of them (in the US) quite a bit, I can tell you
why most of them started: Nearly every festival in the US started because
it was the only way that filmmakers in X town could see the work of
other indie, art-house and foreign films. It quickly grew to include
the lofty mission of presenting such work to the general public in such
towns, or bringing economic development to such cities by tourists coming
to see all these hard-to-find films, but the usual narrative was this:
It’s 1975, you’re a filmmaker and you shoot film. You need to edit
it, which requires a Steenbeck, so you and your buddies form a film
co-op to jointly purchase and share one. You get a grant from the NEA
(or its precursors) and lo-and-behold, you’ve got a little film commune
going. Soon enough, you realize that it’s hard for anyone else to
see your films, so you band together and start a festival where you
show one another’s films, mainly to one another, and this idea slowly
leads to the idea that other people might want to see these things.
So you start a film festival. Others nearby do as well, and soon you
are sharing film prints from Paris, France to Paris, Texas as others
get the same idea and open festivals elsewhere (yes, a few started well
before the 70s, but most started then).

This was laudable, and it worked. The greatest untold
story of film might be just how cinema culture fed by American Film
Fests led to the success of Miramax and others (and the eventual bubble
and “death of truly indie film”), but that’s a story for another
time. Most importantly, it was a mission that was absolutely true – 
without such festivals, many a town would never have seen amazing films
from independent and worldwide talent, and festivals could claim that
without them, their towns would be a lesser place, and that these films
would not get seen.

This is no longer true.

We all know why. The Internet has come along, as well
as cable VOD, Netflix and numerous other options for finding films.
Smart filmmakers can build an audience there too, and a successful internet
short is now measured in the millions of views, an audience about 1,000
times greater than the number of people who might see your short at
a few great film festivals. Yes, I know festivals add a lot of other
value too, that filmmakers love showing in front of an audience and
all that jazz. Having met my wife outside the theater of a regional
festival, I can definitely attest to the community building they offer
as well. Trust me when I say I am not being anti-Festival when I say
that the mission has been accomplished and something needs to change.

So the question isn’t whether or not festivals can
pay filmmakers or even whether they should pay filmmakers. And it’s
not whether or not festivals offer lots of other hunky-dory stuff for
attendees. The question should be: what do filmmakers need most now?
And is what they need something that a festival can help with, or do
we need to start something different to solve this need? If filmmakers
got together in the same spirit that led them to create film co-ops
and festivals (and filmmaker organizations, and magazines, and…) then
what would they make together today?

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