20 August 2010

Festivals are dead. Long live festivals.

Festivals are dead.

This probably doesn't come as much of a surprise to you. A lot of them are struggling to stay in business and filmmaker discord is growing by the day, and for good reason.

Here's the model. See if this makes sense to you.

Step 1: A person spends several thousand dollars and months, if not years, making a product.

Step 2: That product is then sent to some other body which, for a fee in the range of $30-$100, will consider it for inclusion. They get a lot of them, though, so there's a good chance they won't give it a full consideration. They might not even look at it. Either way, they keep the money. They will show something like 5% of them to their audience.

Step 3: Repeat the process 50-100 times.

Step 4: Congratulations! You've made the cut! What do you get? Money? No. Fame? Probably not. A chance to sell your product at the event? Maybe. Access to valuable lists of audience members? Not really.

How fucking stupid is that? Would any business in the world do that? No, of course not. But for the longest time, filmmakers really had no choice. It was a gatekeeper system and that was the only way in.

Now? Not so much.

Kickstarter has changed the way in which we fund our films and, honestly, it's been something of a godsend to a lot of people. We're interacting with audiences directly, which was really where the big value add-on was for festivals. We needed them to find an audience.

We don't need them for that anymore.

Sure, they can help us find a bigger audience, but that's not guaranteed. It certainly isn't worth $50. For the cost of a submission fee, I could find someone in that city, ship them a box of screeners, and have them give them away in front of the festival venue. That would probably be as helpful. Plus, it'd be kind of bad-ass.

Again, we don't need festivals.

But festivals need us. Man, do they need us. They can barely stay in business as it is. Take away our submission fees and they're fucked. If we were to all suddenly get a Marxian itch and stop paying submission fees, the festival circuit would stop. Just like that.

They can't survive without us.

I'm not calling for the end of festivals. I have friends who run festivals. They lose money and work a ridiculous number of hours and do some really nice things. But you know what? So do filmmakers. We're losing money on these films and we're subsidizing their losses. That's just bad business.

But festivals, if you want to stay in business, you need to re-think your business model. Yours is broken. It's always been broken, but now it's starting to become obsolete. Thing is, I like you. I like meeting festival directors and people at festivals and wearing your t-shirts while I work on my next film. They're a lot of fun. But your submission process just isn't worth my time and money.

If you want to consider my film, I'll gladly mail you a screener. If you want to program my film, awesome. I'll roll into town with a box of DVDs and do all the press you want me to do and shake hands and everything. Hell, I'll even buy you a beer. I will do everything in my power to help you make your festival successful. But don't expect me to keep paying $50 for the honor of maybe being considered. I'm over it. I have other options.

And I know what you're going to say, that you need my submission fees to stay in business. Too bad. Raise your own money. I did.

You can always start a Kickstarter campaign.


Sheri C said...

I won't give my usual speech about this because I see some of your point Lucas. But seriously, submission fees are only a very small part of running a festival and they do serve to keep out people submitting their home movies and first time filmmaking skills. It is an expense that must be factored in when you are making a film.

I know you're going to ask, why? Because I really haven't met a filmmaker yet who doesn't want their film screened in a theater. For $50 bucks, you get the chance to do that. It is like buying a lottery ticket, but far cheaper if you get in than paying to book that theater yourself and trying to get people to show up. You still have work involved, yes. You have to get people to come to YOUR screening, but they are already predisposed to seeing some films at the festival because of the festival's marketing efforts and you just have to herd them to yours. You don't have to start from scratch.

In order to not waste submission fees, you really have to evaluate what kind of festivals exist for your film and what kind of audience you think your film appeals to. I know it sounds obvious but I can't tell you how many filmmakers say to me "I submitted to over 50 festivals"
WOW! I can't imagine that ALL of those were your best fit.

Usually I tell filmmakers who bitch about submission fees and what gets programmed to volunteer for work at a local festival for several months. It gives a new appreciation for what people do there. Are there crappy fests who care nothing about films or filmmakers? Absolutely!, but there are also many who do. Check each one out before you submit. It is just too easy to apply on WAB repeatedly and then fuss about rejection letters.

Tom Russell said...

I've been known to engage in more than a little anti-festival rhetoric. I've been making feature films for a decade, and in that time, not a one of them has made it into a festival. I've never spent more than $500 to make a feature, but I've spent much more than that in festival submission fees. And I'm basically paying for the honour to have them watch two or three minutes and then turn it off. So, yeah, I've been pissed about that, and shot my mouth off accordingly.

But the last couple of years, I've gotten more stoic about it. The fact is, Mary and I don't make particularly commercial films-- speaking both technically and aesthetically. If a festival is looking for "X" and we insist on providing "Y", it's kind of silly to complain about not getting in. Luckily, because we make our films for a few hundred dollars and because we don't generally do a whole lot else for recreation-- we don't go to concerts, we don't travel, we frequent the dollar show rather than first-run cinemas-- we can afford to keep making our "Y".

The above I want to stress because otherwise the rest of this comment might strike you as overly negative-- which, being generally the optimistic sort, isn't really my forte. But the thrust of your piece-- "if we all stop giving them submission fees, they'll have no choice but to do away with them!"-- strikes me as a bit Utopian, by which I mean impossible and slightly (and, in my experience, for you, uncharacteristically) naive. It's not a realistic solution, just as "give peace a chance" isn't a realistic solution to warfare. It'd be more realistic, I think, to frequent those festivals that _do_ have free submissions than to try holding one's breath waiting for the festivals with fees to change.

By the way, let me reiterate how thankful I am that you waived the $20 submission fee for our entry in your screening series. ;-)

lucas mcnelly said...

i don't know that my point is "stop charging fees". I'll pay the fee if I feel there's value in it. Say, SXSW, for example.

But the value equation has clearly changed over the last couple of years for fests. Whereas before they could connect you to an audience and maybe get you distribution, neither of those is really in play anymore.

Yet the fees remain. And, more importantly, the methods of operation remain. The fees are really just a symptom.

So really now I'm paying for the right to put on my webpage that I played a festival.

The larger point is this: the game has changed. Filmmaker sentiment is shifting, and fast. Adapt or die.

Stewart Nusbaumer said...

You start out festivals are dead and end with the value equation has changed. I don't know what you're really saying. But I know that film festivals are part of the game, they received increased submissions, audiences are larger, more new fests are popping up, and you say they're dead. Further, crowd sourcing is great, but a lot of projects don't make the mark. In all, there is no one solution, there are many routes to take, usually many routes for each film project. I have problems with some fests, but I also have problems with films that should never have been made.

/britmic said...

film festivals are increasingly irrelevant especially if they only accept "film" as a submission medium.

i maintain that for a submission fee you should reasonably expect some sort of feedback on your submission, even if it is "you suck". if you need more staff to do this then fucking hire more staff and don't give me sob stories about how you are a non-profit charity just fucking do it already.

i thank you.