05 March 2010

More Ruminations from the Festival Front Lines

by guest columnist Frederick Marx.  Follow him on Twitter

It’s a bit of a shock for me to experience the festival circuit now after a long layoff of some 15 years.  Whether it’s the recession or simply the New Economy, many festivals seem hard pressed just to get by.  Traveling with Hoop Dreams back when, I used to expect that festivals would fly me in and put me up.  Nowadays that is far from a given.  Maybe it’s just impossible to find airline sponsors.  With half the airlines in or just coming out of Chapter 11 no doubt they are very reluctant to become festival partners and offer free flights.  Still, it’s only reasonable for filmmakers to expect something from festivals in return for screening of their films.  If it’s not a flight and a hotel room then there should be a rental fee paid.  Something…   

All of these variables have always been negotiable of course.  But from what I can tell, they are now more fluid than ever.  Everything is up for grabs: plane ticket, hotel room, meals, screening fee… the key limits seem to be your chutzpah and how much the festival wants your film. 

15 years ago it was unusual for European festivals to charge submission fees to filmmakers.  They seemed to get it that it’s a form of bottom feeding – making a portion of your “nut” from those least capable of paying, ie., the producers who’ve just mortgaged their house and sold their car to finish a film.  Now unfortunately, it seems half the European festivals are following the bad example of their American cousins.

Festivals have always been part of release strategies.  But in the past that usually meant the equivalent of an unpaid sneak preview.   Filmmakers wouldn’t get a rental fee or any of the door, but they would get their product vetted by experts: the festival programmers themselves,  the industry people - the distributors, exhibitors, and broadcasters – and other “opinion makers” – press and critics, knowledgeable audience members, hangers-on.  Festival screenings would not only directly translate into commercial opportunities through the industry, they’d indirectly begin the marketing campaign - the word of mouth, “the buzz.”  They were the proving ground, especially for out of the mainstream and/or independently produced work.  Not a bad exchange.  

But that system largely assumed there was a post-festival life waiting for the film through some combination of established distribution forms.  That is now impossible to count on, increasingly not even desirable.  Instead, DIY distribution demands that festivals become a part of distribution itself, rather than outside it - taking place prior.   And as part of that strategy festivals may become one of very few very good sources of support and revenue that’s even available to you.

One New Zealand producer has taken to insisting on a $500 screening fee for her film playing in festivals.  By doing so she has managed to recoup about $8,000 in revenue.  This strategy of course assumes your film is a proven audience pleaser and that festivals want it.  But at what point do you make that determination?  With my film brand new, only having played in a few good but “secondary” festivals to date, when do I make that determination that it’s capable of demanding and receiving screening fees?  No doubt when the demand goes up and festivals start calling me.     

So if you’re not getting support in the form of hotel rooms, plane tickets rental fees, etc., you have to weigh whether it’s worth going further into debt for the chance to market your film.  

Frederick Marx  is an internationally acclaimed, Oscar and Emmy nominated producer/director with 35 years in the film business.   He was named a Chicago Tribune Artist of the Year for 1994, a 1995 Guggenheim Fellow, and a recipient of a Robert F. Kennedy Special Achievement Award.  His film HOOP DREAMS played in hundreds of theatres nationwide after winning the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival and was the first documentary ever chosen to close the New York Film Festival.  It was on over 100 “Ten Best” lists nationwide and was named Best Film of the Year by critics Roger Ebert, Gene Siskel, Gene Shalit, and Ken Turran and by the Chicago Film Critics Association. Ebert also named it Best Film of the Decade. It won numerous prestigious awards, including an Academy Nomination (Best Editing), Producer’s Guild, Editor’s Guild (ACE), Peabody Awards, the Prix Italia (Europe’s top documentary prize) and The National Society of Film Critics Award.  The New York, Boston, LA, and San Francisco Film Critics all chose it as Best Documentary, 1994.  Utne Reader named it one of 150 of humanity’s “essential works,” the Library of Congress recently added it to its prestigious National Film Registry and the International Documentary Association named it the Best Documentary Ever.


Sheri C said...

Hi Frederick and Tyler,

I have to comment on this because I am riled.

I think the idea of requiring a screening fee out of festivals for most filmmakers is a pipe dream. To complain about having to pay to market your film only shows that you didn't plan a budget to do this in the first place and that is really inexcusable. I don't know any manufacturer of product that doesn't have a sizable budget set aside to market their product.

As a filmmaker, your mentality should be that of a small business owner. There are plans and expenses that must be accounted for when you launch your product, you film, and to bristle at having to do this is ludicrous.

I don't think festivals in the past were looked at as launching pads to audience, they were looked at as launching pads to the industry so that marketing and product launch expenses would be picked up by distribs. That is NOT happening to the very vast majority of films now and you will be forced to spend to get your film out there.

As for the filmmaker supposedly raking in the bucks in screening fees, she must have a very exceptional film with a sizable fan base to be able to get that. If I were a fest director, I wouldn't pay it, too many others to choose from. The paltry (in the grand scheme of things)amount of money it takes to participate in fests as opposed to funding your own theatrical launch is well worth it. Look at fests as a marketing expense, not screening fees lost.

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