Re: festivals representing the collective judgment of the independent film community

At this blog post, IndiePix's Bob Alexander says:

"Question:If a festival can’t pay a filmmaker, then why are festivals important?

Answer:Because they represent the collective judgment of the independent film community."

(thanks A.J. Schnack for the link to Bob's post)

But do festivals really represent "the collective judgment of the independent film community"? I would have to say no. Because, the independent film community is, by my definition (and this is probably a definition that most people involved in indie films to some significant degree can agree with) people who purchase/watch indie movies (at theaters, on DVD, at festivals, etc.), people who make indie movies, people who distribute indie movies, people who promote indie movies, people who organize film festivals and other indie film screening events, people who criticize or otherwise write about, discuss indie movies. That is a lot of people; several hundred thousand people, at least, in the US. Now, do festivals represent the collective judgment of all these people or do festival programming represent the tastes of the programmers? I think festival programming represents the taste of the programmers; influenced by other factors such as films available for the fest, focus of the fest, etc.

There is no fixed, universal standard of "good" or "bad" in art/entertainment. There are only tastes; for example, I like the Jarmusch movie Down By Law, a friend of mine hates it, does that mean the movie is good or bad? No, it means that two people with two different tastes in movies disagree on the value of one movie.

In whatever form, whether they pay filmmakers or not, I am glad film festivals exist. Because, if nothing else, they do provide publicity to films and filmmakers.

However, if revenue is generated by showing a movie, it is fair to give some of that revenue to the makers of the movie, because without their work it would be impossible to have the festival/show a movie.

Now, it appears that there is a lot of interest in film festivals (good job film festival producers). But, even with that, if film festivals are operating in the red/not making any money/are not profitable perhaps that information can be shared with filmmakers so that we do not feel that we are being left out of a potential revenue stream. What are the numbers? What was the cost of producing your festival and how much money did the festival collect? Where is the proof (so that we can avoid the infamous Hollywood accounting system type accounting where no movie, no matter how popular, ever makes a profit)?

Showing movies is a lot of work. And there is a general understanding at the moment that theatrical screenings do not generate a significant (or any in many cases) profit for a lot of movies. So, if this condition also extends to film festivals, then show us the data & we'll (probably) quit asking for a share of the non-existent profit (although, revenue is generated by film fest screenings, even if there is no profit in the end, one could argue that paying filmmakers should be or could in the future be considered an essential operating expense similar to venue rental, ticketing expenses, etc., one that needs to be paid even if the fests do not ultimately produce a profit).

This - the nature of the relationship between indie filmmakers and indie film festivals - is no doubt an evolving thing; but, at the moment, it does seem weird & wrong that the maker/owner (at the indie film fest stage it is usually the same person or entity) of the movie does not receive any money from a ticket sold to a screening of that movie.

- Sujewa


jmj said…
The general problem with the scenario you're presenting is the assumption that festivals work on a profit model. For the most part they do not. The majority of festivals out there work as 501c non-profit art organizations.

The reason festivals work as a non-profit is because usually they can only exist from donations to make the money they need to run the festivals. Ticket sales alone do not create the revenue stream they need. Someone can correct me if I'm wrong but I don't think there is a single festival that can survive off ticket sales alone. Therefore they must entice corporate and individual donors with the ability to make a tax-deductible donation.

Thus any extra money they earn, since it's not profit, doesn't go to line someone else's pocket. It's folded back into the organizations budget for new events and next year’s festival.

To be fair this doesn't mean they aren't allowed to pay filmmakers. I suppose they could if they really wanted to raise that much extra money. However, one of the greatest things about the current model of festivals is they can program films based purely on their artistic merit, which to me is a VERY GOOD thing. If we start trying to force festivals into the same profit models that theaters follow then we’ll end up with a bunch of festivals playing films based on projected ticket sales instead of ARTISTIC MERIT.

The most important thing a festival can offer a filmmaker is the ability to showcase his/her art to an audience they would never have a chance to reach on his/her own. We all know that festivals play an immensely important role in helping launch film careers. We should encourage a continuation of this. Filmmakers and film festivals are partners in the exhibition of independent films that a lot of times have little chance of making it in the economically driven world of distribution.

In my mind it is very important to protect film festivals from matters of economics. I equate it to collegiate and non-professional sports. If you start trying to pay people, everything will change. If anything, filmmakers could consider the programming of their film a donation of goods and services to the festival and maybe the fest can issue a receipt to be used for tax deduction by the filmmaker.
bob in ny said…
Hi Sujewa and thanks for your note. This really is an important discussion, and we really need to clear the air. The points JMJ makes in his reply are spot on. As usual, the various accounting firms have done surveys and published industry reports and such, and they all point to the same conclusion -- 30 to 40 percent ticket sales; the rest from sponsors. In a way, festival attendees *are* supporting indie film, because they are (some of them are) paying for expensive festival passes that help pay for the festival that gives many filmmakers visibility they wouldn't have any other way.

On your question as to whether they represent the judgment of the community or not, I would say that the ineluctable law of large numbers holds. You or I may differ about a particular film. But there are thousands (literally) of festivals, and each one has panels to screen and jurors to judge -- and a film that has festival credits and has awards, not necessarily from all festivals, but from several, has demonstrated that it can command the respect of the community. That's my interpretation of the festival process.

Don't you think that works, more or less, most of the time?
Hey James,

Thanks for the thoughts.



Nice to hear from you here.

As they exist now, generally, festivals are OK - fun things to attend, gets some press for the filmmakers, etc.

However, the fact that festivals - not just start ups but ones that have been around for several years - do not consider acquisition of films for playing at their event as an essential expense (in the form of screening fees or revenue sharing) is what is baffling to me.
I guess this was a situation created by indie filmmakers who came long before my time. And even now, as James's (JMJ) comments show, some contemporary indie filmmakers are very divorced from the financial difficulties of making & selling movies. ANY SINGLE REVENUE STREAM, NO MATTTER HOW SMALL (a $100 here & there can add up to the production budget of a "no-budget" movie) can make a huge difference in the quality of life & productivity for real indie filmmakers in the long run.

Anyway, by now this is an old & tired discussion for me. Good luck to fests who like to do things as they always have - get free content so programs can be created to sell tickets to audiences, make some money, etc. And good luck to filmmakers who are cool with giving their work away for free; that's always a totally acceptable option for some people. I am going to do something else (actually keep doing it as I have in the recent past); mostly DIY screenings & or bookings where I can get a share of the tix sales, some festivals - submitting to some - at places that I do not plan on doing DIY screenings (if the submissions are rejected I'll just consider the fees my contribution to an arts event), and making the DVD available for sale as soon as the film has premiered; so that any reviews on the web, any promo stuff that happens, and any fest screenings (at fests that are cool w/ me selling the DVD to my movie through my wesite) & publicity that comes from that results in DVD sales/revenue for me/the filmmaking team (actors, etc.)

Ultimately, this disagreement also might be a generational one; I see festivals as primarily a part of the indiewood system (something that got it's life in the late 80's/early 90's when Hollywood & smaller companies were buying movies at fests for distribution); with occasional nods to real indie films, and without openly sharing any revenue generated by showing the films at fests. So, filmmakers who have bought into (intellectually) the old system of playing fests, getting acquired by distribution companies sees the loss of potential revenue from fests as a fair tradeoff. As far as I know that old system is not really in play anymore; lots of low budget DV, HD etc. movies that are well made/entertaining etc. have not gotten picked up for any kind of meaningful distribution in the past few years.

Also, one big problem with the old system, and even now, is that mainstream festival play & exposure have, for the most part, maybe recently save for Barry Jenkins & a few others (nice to see this aspect of the scene changing), have benefited "white" indie filmmakers. From late 60's to now we only see a handful of non-"white" filmmakers being embraced & supported by non-ethnic indie fests, media, distribution - however - the scene has no problem programming entire fests full of "white" filmmakers though we live in a very diverse country.
(granted, there are bigger problems than "diversity in indie film" in this world, however, as a non-"white" filmmaker, when I deal with the indie scene, I have to take the past performance of the scene/industry into account). This is another big & separate issue, perhaps to be dealt with in a different post.

The other option for filmmakers who think like me (who think that fests should share revenue with filmmakers) is to organize our own festivals where the filmmakers get a share of the ticket sales & other revenue. I am working on creating such a fest at the moment, for summer '09 in NYC. More info. on that as things get finalized in the coming months.

We will see how it goes.

Diversity of opinion & methods in attempting to solve distribution, exhibition, & the revenue generation problems are healthy; eventually we'll see which of these approaches (& perhaps which combinations of approaches) work well for various indie films.

Talk to you soon.

- Sujewa
Response to Bob, Part 2

Hey Bob,

Re: this part:

"On your question as to whether they represent the judgment of the community or not, I would say that the ineluctable law of large numbers holds. You or I may differ about a particular film. But there are thousands (literally) of festivals, and each one has panels to screen and jurors to judge -- and a film that has festival credits and has awards, not necessarily from all festivals, but from several, has demonstrated that it can command the respect of the community. That's my interpretation of the festival process.

Don't you think that works, more or less, most of the time?"

Yes, being selected for a fest is a selling point for movies. However, I've seen a lot of movies that were selected for fests that I personally thought were not very good/entertaining (based on, of course, my own judgment of what is good). More importantly than that, some festivals just copy what other festivals are doing, w/ out selecting different stuff or maybe thinking twice about certain movies (and maybe that is their misssion, to play what was played at Sundance or SXSW in their neighborhood).

Yes, there is a marketing value, to a film, in being selected by a fest or wining an award at a fest.

But I think festival selection only represents the judgment of a very few people (1 -10 or so per fest probably) compared with all the people who are a part of the indie film community (as I said in my post: all audience members, filmmakers, distributors, critics & other writers, fest programmers, etc.).

- Sujewa
jmj said…
In the end what it all boils down to is this: It doesn't happen all at once. You have to build a career. You have to put in work and pay your dues. That is reality. You can't just make a film and expect everyone to start throwing money at you and filling up the theater every time you screen.

The way you do that is by going to festivals and building with people. You forge relationships, you meet industry types and you build towards an eventual distribution that exist outside of festivals.
That certainly is one way to go James.

Good luck.

- Sujewa
steve hyde said…
If there is a film festival that generates a profit, which festival is it?

As was argued by someone here. Film festivals aren't built on a profit model. Again, if one is which one?

The people who do profit from film festivals directly are local businesses in the cities where the film festivals are held.

Municipal governments that want to see their local film festivals flourish need to allocate money to support both the film festivals and the filmmakers that the festivals invite to attend by instating a lodging tax or like tax to support the arts.
Christopher said…

I believe SxSW is operated as a private for-profit company. One could argue that their status as a hybrid music/technology/film festival puts them off the map, but they certainly seem to operate in ways that I've never seen non-profit film fests do. In some ways I think their way is better, but non-profit status seems to be the only way certain festivals can survive.

Here's my response to the original message, much more oriented towards towards filmmakers than festival operators.

Interview with the stars of The Secret Society For SLOW ROMANCE - 9.7.20

Filmmaker Brandon David Wilson interview - On Covid19, Sepulveda movie, the future, growing up in LA

The Amazing Dan Mirvish! - Making indie movies, from Hollywood - an inspiring discussion

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