An Open Letter to a Film Festival Programmer

Dear Programmer,

Thank you very much for the acceptance to your film festival. While I wish that Layover could have been a part of it, I simply cannot take our film offline until later this Spring, simply for the benefit of screening at your festival. This would not only fly in the face of my values as an entrepreneurial filmmaker, it’s simply bad business. What would I tell my investors?

While I can understand your position, I feel that your policy of exclusivity is both shortsighted and does not seek to benefit the filmmaker. Film festivals are supposed to exist to support cinema and the people who make it. But for you to ask me to stop selling my film in a manner that has been available for nearly 5 months, is the exact opposite of support. I honestly find it appalling that you would seek to cut off my film’s sole source of revenue because you irrationally believe that we could negatively affect your attendance.

As a kid I dreamed of having breakout success at film festivals like yours. Now, having finally produced a film worthy of admission, I am dismayed to find these institutions mired in just as much irrelevancy and lack of foresight as most major film exhibitors and distributors. You used to be on the cutting edge, capable of discovering talents and exposing them to the world. But, like the rest of the old-guard, you also fight against the same tides of change instead of stepping back, taking stock of the new content economy, and figuring out how to reclaim your place as taste-makers and visionaries of cinema.

If you hadn’t heard, the distribution landscape is in the midst of major disruption. Because of this technology-driven revolution, film festivals are becoming less-and-less important to the success of a film. The generation of filmmakers who came of age via your events are already well established and even festivals that have the benefit of being marketplaces are simply marketing opportunities for distributors hoping to build clout for their art house fare. To make matters worse, unless your laurel says Sundance or SXSW or Toronto, audiences don’t care. Film festivals are a dime a dozen, have you looked at Withoutabox lately?

It’s possible that you may not be aware of this, as your applications may continue to hit all-time highs, and you continue to claim record attendances (although a bump of 500 more attendees is hardly growth). However, I suspect that you know this inconvenient truth and simply choose to ignore it. If it were otherwise, you would not be concerned about the attendance at a film that, since being made available for download online five months ago, has sold less that 1000 total units.

Never mind that this film has already been featured in several top film-focused blogs (Slashfilm, The Wrap, Indiewire, Rope of Silicon, No Film School and Film School Rejects to name a few).

Never mind that this film has a engaged, vocal fanbase of people who would jump at the opportunity to see a film on a screen other than their laptop.

Never mind that those people would also encourage and bring other people to experience the film in a unique setting previously unavailable to them.

Never mind that Layover has only screened once in Los Angeles, has never been available in a theater in Orange County and has no real opportunity of playing theatrically in that area ever again.

You told me, “as you can imagine, having the film available online takes away from the potential audience for its screening(s) here…” The truth is, I cannot imagine how my film, only available online since Fall of last year, at all takes away at all your ability to sell tickets. How can you possibly conclude that people, who are no doubt familiar with the film, who would no doubt leap at the opportunity to see it in a theater, who would no doubt bring along friends to watch, would rather stay home because they can download it and watch it on their computers?

Being available online for people to download or stream on their computers is simply a stop-gap for the true cinematic experience, it does not substitute. So, in reality, a film like ours with a built-in, engaged and vocal audience, with reams of press and promotion, stands a far greater chance of putting butts in your seats than otherwise.

Here’s another way of looking at this situation:

Instead of feeling threatened by a film that has already been made available to see in one fashion, maybe embrace the fact that your festival offers a unique opportunity to a film and its fans that might not otherwise exist. Just like I am not threatened by your making my film available theatrically, (with no possibility of sharing in the revenue I might add) you should not feel threatened by Layover being available for someone to download and stream on their laptop. One does not take away from the other, rather, they compliment.

I might add that not one film distributor would balk at the idea of Layover remaining available via our website, layoverfilm.com, should they seek to distribute the film via other digital platforms. So, if they do not find us in competition, why should you? Guaranteed, an iTunes download is more similar than a limited screening in a theater.

You might be surprised by my response here; possibly even offended. I can imagine that you will think twice about ever inviting another one of my films to screen at your festival. If that is the case, I can’t say that I won’t be disappointed; but I won’t be dismayed. I assure you that my passion here is not out of anger or disgust but of bewilderment. I love film festivals and I want them to remain relevant and important. To be a place where lovers of film can find and discover but also experience stories that they love in ways not previously available.

Good luck with your festival this year. I am sure that it will be a resounding success and feature a number of amazing films, popular stars and budding talents. I hope that I’m wrong about all that I have said, but I fear that I am not.

Sincerely,
Travis Oberlander