Listen up, indie filmmakers.
When I wrote and produced my first feature film, I had the same dreams you probably have: Sundance, Cannes. Realistically the chances of catching Mr Redford’s eye are practically nil. The more festivals you attend, the more you realise just how many people in the world are making films.
My film didn’t get into the big festivals, but we got into some medium festivals and a whole lot of small festivals. I’m here to talk about the small festivals.
When you get rejected from the top tier festivals, desperation sets in: you spent years of your life making this film and you just need someone to see it. You want to stand on a red carpet and post a photo on social media that at least looks like you’re at a Sundance or a Cannes. There are thousands of festivals listed on Film Freeway and it’s so easy to just keep clicking on that “submit” button for your crack at stardom — at a cost of anywhere from $10 to $100 per submission.
Well, an entire industry has now been built up around making that dream come true. And guess what, you’re the consumer.
A part of me wanted to love these festivals — they’re a way of meeting indie filmmakers, applauding each other’s hard work and getting a shiny award to put on your mantelpiece. And there are many small festivals that are driven by a genuine passion for indie film which are love-filled environments and an absolute blast.
Then there’s the rest.
I’m going to tell you about the International Filmmaker Festival of World Cinema because it’s the pinnacle of what is happening everywhere. And it is everywhere: London, Nice, Madrid, Amsterdam and Milan. I assume it is called a “filmmaker festival” as opposed to a “film festival” because the film is only seen by other filmmakers. They don’t sell tickets to the public, because they don’t need to. They’re already making a truckload of money off YOU.
The festival is held in a hotel a way out of the city, where they’ve presumably got a tidy share of profits. You’re supposed to stay in the hotel, plus eat and drink there because there is literally nothing else around (all at your own expense). They are extremely secretive about where the venue is and you must book accommodation through their “special deal”. Because it’s expensive, I wanted to stay at an AirBnB nearby, and had to harass the festival organisers for months to get the actual name of the hotel.
You are then strongly encouraged to spend your money on a multitude of “packages” to market your film to the other attendees. I didn’t opt to get any of these, so I didn’t have one of the several hundred life-sized posters cluttering the hallways of the hotel — which no one stopped to look at because there were just too damn many. I didn’t pay for a write-up of my film in the festival magazine that was packed with advertising. Nor did I read the magazine because it was too hard to find the film reviews in between all the ads.
As a result of not paying anything, my film went unnoticed among literally hundreds of other films, as the program was a list of the names of the films with not a single thing about them. There were four people at the screening, three of whom were friends I’d made the previous day. Everyone else was off seeing Nice because they’d flown halfway around the world to do that.
Since none of us knew anything about the films from the program, I only went to the ones where I’d met the filmmaker at the “networking events” aka “everyone go to the hotel bar and spend your money” nights. In some of the screenings, I was the entire audience.
The panels were a shemozzle as they had no moderator, which was presumably another exercise in cost-cutting. For anyone who has been to an unmoderated panel, you’ll know that this just means an audience member talks about their own film for 20 minutes and no one stops them. As a side note, but an important one, the panellists were invariably all older white men.
Then came Awards Night — a dinner for which we’d each forked out £190 (around AUD$350), easily the most expensive meal of my life. I did a quick calculation of the 200 people in the room and worked out the organisers had made £38,000 on that night alone (almost AUD$70,000). I almost choked into my tasteless food.
The organisers told us we “didn’t have to go to the Awards Night”- but seriously, who is going to fly themselves to Nice and miss the opportunity to get their photo taken on the red carpet? That’s why we’re all there. And they knew that.
But the clincher? There was a cap on the number of wine bottles placed on each table: two bottles for 10 people or about a glass and a half each. No one else on my table wanted red wine. I don’t drink white. I asked the waiter, and was told I would have to order a glass for 10 Euros (around AUD$15). After spending hundreds of dollars on dinner, I couldn’t even get a glass of wine.
I also had to spend the evening escaping the leering gaze and occasional unwanted touch of a British film director sitting opposite me. While this may not have been the fault of the festival, he enjoyed semi-celebrity status because he’d made a terrible B grade historical film with Peter O’Toole. (Sorry Pete, you deserved a lot better.)
I wasn’t the only attendee who was angry that night. However, I was the only attendee willing to write a negative review on Film Freeway so that other filmmakers know what they’re in for when they hand over money to these scam artists.
The result was that my negative review was quickly drowned out by five-star ones (it has since disappeared altogether). To cap it all off, the sleazy director wrote a comment about how we shouldn’t judge a festival by one individuals’s negative experience when that person clearly just had their own personal issues ie I didn’t want him to touch me and told him so.
My Nice experience was in no way isolated — I’m looking at you, Chandler Film Festival, for charging attendees USD$100 for an after party that was an empty room with a single bowl of guacamole. But it was the most blatant exercise in ruthlessly exploiting artists that I’ve witnessed.
Six months later, I was still chasing the festival organisers up for an interview they recorded and promised to put on their website. This was the one bit of marketing we didn’t have to pay for. I finally got the clip — and it was unwatchable. For people who make money off filmmakers, they didn’t even know how to point a camera and shoot.
Am I sorry I paid thousands of dollars to go to Nice? Well, I had a nice (pun intended) holiday and met some great people. But I could have done that without actually attending a bogus film festival — and ended up with more money to spend on wine.
So indie filmmakers, I just want you to know what you’re forking out for before you decide to spend the cash that you desperately need for your next film. Be warned: you can’t trust five-star reviews when every single festival on Film Freeway has them.
These festivals will not grab the attention of a producer or distributor, because they aren’t there. They will not get your film in front of an audience of more than a handful of other filmmakers. What they will do is line the pockets of someone who has not seen and does not care one bit about the movie you spent years making.
In return, you get a photo on a red carpet for your social media feed. Is that really worth the price?
How to spot a scam film festival
- Look at their website. Does it look dodgy? If they can’t hire a web designer, they are not a professional organisation. But note, this is not the ONLY criteria: they can be a scam festival with a slick website.
- Find out if there are public screenings. A real film festival sells tickets to an audience. If no one sees your film, is it worth the submission fee? A clue is if they are an “online” or “monthly” festival or they call themselves “awards” or “competition” rather than a festival. Also, if they hold the screenings in a hotel rather than a cinema.
- Check how many awards there are. A dead giveaway is when a festival has a hundred categories so they can give out an award to every single film — so look out if there is a “best hair and makeup in a short comedy/short drama/short horror/feature comedy/feature drama…”
- Google them. It may seem obvious but do your research, and don’t rely on spammy five-star reviews posted by their mates. Be especially wary of the festivals that have a very similar name to a famous one as they want you to think it IS the famous one.
- Contact previous attendees. It may seem creepy — but I’m tagged in social media photos at festivals and if anyone got in touch to ask me about them, I would give my honest opinion. I’m sure there are other filmmakers that are unwilling to speak out publicly but would do the same.