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April 7 at 11:51am

Is There A "Too Many" (When It Comes To Film Festivals)?

By Ted Hope

I moderated a panel at New York Women In Film two weeks back on “prepping for film festivals”.  One of the panelists, Ryan Werner of IFC Films, said something that resonated with me.  Ryan said that there are films that play so many festivals that they diminish his company’s appetite for acquisition.

That raises the question then: Can an undistributed film play too many film festivals?
Ryan’s answer is essentially yes — that is if the filmmakers are looking for acquisition.  The bigger question is whether anyone should be looking for acquisition these days, and if so, are film festivals still the best way to do it?
It sounds like it should be obvious, but I think it’s worth asking what is so appealing about acquisition by a distributor these days.  Until very recently, the money you received for licensing film was the dominant factor.  We all have to recoup our budgets (and our marketing costs), right? But in this day and age, less than a handful of a films are receiving advances of seven figures or more.  Unless you are making your films for very low budgets, how do you expect to get your investment back?  If you don’t get your investment back, why should anyone give you money for your next film?  If you don’t get your money back, why should others invest in similarly themed films?  
Maybe it’s no longer about theatrical, but we have yet to hear the success stories of films that receive significant amounts on the back end of VOD or increased video sales due to ad-supported free streaming either; that may come, but I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting.  Sure, if you make your film cheap enough it may seem tempting to surrender your rights across all media for twenty long years for $75K and significant cut of future revenue, if any.  But without a theatrical release stateside, will there be any foreign value to it?  I have been getting reports that foreign acquisition prices have dropped 40% in recent times — so where does that leave average foreign value for a US Indie?  36% of costs (that is assuming, foreign value was only at 60% of costs, which is pretty conservative on what hand, but probably generous for most indie filmmakers)?  Eek!
The problem is that most filmmakers still think of festivals as a step towards acquisition.  As Ryan’s comment points out, that is only true for your first two or three festivals.  After those, if you haven’t secured distribution, your chances of acquisition are diminishing with each festival play.
Festivals have an increasingly vital role to play in independent film.  They are one of the critical steps in delivering a Truly Free Film Culture.  As has been said here many times before (and I anticipate saying many more times in the future), festivals must be looked at as the launch in audience-building, marketing, and distribution.  
If you do not have distribution, you are not ready to play film festivals if:
  • you do not have your trailer made and up on the web;
  • you do not have clips selected and up on the web;
  • you have not been writing a blog regarding the film for a significant length of time;
  • you do not have a plan on how to keep that blog interesting for the next year;
  • you do not have a website for the film up on the web;
  • you do not have a simple way to collect email addresses for fans;
  • you have not set up a way for fans to subscribe to updates about the film;
  • you have not joined multiple social networks, both as an individual and as the film;
  • you have not created a press kit with press notes for the film;
  • you have not identified the blogs and critics you think will help promote your film;
  • you have not built a study guide for the film for film clubs;
  • you have not mapped out a festival strategy that builds to local releases;
  • you have not made several versions of a poster, and have enough to sell & give away;
  • you have not made additional promotional items for your film;
  • you have not manufactured the dvd, and made great packaging for it;
and there are probably more to add this list, but….
I look forward to a time when film festivals actually make such things a requirement.  I would love to see a film festival that was only about films that were prepared for self-distribution if necessary.  Film festivals are currently selling the dream and not confronting the reality.  Filmmakers keep buying that dream.  It is all a downward cycle as the business side of it is being neglected.  Distributors, both corporate and personal, need festivals to launch the film to their core audiences.  If filmmakers aren’t prepped to do that, they squander that opportunity and diminish their chances of reaching that audience.  Sure there are other methods out there, but why not use your best tools in the way they have been most proven to work?


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59 Comments

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  1. pangofilms / Apr 7 at 11:51am

    I’d love to hear some success stories of film that went straight to DVD after some festival play. It’s so hard to get those numbers, even when studios are involved. Does anyone think it is possible to make any money solely on DVD sales when it is self-distributed? How would this work, with a web site and an Amazon link? It’s hard enough for a studio, with its own distribution network, to make any money from these films.

    And the other thing I’m curious about is that the value of a film tends to be associated with the budget of the film. So, theoretically, if you made a 100,000 dollar feature, you could sell it for less than the 3 million dollar feature and still make money. But I doubt you would get the same offers from distributors. It’s tricky that way.

  2. Brian Newman / Apr 7 at 11:51am

    Great post. Festivals (below the top, top tier) need to stop selling this dream of acquisition and start working together to help launch films that are self-distributing. Would be great if a filmmaker could quit playing the premiere game and better use this as their release to generate buzz. It won’t be easy to demand this much from all fest acceptances when many filmmakers can’t get you a good synopsis or film still for the catalogue though!

  3. The Sujewa / Apr 7 at 11:51am

    On the other hand, even if none of your "2 do" list items have been done for playing fests or any other screening – just seeing the finished film with an audience is a very good reason for a filmmaker to participate in screenings/fests. May help in figuring out what works & doesn't in the film, for making changes, coming up with a marketing plan, etc.

    - Sujewa

  4. Craig Mieritz / Apr 7 at 11:51am

    Nice. Thanks for the thoughtful and informative post. There are just so many films out there, it is really important for filmmakers to go into this with their eyes wide open. Filmmaking is starting to remind me of the art world, a pyramid scheme of schools, instructors, material/equipment sellers, fee-based contests/shows, etc. Kind of like the California gold rush, the people who made the money were the people who sold the equipment, provided transport, foode, etc. to the miners, rarely the miner.

  5. jonjost / Apr 7 at 11:51am

    Well… This grizzled curmudgeon is reminded of the time when VHS came out and there were in the independent community hurrahs about how this would be followed with access, democratization of the market, etc. etc. We got Blockbusters. The same occurred with the emergence of cable TV (wanna buy a toilet cleaner or watch wrestling?) and then satellite transmission, and then… And then the internet. Granted these all did in fact change things – you can rent about anything from Netflix and if you know how to go about it you can download on BitTorrent whatever movie you want.
    However…
    However this doesn’t make me any money. Nor, frankly, does going to festivals which once offered a very slim chance of a modest sale or two to Euro TV or the odd distrib. However that more or less doesn’t exist anymore. What exists are hundreds, nay, thousands of festivals which (a) want you to pay an entry fee (b) if they choose your film, show it to a paying audience but you get none of it (c) offer about .0000001 percent of a chance to obtain some kind of sale somewhere.
    Ted’s advice is all nice and dandy but it presumes two very essential basic things: 1. that you made a more or less decent OK or even “good” or “great” film and 2. that that film operates well within the confines of “commercial” aesthetics, be it slasherpornsexnviolencehiphoppopmusicblahblahblah but it MUST BE MORE OR LESS CONVENTIONAL. Then, following Ted’s steps (which implies committing a few years to your project, much of the time having not to do with creative film-videomaking, but rather with PR, websites, etc. etc, you have a very very slim chance of ever making a buck.

    Given the likely economics of the coming years I suspect many of our too many fests will fold their tents for lack of sponsors, that the existing distribs will likely pull back to sure-fire commercial formula choices, and that anything vaguely “indie” will be left to “find its audience” on its own.

    Or, how about we find out what Lance Hammer’s very nice BALLAST has done in self-distrib. I will wager you it has taken a serious loss.
    Or Kelly Reichert’s Wendy and Lucy (or is it the other way around) has actually done after the critical buzz. I will wager very very litte. And neither of these films in any way approaches anything aesthetically daring or difficult, it is only their “topic” which challenges conventions, and then not by very much. Ditto for Chop Shop and his other films.

    So where does this leave one? For me it leaves me making films for no one (my most recent feature, PARABLE, has thus far been rejected by Telluride, Venice, Sundance, Berlin, Rotterdam, Jeonju, Cannes though it is up to par with my previous work, though maybe a bit weirder in all senses, and being about The Time of Bush, it appropriately leaves a very sour mind-fucked sense in the viewer. No feelie-goodie. Fortunately it cost $2000 or so, so I can deal with the fiscal loss. I never expected to make a dime on it outside DIY DVD sales anyway.

    Ted’s advice is on the money if you have or plan to make a basically low-cost commercial film, but as a wager, it is still 100 to 1 you will lose. In which case maybe make whatever you feel like making, knowing that in today’s culture it will likely get unshown, unseen, unpaid for. But at least you will have done what you want instead of (mis)calculating about what will be a hit.

    For more on this see http://www.cinemaelectronica.wordpress.com
    http://www.jonjost.wordpress.com

  6. Anonymous / Apr 7 at 11:51am

    Jon Jost: Thank you for that. You speak the truth.

  7. Anonymous / Apr 7 at 11:51am

    AMEN, Jon. And I cannot recall the last “unconventional” film I’ve seen in a commercial theater.

    The concept just doesn’t appear to be relevant.

  8. Anonymous / Apr 7 at 11:51am

    Whoa.

    I came upon this post via IMDB of all places, and Mr. Jost…you just opened up a tremendously truthful can of whoopa** on the subject. Thank you so much for that. Any response, Ted?

  9. Ted Hope / Apr 7 at 11:51am

    Yup. The response is on the blog under “It’s All One Big Continuum”… sort of, that is.

  10. Bill Pace / Apr 7 at 11:51am

    Ted,

    Can I just plug a line from your blog to my students’ brains? I spend a lot of my independent filmmaking class time trying to make them aware of the new realities of the indie world.

    Sujewa and Mr. Jost have good points about other aspects and joys of independent filmmaking, but the truth is so many of my students come in already full of the circa 1991 Sundance Koolaid and I have to do immediate detoxing on them.

    Thanks!

    Bill Pace

  11. Ted Hope / Apr 7 at 11:51am

    Bill,

    I think we just need to one of those hook ups like in SLEEP DEALER! Thanks for the kind words though (and the Twitter Follow). Here’s to the new paradigm — may it finally start to emerge!

  12. Anonymous / Apr 7 at 11:51am

    Jonjost –

    WWWOOOOWWW… what is the saying? What one has thought so often lately, but never said so well? I'm not sure what else to add except I agree that I don't think anyone is really making any money off of this. Well, at least not the filmmakers, just like you said.

    And the thing of it is that these films are mostly for festivals and other filmmakers. If I weren't a filmmaker, I'll be damned if I'm sitting through many of them… unless it's Primer, Pi, or Following. That's the trick though… most of these films aren't, let's face it. Heck, it took me a long time to figure out that mine wasn't either, but I've seen enough films on DVD that have come out of major festivals to objectively know that mine is better than a lot of them, just not better than the best.

    Anyway, what's becoming really scary is that a truly great film, even one that isn't genre, might not get in anymore without all of these boxes checked off that are mentioned in this article. And I don't know about you, but at a certain point, I feel more like some kind of social media whore, rather than a filmmaker. I understand it's self-promotion, you gotta do it, you gotta 'brand' yourself and all that, but I don't know… the scary thing is that some filmmakers can be absolutely brilliant on set and in getting what they want on film, but then are 'weird' when it comes to the 'social' aspects of filmmaking – premieres, press, Q&A's. I've seen it in first-hand and I think any real artist has a little bit of shyness…. you have to… it's a form of protection because you have to keep something for yourself if you're to do any good work.

    But no more! Now you have to be a deer in headlights not just after your film is done, but now people are saying to set this whole thing up as part of the scriptwriting process?! I don't know about you, but it's hard enough sitting down to write, even harder to write something good, and I'm grumpy as hell when I'm doing it if I know it's drivel. I don't think I should be expected to have the presence of mind to set up a camera, film myself, converse with people on twitter hoping they follow me back, track my diggs, organize my bookmarks, make multiple websites (a webring, right?), do status updates, go to local screenings… COME ON!!! And this is on top of a day job? I'm an editor in television and when I'm working, there's barely time and energy to do the solitary parts of the process – MORE editing and writing, let alone pay attention to social media.

    Really, what needs to be said is that even though you may not make a great living at filmmaking, you ARE able to express yourself as a filmmaker for practically nothing these days. If you really said something in the film and it has heart, and you did it for very little money, then you should be able to sell a few copies with a bit of legwork on the internet. I don't think there's any need to exhaust yourself as this seems to suggest.

    By the way Jon, I also followed through to your blog and read many of the entries, all the result of a beautifully independent thinker. Bravo…

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