Posted by Terry on December 3, 2014

Is a filmmaker a customer, a supplier, a beneficiary, or a gambler when it comes to film festivals?

As our festival approaches 3,000 submissions (2,847 as I write this) with two weeks left until our submission deadline of Dec 15, several members of our Filmmaker Advisory Council have said to me that it’s time to start charging submission fees, and yet I stubbornly and in some respects irrationally insist that it is not. Submission fees, I believe, are not the answer to dealing with the unexpected riches that have been bestowed upon us as filmmakers entrust their cinematic creations to our programming team. But what is the answer if not submission fees?

The question that I have been wrestling with, in addition to those posed by the challenge of how to increase our capacity to deal with a volume that has quintupled over last year’s, is how charging a submission fee, if we were to go that direction in our tenth year (2016), would fundamentally change the nature of our relationship with filmmakers, and whether that is a “fix” to what “ain’t broke” after nine years of growing our festival following the model that we currently operate under: no submission fees received from filmmakers while we pay screening fees to filmmakers for those films that are selected. Even film school instructors have told me that there are other things that filmmakers value more than receiving screening fees, which admittedly are relatively modest on an individual film basis, but still add up to $11,000 annually as a cost to our festival, a cost that grows every year as we add more films to our program and more screening times at more venues.

For me, the fundamental question becomes what is a filmmaker “buying” when he pays a submission fee, and what is she “selling” when we pay a screening fee? How can a filmmaker be both a customer and a supplier when the product being seen by the audience hasn’t changed and only the name of the film festival being submitted to has changed?

But it’s not just an either/or question. There are film festivals that bestow such riches upon filmmakers if selected (Sundance’s development labs would be the obvious choice) that filmmakers can be seen more as beneficiaries than either customers or suppliers.

And then there are film festivals, some more dubious than others, whose sole purpose is to collect submission fees, skim off a nice percentage for the founders/administrators, and then pay back the submission fees as “prizes” to award winners. In other words, connecting filmmakers with audience members is a minor part of the equation assuming it exists at all. Reallocating money from many filmmakers to a few filmmakers is what it’s all about, with a good portion of the proceeds remaining in the pockets of those setting the rules of the game. In other words, the “film festival” is not unlike a casino at heart, and the filmmaker is not unlike a gambler.

But the “game” doesn’t even have to be that dubious. If the prize money is a major incentive to submit to a festival, and the submission fees are the primary source of funding for that prize money, and the fact that judging is subjective is acknowledged along with the recognition that any one of the top 10% or 25% of a jury’s top contenders could be a winner with a different jury, is the filmmaker simply counting on luck to come out on top? It makes paying a submission fee in these circumstances sound an awful lot like buying a raffle ticket, doesn’t it? And we’re not even talking about the gamble that independent filmmakers take, especially when making short films, that somewhere there’s a distributor who will champion their films and find a revenue model that will actually pay them back the cost of making the film, and in very rare circumstances, generate enough revenue to pay for the time and talents of everyone involved.

But isn’t the simple truth readily apparent that a film festival can’t exist without films and therefore the filmmaker should be considered a supplier?

Or is there yet another role for filmmakers vis-à-vis film festivals? If a filmmaker can be all of these things with respect to film festivals – customer and supplier, beneficiary and gambler – is there room on the spectrum for the relationship to be considered a partnership, i.e. one of long-term mutual benefit? Many smaller festivals include championing the work of the filmmakers in their region as an important part of their mandate, and could certainly be seen as partners in developing the careers of “their” filmmakers.

Recognizing what role that you, as a filmmaker, have with respect to the different film festivals that you submit to is an important part of your submission strategy. If you’re a “customer,” what are you buying? Is it validation? In other words, is getting your film accepted into a festival fair value received? Or is recognition what you’re “buying” when the prestige of the festival and its prizes (with Oscar-qualifying prizes being top-of-the-list) determining your submission choices?

Or are festivals your distribution model and the value received is the connection to audience? If that’s the case, should a festival try to increase that value by somehow connecting that audience with your next crowd funding project?

For a filmmaker, the seemingly simple question of what role you play with a particular film festival determines what you hope to receive from that film festival. And the question for a film festival is where in this ecosystem does it currently “live” and is that the best place to be as the pace of change continually accelerates?

For our festival, filmmakers are suppliers. We put out a Call for Submissions and it makes no sense whatsoever to charge our prospective suppliers for submitting their “products” for our consideration. And for those suppliers we select, we pay screening fees which is a way of sharing the ticket sales we receive from our audience members for what they bought (entertainment) with the filmmakers whose products we used to create that entertainment.

Is this the right model for us to continue using? Is it sustainable as we continue to grow? Change is inevitable, but is the relationship that we have with filmmakers something that we should be changing?

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