Monday, October 09, 2006

Bill In London - Film Festivals Are A Scam

Yes, even Sundance.

You probably think of film festivals as some sort of important institution - a cultural event designed to select the very best motion pictures and give them the rewards they so rightly deserve. A place where commerce doesn't matter, and artistic expression is worshiped. A place where people only care about the quality of the film, and only the best films are screened.


Film festivals are about money and fame. The idea that it's all about the art is as much of a scam as the idea that the Best Picture Oscar always goes to the very best picture... and trade adverts or backroom deals or DVDs sent to every member of the Academy have nothing to do with what film wins.

Since I'm here at a film festival, let me take you behind the scenes at some of the film festivals I've attended and show you how they really work.

I used to attend the San Francisco Film Fest every year. Because I had a car that worked and had 4 doors, I usually taxiied a carload of film fans from the East Bay to the Palace Of Fine Arts in San Fran where they held the festival. One of the regulars was Craig Maderno who would later interview Speilberg for Penthouse about this little movie he was making called CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND. In those days, the only time I got to see anything behind the scenes was when I snuck backstage to talk to Jack Nicholson. I was still an outsider.

Even when I did some classes at the Sacramento Film Fest, I was still an outsider. I still thought Film Festivals were these cultural events designed to show only the best movies and reward them with trophies afterwards. The first time I realized that film festivals were scams was when I went to the Ft. Lauderdale Film Fest.


The first thing you need to know about film festivals is that they are not *institutions* - they are usually just one person. I've been calling Elliot "Mr. Raindance", and that's exactly who he is. Elliot is a film lover in London who decided 14 years ago to start a film festival. There were other festivals, but none of them were *his*. So he found some volunteers and some movies and a screen and had a film festival. After a while, the festival grows and becomes respected and people forget that one person started it. In it’s 14th year, Raindance has all kinds of sponsors like Delta Airlines, shows movies from all around the world to sell out crowds, and is a big deal. It's a great festival. Raindance also holds the British Independent Film Awards every year - the BIFAs - which are very much like the Independent Spirit Awards in the USA. The year I attended, Harvey Weinstein showed up to collect an award. Remember - all of this started with one person who wanted to start their own film festival.

Every film festival in the world probably began the exact same way. Every film festival I've attended always has one person behind it, not an institution. Who's behind Sundance?

Once you realize it's one person, and that they just kind of made up the festival... you start to look at the *why*. Behind every film festival is a motive that has nothing to do with selecting great films and rewarding them.


Ft. Lauderdale has a huge festival... and lots of red carpets.

After a few days I realized that the audience was made up of wealthy Ft. Lauderdale folks, not film fans. Sure, they might have liked films, but they weren't *addicts* like me. They were attending the festival because it was a cultural event. It could have been a gallery opening...

Except the gallery opening wouldn't have movie stars. It seemed like the majority of the films at Ft Lauderdale starred famous people, and those famous people were at the screenings and the parties afterwards. The opening film was directed by Richard Attenborough, and he was on hand to introduce the film, the leading lady, and then talk to all of the wealthy film festival attendees at the party afterwards. Every movie had stars in attendance and there always seemed to be a party afterwards where the wealthy residents of Ft. Lauderdale had a chance to talk to the stars. My personal highlight of the Ft. Lauderdale Fulm Fest (aside from talking with Richard Attenborough for about half an hour, then having him recognize me on the hotel elevator for a between floors conversation) was that found myself in a much better hotel room than Tim Daly (WINGS) who was staying on the same floor. I was in a corner suite, and one of the guests of honor was staying in a non-corner room.

Though I noted the star gazing at Ft. Lauderdale, it wasn't until I went to the Temecula CA film festival that it all made sense. Temecula is this wide spot in the road between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. I'm sure at one time it was farm country, but now it's *ranch* country. Wealthy people with horses live there. Those wealthy people would love to meet Hollywood stars... so they put on a film festival. On awards night they give out some lifetime achievement awards to the biggest stars they can find. They year I was there, one of the stars accepted his award... then got in his car and drove off while they were giving out the other awards. He'd realized this whole thing wasn't about rewarding his body of work, but making him available to rich folks in Temecula so that they could hang all over him.

On the other hand, Patty Duke also received a lifetime achievement award, but couldn’t attend because she broke her leg a couple of days before... so her son, Sean Astin (from LORD OF THE RINGS) showed up to talk about his mom. While the other star was making his getaway, Sean was signing autographs and posing for pictures and talking with festival goers... but he made a special point to seek out the film makers on hand and hang out with them. They hadn’t begun shooting the LORD OF THE RINGS movies, yet, so he was booked for 3 big movies... and here he was talking to people who had made short films instead of the wealthy folks. A very nice guy.

One of the problems with the Temecula Festival was that the parties where you rubbed shoulders with celebrities were better organized than the festival itself. The festival had a glossy program... that neglected to list the starting times of any of the films. If you wanted to read bios of all the celebs in attendance - it was in the program. If you wanted to know what time a movie started, you were SOL. They had a chalkboard in the lobby with *today’s* showtimes. You had to show up before the first screening to see what the first screening was - and if there weren’t any movies you wanted to see in the first bunch, you left the hotel for no reason. It was a film festival that wasn’t designed for watching movies!

Someone in Temecula had said "I'd like to meet movie stars, let's start a film festival!"

Probably a third of the film festivals in the world are about bringing in stars... the rest or are about money.


While the prestigious Cannes Film Festival is going on... there’s a film market selling foreign rights happening simultaneously. Cannes is famous for sales stunts that include topless starlets on the beach and the Troma parade of freak-heroes. The film festival is the front for the real Cannes - a kind of K-Mart for movies. The stars who show up for the red carpet screenings are also at some party on some yacht where they shake hands and pose for pictures with distribs who may buy the film. The festival is the tool they use to sell the films.

Film makers might like to win an award at Sundance or Toronto Film Festival, but the main reason for entering a festival is the chance that a distributor at the festival might buy your film. Festivals may seem to be about showing quality films, but they often design their schedules to make it easier for distribs to see (and buy) films. If a bunch of films are picked up at Sundance, it gives the festival publicity. People who enter the festivals also want to sell their films - everybody wins.

Selling films at a Festival isn’t the only place to make money - the festival itself can be a money maker. Many of those individuals who start film festivals are in it for the money. Let’s say you love watching movies but don’t have the talent or skills to make them. You still don’t want to work some day job and just be a movie fan... you want to find some way to watch movies and get paid for it and share the best films you see with others. Why not be a festival director? I believe that Elliot at Raindance falls into this category. He created a film festival so that he could watch movies for a living. He works all year long finding films and when October rolls around he has a couple of weeks of movies showing at the festival. He gets a salary for all of his work... and avoids having to work some day job. On one hand, the festival probably exists so that he can get paid for watching movies, on the other hand it’s a good festival that really shows some interesting movies. A couple of years ago the winner of Raindance went on to win Best Foreign Film Oscar. Every time I’m here for the festival, I see a bunch of interesting films and even a couple of absolutely great ones. Without that one man - Elliot - that wouldn't be possible.


But there’s another festival I attended that was *all* about making money for the festival director. I’m not going to mention names, but some of you may figure out which festival it is.... Takes place in Colorado - there’s a major clue. They asked me if I’d like to attend the festival and teach some classes and be on some panels. I’d get an all-access pass to the festival (the best bait for me - if you want me to come to your festival, offer me hundreds of free movies), and a room. I don’t think they paid for airfare and they weren’t paying me to teach the classes. At the time, I had ANDROID ARMY set up with a producer and we’d just hired a director and I’d just gotten my first batch of director notes and the time spent teaching the classes would be better spent working on the rewrite... but the festival director told me there would be a special event where I could autograph and sell my book. There were 300 people coming to the film festival - they’d all be at the book signing. So, I’d get to see a bunch of movies *and* sell a bunch of books. (And avoid working on a rewrite.) The clincher was Oprah - she was a film festival sponsor. Wow - I could meet Oprah!

This festival also had a screenwriting contest - and seemed to focus on the writing. This was another good reason to go - the films would probably be well written.

So I bought my ticket and packed 60 books (20% of the crowd, even though I’d probably just sell to 10%) and hopped a plane to Colorado.

When I arrived, it was raining harder than it was here in London two days ago. They picked me up at the airport, drove me to the event location... which was not a hotel near a cinema, it was a *park* with *cabins*. Not exactly what I expected. Because it was raining so hard, someone drove me to my cabin, and when I unlocked the door... someone else’s luggage was on the floor. They must have given me the wrong cabin number! I walked back to the office in the pouring rain and explained that there was luggage in the cabin they’d given me, what cabin was *I* staying in? “That’s your room mate’s luggage. We’re doubling folks up, hope you don’t mind. It’ll be three people in your case, because he brought his wife.” Had it not been raining so hard, I might have just gone back to the airport right then. But I was exhausted and drenched. So I walked back to the cabin through the pouring rain to meet my roommate and his wife.

Now, I’m a person who doesn’t like having roommates - I like to be alone. I’m private. Two guys sharing a cabin isn’t comfortable, but it’s possible. On the Yosemite movie I was sharing a room with the stunt guy and the FX make up guy. I knew I’d be sharing a room before I ever got in the car and drive to Yosemite. But we were all guys and it was okay. We snored, we farted, we left whiskers in the sink. None of us cared. I can’t imagine being roommates with a woman - too many minefields and even if there’s no sexual tension at all, women have different standards than men. The whiskers in the sink probably wouldn’t be accepted. I really couldn’t imagine sharing a cabin with a *couple* - all of the issues of sharing a cabin with a woman, plus *their* romantic issues taking place and all kinds of other things. There’s a furniture store advert in Los Angeles that has an amorous older couple doing some heavy making out in a bed... then we pan over to see a young couple in the same bed looking *very* uncomfortable. The tag line is: If you bought your bed at our store you could have afforded a guest bed for when your parents visit. I would be sharing a cabin with a married couple - who thought this was a good idea?

(The couple was just as freaked out as I was about the living arrangements, and had no intention of making out while I was around.)

It stops raining the next morning and the festival begins with afternoon classes and panels. The director asks if I will do a couple of extra classes on different subjects, because some of the folks didn’t show... and two of them arrived last night, looked at the conditions, and split. Extra classes? Sure, I’m easy. I get to see hundreds of films for free!


Except we’re in a *park* with *cabins* so there is no one to attend the screenings (held in a barn converted to a cinema by adding a projector and screen and seats). The only people at the film festival are the film makers (needless to say Oprah was a no show).

And there aren’t really any screenings - they are showing the finalist shorts before the awards ceremony - but not any of the other entries. This may be because the place really isn’t set up for screening movies (kind of a setback when you’re having a film festival) or because screening the movies isn’t that important at this festival.

There *are* parties and banquets and events. My all access pass gets me in to all of them... but there aren’t very many people at the festival itself, let alone the opening night cocktail party at the picnic tables outside the barn. I think there were as many guest speakers like me as there were festival attendees!

My special autograph session was opposite someone else’s class (and their special autograph session was opposite my class) so I ended up taking about 58 books home with me. After doing my classes and panels for the day, I hung out with a group of film makers and got their side of the festival.

They had all been lured in by the Oprah thing, and paid the entry fees thinking that Oprah would probably be at the fest to see their movies. Their films were finalists for some award - and there were *dozens* of awards at this festival (the more awards you have, the less any award means). Because they were finalists, they were offered a package deal - festival pass and lodging for one price. But all of the events were an additional fee. Want to go to the opening night cocktail party? That’s extra. Want to go to this lecture or that lecture? Extra. Want to go to the pre-awards banquet? Extra. Want to go to the awards screening? Extra. Want to go to the awards show itself and see of your film won or lost and accept the award of you won? $75. Want to go to the party after the awards? $75. So after these film makers who were finalists arrived in Colorado and met their roommates, they had to pay to do everything else. I think there was one free party - but I may be mistaken. That may have just been a bunch of us raiding the leftovers from a paid party we hadn’t attended.

Two people I hung out with were an Australian writer who had a script in the screenwriting contest and a lesbian woman from the Bay Area who had a film in competition. Neither paid the $75 to find out if they won. These are bright people who were not happy with all of the upcharges.

Another thing that didn’t make them happy - no one saw their movies or read their scripts. You see, unlike every other film festival in the world that has judges from the industry, this one had only one judge: the festival director. The most important thing a film maker can get from a festival is exposure - an audience sees their movie and the industry judges see their movie. The judges end up a connection in the business. On this year’s Raindance jury you have Dame Judy Dench (the Bond films and many others), Parminder Nagra (ER and BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM), Matthew Libatique (the DP of REQUIEM FOR A DREAM) and some distributors and producers and celebrities. If your film was in competition at Raindance, these stars and producers and celebrities would have seen your movie! They might be the connection that gets you into the business. I exec produced a short film many many years ago that won a competition and one of the festival judges - a big Hollywood producer - gave the director a feature film! (I got squat.) So the festival jury is very important to the film makers....

And this festival had a jury of one - the director.

And the screenwriting competition had a jury of one - the director.


I asked the director why there were no judges, and she told me it was her festival and she was the best judge of the material. I may be wrong on this, but all of those $75 up charges lead me to believe that the festival director was the only judge so that she could keep all of the money and didn’t have to fly in some industry folks first class and put them up in hotels instead of shared cabins. This really seemed like a money making event for the festival director that gave nothing back to the film makers.

Though it sounds like this festival was hello-on-earth, I actually enjoyed myself and made some good friends there. Probably the sort of strong friendships that come out of surviving a violent battle in a war. The film makers and screenwriters and those of who were talked into doing classes for that all access pass would meet at one of the lodges and drink leftover booze from the parties we couldn’t afford to attend and talk about what a scam it all was.

So, before you enter a screenwriting contest or film festival, you should look at what’s in it for *you*. Are there industry judges who can help your career? Will your film be seen by people who can help you? Will the festival get enough press that your name or film might pop up in a print article or on TV coverage? Will you meet people at the event that might help you? Is the event important enough that just having your film screened there means something?

Just because all film festivals are scams (even Sundance) doesn’t mean that it’s a bad thing - they may show a bunch of great films and create buzz for your film and allow your film to be screened in the very place buyers are looking for films to acquire. Sure, Robert Redford may gain fame and fortune from the event... but it also benefits the rest of us. Without all of those film festivals, we’d be stuck with nothing but disaster movie remakes and sequels at the cinema.

- Bill

There’s going to be a Part 2 of this entry that will focus on the Judges and the Films at festivals... and how they are part of the scam. But that will come a little later.


Anonymous said...

You really seem to have a special knack for getting yourself into surreal situations (I'm talking about your Colorado experience here).


wcmartell said...

Yes... and they keep happening. Could have been worse...

- Bill

Aric Blue said...

Dude, my first film showed at a festival a LOT like this--the only people there were the filmmakers, they scheduled my film opposite the filmmaker's "Networking Party"(so we had like 5 people at my screening), and to top it off--the people putting the festival on turned out to be producers of one of the movies running for awards.

No surprise when it won the major awards, too. Funny stuff.

Anonymous said...

I think it's a golden rule never to attend or enter your film into a film festival you've never heard of. Much less one that has no track record.

There are lots of film festival directories on the internet. Here's one:


Anonymous said...

You also have the problem of the film festival (or screenwriting competition) that advertises industry people will be the judges and then you find out that these industry judges are simply locals from the area who have no idea what makes a good film or screenplay.

Plenty of these fuckers around... LOL.

Great post!


wcdixon said...

I've had pretty good luck at festivals, though I haven't entered one in over ten, Bill, on the other hand - seem to always find the action, good or bad.

MaryAn Batchellor said...

I'd have slept in the barn.

Anonymous said...

Bill, couldn't agree more with you more.

ps. could you change your blog's design so that it wouldn't be white letters on black? kind of hard to read.

Anonymous said...

The Colorado festival Bill is referring to is Moondance.

Also, there is that one in New York City, that wants you to pay $300 to show your film to supposedly industry types!

ShadowWeaver said...

I notice you didn't mention the Austin Film Festival. What was your experience like there? I think I met you there last year.


wcmartell said...

Austin - I loved it, and would have been back this year... except Expo was at the same time.

Read Brett's blog on this year's Austin - there's a great line where he's sitting in the Driskill bar at 8:40 am when Greg Beal walks past and asks of he ever leaves the bar... and that's Austin. One big party (hey, Greg Beal was in the Driskill bar at 8:40 am, too). When you find yourself drinking with the guy who wrote THE GRADUATE and it just seems normal... that's Austin.

I really hope the schedule works so that I can be there in 2007... and maybe I'll skip Expo and go if the schedule doesn't work.

- Bill

Anonymous said...

Until you actually run a film festival stop with your one way naive agenda. MOST festivals don't make a dime.

eXTReMe Tracker