Edward J. Delaney offers 6 ways documentary festivals can be more accountable to their entry-fee-paying filmmakers.

I talked with a New York-based documentary filmmaker recently who bemoans the black hole that many film-festival submissions have become. After forking out $25 to $100 a pop to enter, do you have any idea who’s actually passing judgment? Or if anyone even opened your DVD and watched it? You rarely get notified of decisions, much less get feedback. And you aren’t even sure what the festival wanted to program in the first place…

I also talked with an experienced L.A.-based documentary filmmaker who is one of the “lucky ones.” He was accepted to a festival that touts itself as “major,” but is it? He flew cross-country on his own dime to be at his screening and support the work, and when he walked through the door, the audience numbered 12. Turns out the film received virtually no publicity or marketing other than a posted schedule on the festival’s messy, intern-created website. The festival director told him it’s his job to bring in audience.

Welcome to filmmaking at the end of The Oughts! Where filmmakers can spend more money entering festivals than the entire cost of a DSLR production. Where the homogenization of the process means it’s hard to tell what a festival wants or why it wants it, or who it thinks will show up, or what you get out of it. And where piles of DVDs fill festival offices, and festival directors beg volunteers to watch a batchful, at no pay, mismatching content and judge.

Raison D’Enter

I’ve judged a few festivals and have been on other such related juries (certainly never paid to do so), and it can be a rather messy sausage factory. With previous film projects, I’ve been in festivals, and I’ve entered festivals, and wondered why I bothered.

What concerns me is that a lot of festivals seem to be accruing most of their revenue by milking the ethereal aspirations of filmmakers, who relentlessly pursue meaningless palmares for their DVD jackets (“Runner-Up, Audience Award, East Nowhere International Film Festival!”), rather than the concrete paying support of a meaningful audience. The entry-fee system brings in money up front, while festival audiences, offering a revenue stream for one week out of 52, are less dependable, and fickle too, easily lost to weather, the economy or competing events.

Ironically, the drastic reduction in the cost of making films, because of digital technology, also means more people than ever are entering festivals. Festivals from Sundance (6,467 entries this year) to The Krakow Film Festival (2,700 entries this year) to The Heartland Film Festival (832 entries in 2010 compared to 647 fours years before) are touting unprecedented numbers of entries. The little Beaufort (S.C.) International Film Festival boasted a record number of entries last year, with 204.

Let’s talk about what I’m not talking about: Sundance. Toronto. Tribeca. IDFA. And a handful of others that can have definable impact on a film’s success (See A.J. Schnack’s top 25 festivals for documentary filmmakers). Those are your Powerball tickets. When you get in, it matters. If you don’t get in, you pretty much expected it. I’m not talking about the these festivals, but rather the other thousands of festivals that charge just as much for the honor of their sometimes-mysterious consideration.

I tried contacting the popular festival submission service Withoutabox, which lists 3000+ festivals worldwide. It’s owned by IMDb.com, which in turn is owned by Amazon.com. No response. But blogger Roberta Munroe, the author of How Not To Make A Short Film: Secrets From A Sundance Programmer wrote this about it:

“Listen up, my friends. Withoutabox is a business. Sure, there are some very cool tools they provide filmmakers and film festivals alike. However, it is their business to have you submit to as many festivals as possible because that creates a significant income for their business. Keep in mind that they also charge film festivals to list themselves on their site. It’s a business.”

Festivals may start as labors of love, but they become businesses. Some fail because they just can’t do good business, while some seem to not just do bad business, but abuse the festival-fee system. There was talk earlier this year on chat boards about a Southwest film festival director who received 500 (paid) entries, then programmed seven films, including his own and two of his buddies’ films. I know one festival in the Northeast whose opening night featured a documentary film on which the festival director was listed as the executive producer. Yet another festival in the Upper Midwest reportedly withheld money from prize-winning filmmakers, and then just stopped answering emails about what was going on.

A Festival Fee Manifesto

Film festivals are defended as being in the filmmakers’ interests, but the minute they charge $50 to enter, it goes beyond that. It then becomes transactional. That consequently means there should be some sort of accountability. So, I wonder, why the following aren’t possible:

1. That festivals, and agents such as Withoutabox, be transparent about the selection process

Who are the juries and what are their credentials (even the Pulitzer Prizes reveal both juries and final judges)? Is there a system to follow not only whether a film was received, but whether it was actually viewed? Part of this should include an acknowledgment (and refund) when films are not accorded some minimal standard of consideration?

2. That festivals issue specific Calls For Entries

What do you want? Why do you want it? Do you have an aesthetic, a passion, a direction? Do you stand for something? Are you favoring local or regional films? As Independent film marketing specialist Sheri Candler says, many festivals “do not seem in the least unique or offer a real sense of whether the fest is a good fit for your film. … Are they trying to attract submission fees from the largest filmmaker audience possible, knowing full well that most of those films won’t be a fit and won’t be chosen? Or do they really not have an identification and seek to have something for everyone in their community?” Everybody can’t just vaguely say they simply want the “best work.”

Be about something! It may reduce your entry-fee revenue, but it’s the ethical to do.

3. That entry-fee-charging festivals provide feedback to filmmakers

If a filmmaker coughs up $50 to enter, is there some tangible benefit coming back? Or even a shred of feedback? Might a reaction, of reasonable thoughtfulness, be part of the service received for the price of entry? Over the years, I’ve judged print-media awards, grants and fiction-writing competitions, and in nearly all cases we as judges did sit and write our reaction, with specifics, with our names on it. Those comments, even if disputed, at least proved the work was viewed.

4. That festivals disclose when its viability depends on entry fees

Follow the money. If a festival accrues 90 percent of its budget from entry fees, then something’s just plain wrong. Should filmmakers assume their fees are actually for staging the festival? Initially, I presumed fees were primarily covering the cost of a legitimate assessment process. Or is the name of the game for some festivals to generate up-front money and then hold it dear? In some instances, I’ve seen what once started out as an annual labor of love getting stretched into entry-generating sub-festivals throughout the year.

5. That Withoutabox better enables filmmakers to provide systematic feedback about festivals

I’d love to see feedback from Withoutabox customers (i.e., fee-paying filmmakers), which will help other filmmakers judge the value of entering a given festival. I’m not talking about the scattershot Withoutabox chat boards that tend, like all chat boards, to capture people at their most frustrated (and there is a lot of frustration on them). I’m talking about a more systematic approach (eBay or Amazon customer ratings are something of a model). Seeing a broad response from those who have actually been to these festivals, or entered them, helps filmmakers.

6. That festivals match their entry fees with the level of service provided

I’ll take on one argument worth considering, which is that high entry fees serve as “Please Go Away!” de-incentivizers to keep filmmakers from blithely submitting everywhere. The richest university in the world, Harvard, still charges $75 to apply, in part to keep too many unlikely admissions candidates from wasting everybody’s time. But the scrutiny on those decisions are intense, and the money put into getting applicants a fair shake is significant. I’m not sure a lot of these mid-level and small festivals can make such justifications.

Indeed, festivals fees may be encouraging a lot of documentary filmmakers to “go away” — to the web. A documentary filmmaker with an idea of who the audience is for his or film may be better off avoiding the near-scams that some festival-fee setups seem to have become.

The Fee-less Film Festival

New festivals are forgoing the entry fee. The inaugural ArcLight Documentary Film Festival, taking place in at the ArcLight Theater in Los Angeles in November, did not charge a fee, listed their major jury members by names and titles, and asked the public to vote on trailers posted to YouTube and Facebook to help cull the films to the 10 to be screened. ArcLight’s may not be the model, but it’s an interesting one. There are surely others.

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Edward J. Delaney is a journalist, author, filmmaker and editor of DocumentaryTech, an online project that explores documentary filmmaking techniques and technology.