Thursday, September 20, 2012

when festivals don’t want you

A friend of mine recently did a lot of work on a very beautiful short film that has had zero interest at festivals, which has convinced him that he simply doesn’t know what they want anymore. I wrote him this e-mail to correct this idea, and it occurred to me that many independent filmmakers have had this same problem and should know this stuff if they don’t already—


I wanted to go into this a bit more in depth, because I have some resources that have been really helpful for me that I want to spread the word about.

Basically what I was saying earlier is what you yourself have discovered—the festival circuit no longer functions as a gatekeeper for independent film. In the past filmmakers have trusted festivals to be true curators of merit, so that the vetting process conferred some legitimacy on their work and gave them exposure to (eager, willing) distributors and audiences that they would have no means of accessing otherwise. Sundance was a name that meant something to the little guy. Budgets and faces were not the concern that they were to Hollywood, and festivals were THE places to see something daring, groundbreaking, or unique. At the height of this system we had films like Clerks, Pi, Primer, Run Lola Run, The Blair Witch Project, The American Astronaut, Derek Jarmon's films, Greg Araki's films, etc, etc.

Now Sundance has become so upper-tier that Slamdance emerged to service truly independent budgets, and even Slamdance has become a supersaturated mess. Everywhere you look in the festival world, we're seeing independent films with names behind them, because that was the only way to get them into festivals (or to secure the budget from investors that would produce a film slick enough for festivals increasingly friendly to indirectly Hollywood fare**). As the market saturates, nepotism takes over the merit system, and the hope for a micro-budget film (even a short one) with no known faces becomes slim to none. The films that are actually screened, in all the major fests, are seeded with films made by filmmakers who were personally invited to submit sans entry fee, which you can see means people without connections are subsidizing the people who have them. Obviously you still see a few genuine indie entries that make it in on the strength of the film alone, but this feels more and more to me like window dressing.

This relates also, I think, to ballooning Hollywood budgets. I'm sure you're aware that the budgets of blockbusters are skyrocketing to get bigger and slicker spectacle in front of audiences so that the studios can turn a bigger profit on mediocre storytelling, but this effect has pulled modest budgets higher as well***. Comedies are not typically expensive films, even at their worst, but The Hangover II cost more than Dark City and The Crow combined (two older films in expensive genres that call for high production value). This has really changed audience expectations for how expensive things should look, the amount of lighting design and post production and reshooting that goes into even minor scenes in minor films with no need for intense visual presence, and distributors who buy things from festivals are certainly influenced by this trend. The films they looked at buying when the playing field was more level they probably wouldn't touch today.

Even if we leave aside the enormous preference for films by straight white men, it's not just that festival screening is no guarantee your film is any good, it's also that being any good is no guarantee of festival screening. If you're going to be a pioneering, creative filmmaker, you need to be able to get your work out there without the help of compromised gatekeepers.

I'm about to throw some resources at you that will lay out what to do, but I'll give you a rundown of what they are all going to say in one form or another—you are not just a filmmaker anymore, you are a promoter/distributor. Streaming and social media make it totally possible to reach your audience without festivals, but this means a lot more work than you've had to do before, work that begins in pre-production, is fully integrated with the production side, and continues long after the finished film is in the can. You may be able to hand this off to a friend, but the bottom line is generating buzz for your film and getting it in front of your intended audience is just as important and every bit as much your responsibility as actually making the film. Alerting your audience to the film, getting them excited about it, and getting them to see it is integral to producing the film and should be budgeted accordingly.

I hope I haven't overwhelmed you, but I've done a lot of work and I feel like I should share some of the fruits of my labor. Unfortunately what this has done mostly is show me what I did wrong with Hayseeds & ScalawagsI haven't had an opportunity to put these ideas into practice yet, but they are a big part of the planning I'm doing for the next project (which isn't even written yet).

Good luck!


P.S. Despite my festival bashing, I of course have not abandoned them completely. They are still incredible magnets for the community. I am just mindful of the fact that all filmmakers need to be putting a lot more effort into alternative methods.

* Luis Fernando Midence is a Guatemalan filmmaker whose work has been featured in festivals worldwide, many of them committed to LGBT content. His short “Sin Ruta” (Without Direction) is now available free on Vimeo—

**Curiously, the big studios have begun to realize that distributing a film is actually more profitable than producing it, and many are now shifting their models to merely  distribute (and provisionally finance) films made by “independent” producers (prompting me to start calling truly independent films "outsider films"). This minimizes their liability, as they can always refuse to buy a film if they don’t like it, or make the distribution deal contingent upon the film meeting their criteria (which is easier than pulling the plug on a film they’re producing and losing the money they’ve already put into it). This means that many films are now being called independent simply because of a change in business model, rather than because of the culture and ethos of the producers. It's also not a stretch to see that the studios (who have money), in shifting liability to outside entities, are forcing outsiders to carry the load for the insiders.

*** I have previously referred to this as the NASA effect. The budgets on NASA projects are notoriously high, and there is a reason for this that has naught to do with rocket science. A few decades back, Congress decided that contractors working for NASA shouldn't be milking the American tax dollar for huge profits, so they set a cap on the profit percentage a company could make on a government project — i.e. you can only make, say, 10% profit on a contract with Uncle Sam. To compensate for this, companies realized they needed projects with massive expenses to reap the profits they were looking for (larger number to multiply by 10%). So, the incentive is to keep costs high rather than low — a bigger pie equals a bigger slice — and budgets explode.

Hollywood, similarly, has had trouble figuring out how to maximize their profit percentage. There are examples of cheap films raking in several times their budget in profit (e.g. Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity), but these examples depend on an immeasurable (from an economic standpoint) je ne sais quoi, a fuzzy artistic or of-the-moment element, that is found almost entirely in a concept's execution rather than the concept itself. Betting on this phenomenon is not good business.

Instead, they have found that, for the most part, you are guaranteed a certain audience if the film is spectacular enough. People will come to see a film, even a bad one, if the spectacle is sufficiently arresting — and the more arresting (read: expensive) it is, the bigger the audience. A good example of this (though you might read the summer slates of the last 5 years as examples) is Burton's Alice in Wonderland, where even the executives acknowledged that the story was crap (prompting one to proclaim that, "[Hollywood] is not in the business of telling stories anymore"), but the film was nonetheless profitable. Now this profit percentage is not going to climb over a certain amount unless the film has that je ne sais quoi, which is not something an MBA can understand or predict, so in order to rake in profits, you've got to raise budgets. You'll make more money on a $250 million film than a $25 million film because you're multiplying the percentage by a bigger number.

In other words, the same thing inflating NASA budgets is inflating Hollywood budgets. NASA has found this scheme unsustainable, and hence the low activity on that front. Hollywood execs, on the other hand, have a peculiar long-view myopia. They can see the long tail on revenues for individual projects (long tails being the only way you make back the budget on these gargantuan films), but they can't see the long tail of this business model on their industry. Assembling a film based on favorable criteria (i.e. what genre is it with what star, has this combination worked before, what formula can I use to predict the most favorable combination) has proven useful to the MBAs in charge, but they don't recognize that it is spending previously earned capital. People go to see a Julia Roberts movie because in the past they have liked Julia Roberts and expect a certain thing from her movies. If, as has happened with Nicholas Cage, the presence of a particular star stops being a good indicator of whether or not they are going to enjoy a movie, the audience will (eventually) stop caring about that star. And thus you've spent previously earned capital without earning any in its place.


  1. Saw your blog on twitter then found this entry. Informative and encouraging. Thanks for posting!

  2. Dana!

    Glad you found it useful. If you know any outsider filmmakers, spread the word!