Film Fund-amentals: The Festive Season

If you ever find yourself cursed with running a film festival, there are two questions you must ask. The first is: “Why are we doing this festival?” The second is: “Which way is the exit?”

The ideal of any film festival is to present a wide range of movies that might otherwise go unseen or undiscovered by a sophisticated audience of truly dedicated film viewers. But the reality is largely a frustrating run of late hours, confusing schedules and broken friendships, with the event rounded off by lots of no money to run the damn thing. Even more ironic is the fact that if you are actually working at a film festival you almost never get to see anything.

Which is where the exit question comes into play. But the festival season has begun. Last month we had the Toronto International Film Festival , and the New York International Film Festival is about to wrap. Heck, it was at a film festival in Switzerland where Roman Polanski finally got busted.

But for a young independent filmmaker, there is only one reason for the existence of film festivals, and that is exposure. For many indie filmmakers, a festival is as close as they will ever get to a theatrical screening. For a few, it may be their best chance at finally getting some critical attention. Once in a blue moon, someone might actually get a distributor. If they’re real lucky, they might even get an honest distributor.

Which is why both Toronto and New York are pretty much irrelevant. Toronto isn’t completely irrelevant, but the average indie filmmaker is unlikely to get their film invited for screening (though if they do get the invite, they should go). As for New York, forget it. The heyday of the NYIFF was back in the 1960s, and the current version has become an obscure showcase of post-modernist film theory. So it’s not surprising that the Tribeca Film Festival has taken the premiere role in New York.

Unfortunately, Tribeca is the festival where people go to be seen, not screened. It has developed a unique split venue dominated by the glam, but its programming has yet to spark. This may change. They keep promising that it will. We shall see.

But for better, and for worse, the main indie festival is still the Sundance Film Festival. It seems as if everybody has a compliant about Sundance; nobody is ever happy with Sundance; nothing is right about Sundance. On the other hand, if you get accepted for screening at Sundance, you can tell everybody else to go blow. It has no equal…

…Except for the Slamdance Film Festival held just down the road in Park City, Utah. Slamdance started out as the younger and edgier low-budget rival to Sundance, and has actually racked up a better track record for the discovery and showcasing of emerging new talent. While Sundance still has the brand name recognition, Slamdance has become the preferred spot for many indie filmmakers. According to some, the parties are also better.

Slamdance stands out because of its well-established rep for films that have successfully launched from the festival. This is one of the ways you can judge a festival (just Google and run a tally of previously screened works – the whole list, not just the winners). The other method is the question of fees. Basically, you should only have to pay a single fee to enter any festival. Then, you pray to what ever it is you believe in and hope that your movie makes it through the pre-screening selection process and gets shown at the festival. The fees charged for any festival should be pretty straightforward.

The only exception to this appears to be the New York International Independent Film and Video Festival. Over the years various articles have raised questions about the fee system used by this festival (e.g. this 1999 report from IndieWIRE). I have worked with a variety of festivals over the past three decades, and in every case, the fee system was extremely simple. The fees charged by NYIIFVF, on the other hand, seem to follow a pro-rated system designed to charge you for a variety of “services” involving screening, promotion and other considerations. In other words, it is basically modeled on the vanity system used by “self-publication” companies such as Vantage Press. Perversely enough, it reminds me of an evil fee system that a festival director and I once cooked up during a boring winter day at the office. But we were just joking. I didn’t know that anyone would dare use it. Basically, it is legal, but who needs this kind of problem?

Fortunately, there are many other festivals worth exploring. Both the Phoenix Film Festival and the Almost Famous Film Festival have rapidly emerging reputations (with Almost Famous scoring large on the short film venue). Young horror filmmakers are strangely blessed with a variety of festivals, including the upcoming Screamfest LA. The Mill Valley Film Festival remains as unique as the scenery surrounding it in the San Francisco Bay area.

The list could go on for several more pages. But the key things you need to keep in mind are pretty basic. Stick to festivals that have an established reputation. Even small festivals will have websites that allow you to access information concerning their fees, past festivals, notable accomplishments and other crucial information that allows you to determine the festival’s merits. There are still some festivals that are not making significant use of the web, which I find perplexing. Personally, I would stick to the venues with the most detailed web presentation. Pick the festivals that best suit your production in terms of genre, subject matter and level of accomplishment. Pay close attention to the information on fees, pre-screening policies and method of return shipment (one of the screwiest messes I ever had to deal with while working a festival was a completely bungled return shipment).

And no matter what, stick it on your resume. No one gets anywhere in this business by being humble. interviews Dennis Toth about Vince Vaughn’s move from slapstick to a more heartfelt role in Couples Retreat. Read the full article, Vaughn’s Sensitive Side, by Christian Toto.