By Saskia Wilson-Brown, April 21st, 2010

How small festivals can be the future of meatspace film distribution

In the past several years I’ve had the opportunity to participate in and listen to a lot of conversations about the shifting role of film festivals, particularly as those shifts apply to mid to high level independent festivals. There are a number of conflicting opinions on the role of film festivals – from ‘they’re useless and will die’ to ‘they are the future of theatrical’. In truth, all theorizing aside, nobody knows the role film festivals will take over the course of the next few years because nobody know how time-based media will evolve. I do, nonetheless, believe that they can retain their relevance… if they adapt.

What follows here are the last of four thoughts that came to me about the functionality of film festivals, and in no particular discursive order.

Thought 3.

What festivals should do to better serve their communities.

The motivations that guide independent film festivals vary wildly: Whereas some were founded solely to develop industry in a second-city environment, others take radical stances against the industry altogether, shifting their focus towards serving their local creatives instead. Others, still, strive to function as arts-based businesses, leveraging sponsorships and ticket sales in an attempt at joining the ranks of corporatized culture-hawkers.

It is hard to generally classify the purpose of pre-existing film festivals, then, as their needs and motivations are often so divergent. One can nonetheless begin to make an attempt at creating a sort of style guide outlining some pragmatic ways that festivals can better serve independent filmmakers and artists, their contradictory purposes notwithstanding.

Based on several conversations had with such luminaries as Lance Weiler, Brian Newman, Paul Rachman, Peter Baxter, Lisa Vandever, Roger Mayer and others, here is the beginning of a list of how festivals can better help independent filmmakers.

NB. I see the following 5 points as responsibilities, not suggestions. I believe that arts organizations, due to their very nature of being the cynosure of dialogue and thought, have the responsibility to guide that discussion in the correct, honest direction.

I. Manage Filmmaker Expectation (No dangling carrots)

Too often festivals obliquely play into a system based on false promises and permission-based access. In this, they encourage and fail to manage filmmaker expectations, and inevitably end up with some seriously disappointed filmmakers on their hands.

It is crucial for independent filmmakers to understand how the system actually works, and to understand, also, that there are alternatives. It is therefore crucial for a festival to actually explain what they are to expect – from an industry point of view- from inclusion in the festival.

Action point: Clarify what will and probably won’t happen at the festival with your filmmakers along every step of the way, from the call for submissions to the acceptance letter.

II. Be transparent:

If a filmmaker, however naively assuming that his independent festival of choice has scads of dollars to throw at promoting his screening, throws up his hands and lets the festival do all the work, imagine the shock and dismay he may feel when finds his big premiere empty. Conversely, if a filmmaker is aware that the festival has no marketing budget, he might be inclined to engage in a little marketing of his own, and in so-doing will support the festival’s efforts (with the happy accident of helping ticket sales, to boot).

My point is this: Anyone who’s worked a festival knows that they are damn hard to run, and are often on the verge of collapse. BUT: Most filmmakers and attendees do not realize this. In order to – again – temper expectations and ensure a good experience for all, it is simply a question of a festival engaging in a little transparency in its affairs. Open books and open access (within reason, of course) can be positive for several reasons, most saliently in helping people know what to expect of you- what you are capable of providing as a festival. It also allows a community to help where they see problems or deficiencies.

Action point: Clarify and publish your budgets, be clear about shortcomings and explain how your community (including your filmmakers) can help fill them.

III. Educate:

With transparency in festival affairs and transparency about the reality of what to expect, festivals also have a responsibility to provide their filmmakers with information about alternative solutions for independent film. This can be done simply by shifting the focus away from old-industry panels towards realistic, functional and educational seminars centering both on the ‘art’ side of the filmmaking process and, of course, the business.

There are several areas that are drastically changing with the advent of new(ish) technologies: New fundraising stratagems (crowdsourced); New storytelling techniques (transmedia); New production processes (crowdsourced); New distribution strategies (online, VOD, etc); Open culture

Action Point: Taking a cue from The WorkBook Project’s DIY Days, create open access educational seminars around the new models in distribution and fundraising. Make the information available online.

IV. Develop access to new distribution models

In addition to educating filmmakers about new models for film production and distribution, festivals should also provide optional distribution solutions for its filmmakers in new media platforms, VOD and theatrical. These should allow filmmakers to exploit their rights piece-meal, monetize their films and gain new audiences, with the appui of the festival’s curatorial credibility behind them.

This is a hugely lengthy topic to go into, but for examples of festivals that are attempting to do this, take a look at a few examples: Slamdance’s deal with Xbox; Sundance’s deal with YouTube; Tribeca’s recent VOD deal

Action Point: Use your festival’s organization cachet to broker deals for your filmmakers, and offer those deals as optional systems to complement their distribution strategies.

V. Share resources and organize year-round community screenings

Imagine a scenario where the audience winner at Nashville FF is given a 15 city theatrical run through community screening programs run by Nashville FF partner fests.

In line with the previous point, festivals could increasingly work together to further four-wall film exhibition through year-round screenings, and by combining marketing and local resources with other festivals.

In turn, by leveraging partnerships with other arts organizations and venues worldwide, festivals can help their filmmakers reach wider audiences, and also provide them with a de facto theatrical release. Of course, the benefits of partnering reach beyond only helping filmmakers, as these sorts of partnerships can help spread a festival’s brand, vision, and curatorial voice- in turn allowing for higher levels of sponsorship or- better yet- more participants in its next crowdsourced fundraising campaign.

Action Point: Organize year-round screenings in your community. Make friends with your colleagues and organize film exchanges. Share resources and programming.

All these points, to me, demonstrate one overarching fact: In order for an independent arts community to thrive, it must take a conscious stand to stop trying to emulate a corporate business methodology of exclusion, competitiveness and opacity.

In copying a system that, really, has little to do with how we as independents actually work, festivals are unwittingly incorporating all the nasty little habits that are anathema to thriving collaboration and creativity: Status-based ranking systems for humans (‘VIP’ passes, for instance), one-way payment systems, the obsession with celebrity attendance, fearful and covetous business practices. In following this approach, of course, we effectively stop innovation and discourage the development of new collaborative systems altogether.

In servicing the arts, a festival services the arts community in all its forms – even those it sees as its competitors. One will never exist without the other.

Thought 4.

How to sustain without selling out: An exercise in ego management.

In the last several posts I’ve argued that film festivals should take a step away from the commercial approach and should adopt a community-centric view in their strategic direction.

Maslow's pyramid, as applied to film festivals

However, if we apply Maslow’s taxonomy of human needs to film festivals, it becomes quickly apparent that it’s all well and good for festivals to try to better serve their communities, but when they’re barely surviving, simple basic needs end up perforce taking precedence.

Most independent festivals function at the ‘safety’ level of the pyramid—trying to securely retain theatre space, staff, volunteers, film submissions… It’s hard for these hard-working people to discuss the philosophical approaches towards how they serve filmmakers (the top of the pyramid) in these tenuous circumstances.

Running & funding a film festival

Consider the bare mimimum needed to run a festival: Theatre rental; Projectors, seats & screens, if you use alternate spaces; Special decks (beta decks, for instance); Liability insurance; A budget for marketing (banners, festival programs, lanyards and passes, any further visibility needs), and a budget for the design thereof; A publicity and advertising budget to garner submissions and audiences; Transportation; Online operations (email, url, web design & maintenance, submissions tracking); Staffing (Fest director, programming director, submissions manager, volunteer manager, ticketing manager, print traffic manager & runners, sponsor liaison, filmmaker liaison, venues manager… etc.)

Festivals are, in short, pricey. Looking to fill these basic needs without going out of pocket, most festivals survive through four options for revenue sources: Public funding, ticket & merchandise sales, submission fees and sponsorships (private and corporate).

Unfortunately the United States happens to be a government that has piss-poor public funding for non-profit arts institutions, so the European model of public funding is, for the most part, out of reach for US based festivals.

Similarly, ticket and merchandise sales are helpful, but usually provide a tiny financial drop in the big bucket of need. If you take an average independent festival—7 days long with 3 screenings a day in a 100-seat house, selling tickets at an accessible $9 each- the festival stands to bring in $18,900 IF EVERY SCREENING IS SOLD OUT. More realistically, they can probably hope to bring in about half that.

Looking at submission fees- say a small independent festival gets 800 submissions in (it’s usually less for most festivals) and charges an average of $30 per submission, it stands to make an income of $24,000. Though distasteful to many, submission fees nonetheless become the bulk of the funding.

In this climate, then, it is not surprising that most festivals immediately turn to sponsorships, which have proven in some instances to be very helpful. However, this is an approach that is problematic on many levels, not the least because it turns festival directors into glorified salesmen. Further, still, corporate sponsorship is a double edged sword.

Both support and interference in the arts, corporate sponsorship, when done wrong, turns an inherently let’s-talk-about-art sort of experience into a hyped-up advertising vehicle, potentially void of substance. Also, in today’s world of ‘branded content’ and ‘online properties’, it DOES bears reminding: Corporate Sponsorship is cheesy. Nothing says independent film more than a miniskirt-clad alcohol-wielding would-be actress imploring you to try her company’s vodka. Right?

Though there are many examples of sponsorship deals that do not force the festival to scream “AUDI!!!” from the rooftops, it remains a fact – to me – that corporations should not be our answer to the Medici. One might correctly point out that ulterior motives existed from time immemorial (the Medici were really into self-image, after all- a sort of precursor to the obsession with branding and corporate image), but the ulterior motives of late are just too base. Neither lofty, nor profound, our experience of philosophy and thought evolves into an experience of commerce. ‘What do you think he meant by his reference to Nietzsche in that one piece of dialogue?’ turns into ‘Oh, shit! They’re giving free Nikes away down at the filmmaker lounge! Do you have the right pass to get in?’

So: How can festivals survive without selling their souls?

I believe the answer – the way to survive without selling our souls – is in a crowd-sourced / crowd-powered film festival – a no/low sponsor film festival that is small, community-driven, and community-funded. This is possible to achieve, and would additionally be a solid step towards empowering the festival’s audiences and participants through transparency and involvement.

This would require a few action steps:

- Think about what you want to accomplish with the festival—what you think you should provide to the arts community and how you can best provide it.
- Band together with local community groups as partners to share expenses or trade assets, band together with other festivals to create larger incentive and reach
- Create comprehensive, community-based micro-donation strategies to meet goals, as they arise.
- Maintain your relationships with your community through transparency, accessibility, invitations to curate/ host screenings/ participate in whatever way it sees fit.
- Embrace your role as a community-based organization by lowering the klieg lights, ditching the red carpet and toning down the ego.

    Festivals taking ownership of their small part of a bigger whole means that they allow themselves to expand more organically and buoyed by bigger better support systems. Not trying to be the next Tribeca implies a level of humility and restraint that many festival directors would probably rail against, but one must ask oneself, how does raising $500,000 for an exclusive red carpet premiere of the latest Big-Studio schlockfest really help independent film? Is the ‘visibility’ one gains from this type of event more helpful for the festival and its filmmakers, say, than that gained by having a series of smaller open screenings in venues that are invested in the success of the film they are showing?

    Festivals with high overhead are festivals that are forced to toe the line- spending the lion’s share of their time wooing and maintaining sponsors. Smaller festivals – I would argue – actually have it a lot better than they typically think. Yeah, they’re not raking in the dough, but their overhead is controllable, and they can focus on programming and their community.

    There’s this ‘marketing guru’ called Seth Godin who wrote: “Big used to matter. Big meant power and profit and growth. [...] Today, little companies often make more money than big companies. Little churches grow faster than worldwide ones. [...] Small is the new big because small gives you the flexibility to change the business model when your competition changes theirs. [...] A small church has a minister with the time to visit you in the hospital when you’re sick. [...] Small is the new big only when the person running the small thinks big.” (Seth Godin, ‘Small is The New Big’, Portfolio, 2006)

    How does this apply to us in the fest world? Simple: Provided that the festival director is OK with slow growth, small fests are in a position of power vis-à-vis the increasingly irrelevant behemoths. Enjoy!

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    Posted in audience festival promotion

    Saskia Wilson-Brown has a background in fine art, curation, film festivals, TV and production design. She works as a producer, strategist and advocate; supporting initiatives such as DIY Days and Slamdance Film Festival (among others) while running a guerilla screening series called Cinema Speakeasy. She is currently in production on her first feature doc.

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