The Great Film Festival Swindle

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“If you’re in the con game and you don’t know who the mark is… you’re the mark.” —David Mamet

“Never pay an entry fee. If they won’t give you a waiver they aren’t interested in the film.” —Major film festival programmer.

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Update: In response to the overwhelming support received by this article, The Rumpus has decided to throw its own film festival July 30 in Los Angeles.

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Note: This article is about narrative feature films and doesn’t make any assumptions about the festival experience of short films or documentaries.

How do film festivals decide which movies to program, and why are film festival submission fees so high? I interviewed more than 100 filmmakers and festival programmers trying to find out.

I knew that the overwhelming majority of films were rejected. I wanted to know about the ones that weren’t.

The average festival submission fee is $65. But for many festivals it’s even higher, especially if you miss the early submission window. Cleveland, San Francisco, Seattle, and Chicago, all large regional festivals, charge $100 and receive from 800 to 1,500 feature film submissions. Larger premiere festivals—like Los Angeles, Tribeca, or Slamdance—get over 2,000 narrative features, while Sundance gets over 4,000. If you know someone, or if a movie of yours has played the festival previously, or you have a big celebrity in your movie, or if your movie has already played a prestigious film festival, a festival will often grant you a submission fee waiver. Sales agents and distribution companies also don’t pay submission fees. The more independent your film actually is, the more likely you’ll have to pay a festival to apply to an independent film festival.

Does receiving a fee submission waiver impact the odds of playing at the festival?

It’s safe to say that less than 10% of the movies applying receive submission fee waivers, but they make up a disproportionate number of the feature films selected. Here is the data on submission fees for narrative feature films that got into film festivals. If the number on the left is larger than the number on the right you might want to reconsider your odds on your entry fee:

(Click here to expand the data set).

Almost all of the movies surveyed played at film festivals in 2015 and 2016. We were not able to get in touch with every indie feature that played at every festival. The fact that sales agents and distributors wouldn’t give us data means that there are actually many more movies that don’t pay submission fees and play festivals than the numbers indicate.

Of all of the filmmakers I spoke to, everyone who played Dances with Films and Slamdance paid the submission fee. I only found one film that had received a waiver at Cinequest. A Cinequest programmer told me that while they gave waivers on occasion their policy was to program those last, only if they couldn’t find enough movies they liked in the paid submission pile. More than half the directors who played South By Southwest paid a submission fee. Virtually no other film festival, except for really small ones, programmed more than 20% from blind submissions, ie. filmmakers who had paid submission fees, preferring instead the movies that applied for free or were invited. Perhaps most alarmingly, out of 37 festivals—for which I had more than one data point—there were 17 that didn’t program a single paid submission, including Bend, Denver, Portland, and TriBeca.

About a week before publication I started emailing the data to festival programmers asking them to confirm, or help me find more filmmakers that paid. We’ll update the data set as new information arrives (it updates automatically here from the working spreadsheet). At some point we’ll announce the data set closed. You can always talk about your own festival experiences in the comments (which we prefer to keep civil).

Nancy Collet was the director of programming for the AFI Film Festival for ten years and has been a film festival consultant for other fests since 2007. “At a certain point most have to choose between quality and premiere status,” Nancy says. “A programmer is always making an effort to discover new filmmakers. This is one of the most exciting challenges of the job. At the same time they’re trying to give the audience films they’ll enjoy and attend and it’s often a delicate balance.”

What that often means for programmers is attending other film festivals over the course of the year—particularly the larger, premiere-only ones like Sundance, Slamdance, South by Southwest, Toronto, and Tribeca—and inviting their favorite films and the ones they think will resonate best with their audience to play at their festivals as well.

One programmer said they often know if they’re going to program a movie before it’s even finished. “There’s an eco-system,” he says. “We’ll almost always know a producer or editor or actor, even if we don’t know the director.” He pointed out that it’s gotten so cheap and easy to make a movie that submissions have more than doubled. “In the last five years it’s become harder to find a movie of quality buried in the slush pile. It might be cheaper for mediocre films to submit to festivals if the filmmakers are connected but the most important thing should be making a great movie.”

The programmers I talked to felt that great movies always find their way. But if you’re charging $100 per submission, taking in tens of thousands of dollars, do you have a responsibility to the movies that pay? And how would the people who paid to submit to your festival feel if they realized all the movies being programmed didn’t pay?

“Without submission fees most festivals would disappear immediately,” said Josh Mandel, a programmer at Slamdance Film Festival, the only top-tier festival that doesn’t grant fee waivers. He said there aren’t many festivals that could get by on sponsorship alone, at least in the US. Outside the US, many festivals get government funding and corporate sponsorship that minimize or eliminate the need for submission fees.

A successful director who had three movies play Sundance and Venice in the 90s told me, “They didn’t used to charge. Now there are thousands of film festivals, many for profit. I don’t believe in film festivals anymore. Better to go straight to DVD.” He also said, “You could make another movie for what it costs to apply to film festivals now.”

One director, expressing frustration, said even after playing at some pretty good festivals, “It used to be the studio system that was set up as gatekeepers keeping out independent films. The film festivals were a way around that. But the festivals have become the new gatekeepers. Sure there are exceptions but for the most part if you don’t know how to play the game, if you’re not connected, if your movie doesn’t have big stars, your odds of making it on the festival circuit are a lot worse than you think.”

There are other good festivals that hold the line, but they’re in the minority. Dances With Films, which is rapidly becoming one of the top film festivals, doesn’t grant fee waivers. When one prominent film producer asked for a waiver from the Austin Film Festival she received this response, “In the interest of fairness, we cannot waive entry fees for any film entered into our competition. It’s important to us that the same rules and entry fees apply to all applicants so no one film is favored over another.”

Some of the smaller, more underground film festivals also only program movies that pay submission fees. Though it might not be worth it to apply to festivals like Williamsburg since they charge $75 ($50 for students) and don’t get much media attention and the audience isn’t as large. But at least you know everyone who applied paid the fee; it’s a level playing field.

Russell Brown has made four low-budget independent feature films including this year’s Search Engines. “I’ve had certain experiences where a mid-level film festival charged a high submission fee but then didn’t actually watch the whole movie,” he said. “When you pay a lot to submit a movie, what guarantee are you getting? Even if you only pay $30, what level of consideration does the festival guarantee in return? What are you paying the submission fee for exactly?”

Russell says he’s learned to always request a waiver or a discount. He believes if the festival is truly interested in considering a film, they will grant this.

Leah Meyerhoff’s I Believe in Unicorns had a legendary festival run. I Believe in Unicorns played at scores of festivals, including South by Southwest, Sun Valley, Dallas International, Brooklyn, Nashville, Edinburgh, Portland, Bend, etc. Leah rarely paid a submission fee.

Leah insists you don’t have to lose money submitting to festivals. She also says that filmmakers can request a screening fee from the festivals they play at. Distributors often do this with films they acquire. Independent filmmakers can too, according to Leah. But if you don’t ask for it, don’t expect the festival to offer.

New York Film Festival sidesteps the entire process by only programming movies by invite. Traverse City Michigan Film Festival, founded by Michael Moore, doesn’t charge a submission fee.

Nancy Collet says not charging any submission fee turns out to be a bad idea. When you don’t charge a submission fee you may find yourself inundated by movie submissions, many of which aren’t even eligible to play. She advises film festivals that can afford to not charge submission fees to still charge something small, just to be sure the filmmakers take the time to read the festival rules. But she thinks it’s excessive when festivals charge up to $100 for a submission. “When your prices are too high, you end up narrowing the field of submissions to just those filmmakers who have the funds to pay, and you can lose some great talent if you price your entry too high.”

Anthony Kaufman, a journalist and programmer at the Chicago Film Festival, says if a filmmaker can’t afford to apply to festivals they should reach out and ask for a waiver. “I think part of the issue is, as a filmmaker, you should feel free to communicate with the festival, ask the questions, and sometimes programmers will say yes.”

But in speaking with filmmakers I heard of two incidences where someone had requested a fee waiver from Chicago and gotten no response. “They have to already know you, or see your work play somewhere else,” one said, “otherwise they won’t get back to you. Maybe when they didn’t respond I should have heard what they weren’t saying.” Both filmmakers (Chicago natives) decided to pay the $100 submission fee. One was rejected and one is still waiting to hear.

I asked David Nugent, the artistic director of the Hamptons International Film Festival, if movies that don’t pay a submission fee have an advantage. David admitted that if he requested to see a movie he was going to watch it, while a movie that comes from a blind submission would have to go through at least two layers of programmers before it got to him. Still, he insisted, the best movies always make it to him.

“The people that get waivers have generally earned them,” David says. “They’ve already made great work which itself started as a blind submission. They’ve paid their dues.”

“What about celebrities?” I asked. I pointed out that The Adderall Diaries, based on my memoir, had played many big festivals including Cleveland, Woodstock, and Tribeca (where it premiered). It had a bunch of celebrities but a first-time film director.

“I might play devil’s advocate on that one,” David said. “When you have well known actors everything is easier. It’s easier to get financing, easier to get distribution. It’s not just the film festivals.”

Bar Songs is a low-budget independent feature by first time director Ryan Collins. Ryan didn’t have a festival strategy, he didn’t know other filmmakers or work with a well connected producer. He says he spent $4,000 dollars applying to festivals. His movie played at only six: St Tropez, The Art Of Brooklyn, Hoboken, Manhattan, Williamsburg, and Kansas. Ryan had no idea the game was rigged.

Most festival programmers would say a movie that pays a submission fee has just as much a chance at being programmed as one that doesn’t, despite the data that suggests otherwise. At the very least it’s a much cheaper and easier process for many of the films, the ones that tend to get programmed, than for the ones that don’t. And is it okay to fund a festival based on exorbitant submission fees and not program the movies that are paying the fees? It’s as if the losers were throwing a party for the winners.

Both programmers and filmmakers point out the importance of having a strategy. For some that means submitting to a few big festivals and, if you don’t get in, only targeting festivals that are really relevant to your movie.

“There’s no point in applying to a hundred festivals when only twenty-five are a good fit,” Josh Mandel says. “It’s easier now than ever for filmmakers to research festivals, getting to know their taste and the kinds of films they’ve programmed in the last couple or few years. All the data is online. There’s no way for filmmakers to ever know with 100% certainty whether their film will fit the festival’s taste, as that can change year to year based on the submission pool, or changing of the guard in the programing team. But, filmmakers can greatly increase their chances by taking the time to get to know a festival through its previous editions.”

I started writing this article out of sadness. I submitted my last movie, Happy Baby, to more than fifteen film festivals and didn’t get into any of them. After publishing six books with small presses, and my first four without even having an agent, I thought I was used to rejection. But I was wrong. The rejection was crushing. I finally cut my losses and released the movie through Vimeo Video On Demand. I didn’t think I would make another one.

Once you know how it works it’s not too hard to see if a film festival is serious about programming movies that pay to submit, but it does take a little digging. Most (though not all) of the directors I spoke to who had a film premiere at a marquee festival—Sundance, SxSW, Tribeca, or Toronto—told me they never paid a submission fee for an American festival after that. I would have avoided the Hamptons if I had been more diligent in my research, seeing how many of their movies had already played larger festivals. And I would have seen that the only narrative features playing at the Miami Film Festival that might have paid a submission fee were in the “Florida Focus” section. Applying only to the right film festivals will save you money; it will also save you self-esteem.

Cleveland Film Festival will give you back the comments on your submission, so you can see why your movie wasn’t accepted. Cleveland has three volunteers watch each movie submitted and write up their thoughts, at least for movies that aren’t invited. The only thing is, when one filmmaker got the volunteer’s thoughts they seemed to love her movie. They didn’t mention anything wrong. Russell Brown had a similar experience with a movie he submitted to Cleveland. So why didn’t they get in? Do the volunteers opinions matter if the programmers are only watching movies that have been invited to apply?

Tony Castle of the Lower East Side Film Festival says, “Our pricing is affordable, but enough to encourage people to only submit their best work.” The Lower East Side charges $50 for feature submissions, $75 for feature submissions submitted late. I point out that it appears only 20% of their narrative feature programming, if that, comes from paid submissions. $75 is a lot to compete with over a hundred other narrative features for one spot. He says the LES Film Festival champions low-budget filmmakers. “If someone emails us and can’t afford to apply and wants a waiver, we’ll often grant one.” I know of at least one instance when that wasn’t true.

Each movie, book, art project, needs its own strategy. But you want to create that strategy with knowledge of the landscape. If your movie doesn’t get into one of the big festivals you can’t automatically assume it will play at smaller festivals. Some of those festivals—since they’re considering blind submissions along with filmmakers they have relationships with and all the best movies that have played at festivals in the past year—might actually be harder to get accepted to than the larger festivals.

The larger festivals come with bigger pay-offs, too. Katharine Emmer paid $100 to submit her ultra-low-budget movie Life in Color to South by Southwest. After she got in the movie received more than fifteen waivers to apply to other festivals. In other words, the risk/reward might make more sense with a festival like South by Southwest than Lower East Side.

Often it’s about knowing your audience. Many great, smaller films premiere at the identity-driven festivals, like Frameline in San Francisco and the Asian American Film Festival in New York.

Sometimes it makes more sense to save your money. Look and see just how many indie films a festival is programming. Some are only programming one or two, or are only playing local indie features with all the other feature spots reserved for large, spotlight films. Don’t apply to any festival without spending at least twenty minutes going through last year’s program, which is almost always readily available online. With only a few exceptions, apply only to festivals that will give you waivers, or are highly targeted to your particular movie, and use the money you save to set up your own screenings, maybe even your own film festival. It won’t be easy, but give yourself a shot.

If you are going to pay a submission feel make sure the movie is finished and submit early. The difference in price is often enormous. An early submission to the Hamptons, nine months before the festival, is $30. Six months before the festival the submission fee rises to $90.

“Everyone wants to think their film is so good,” said Ryan Collins. “It will get in no matter how late it’s submitted. But that’s not usually going to be the case, especially if your submission is unsolicited.”

I try to imagine if a publisher charged a fee to look at books but only published books by authors who didn’t pay the submission fees. I know if they did that to poets there’d be blood in the streets. It would be the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror all over again. I do think most, if not all, of the programmers just want to program the best movies for their audience, and that might require granting a lot of waivers. And those programmers are truly excited when they find a movie they like that they didn’t now about. Championing an unknown filmmaker can make a programmer’s reputation.

In the end, 25% of the surveyed independent movies that played at festivals did pay the submission fee. Festivals like Los Angeles and Sundance were offset by Dances with Films, Slamdance, and Cinequest. And some of the really small festivals offered fewer waivers. The larger, second-tier festivals, like Seattle, Chicago, and Cleveland, were the hardest to get into and the most expensive. If I was doing it again I would not have applied to those festivals.

The film of The Adderall Diaries, based on my memoir, premiered at Tribeca in 2015. I had nothing to do with the movie other than writing the book it was based on. The experience of seeing myself portrayed on the screen (falsely, but whatever) was inspiring.

Suddenly I wanted to make another movie. Less than a year after seeing The Adderall Diaries I had a movie inspired by that movie called After Adderall.

A movie about James Franco making a movie about me? Every festival would want that, I thought. But I was wrong. The rejections started rolling in and I had the sinking feeling of deja vu. I didn’t want to go through what I went through with Happy Baby but I could see it was happening.
When I started this article I was ready to admit defeat. But now my regret is not having a more targeted approach. I wish I had paid the fee and entered Cinequest and Dances With Films. It’s also worth thinking about alternative venues to screen your movie, other types of festivals. After Adderall is playing at the Brooklyn Book Festival and the Sanibel Island Writer’s Conference, as well as four universities and a special screening in Provincetown.

I think The Rumpus will start its own film festival. Also, I’d like a refund from these film festivals I submitted to that have not yet announced their decisions: Chicago, Cucalorus, Bend, Philadelphia, and Santa Cruz. Oh wait, I didn’t apply to Santa Cruz, but I really want to play there.

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Notes: This is about American and Canadian narrative feature films and doesn’t take into account the film festival experience of short films, world films, or documentaries. Also, submission fees quoted for festivals are often for late submissions and might be $25 more than earlier submissions. All films tabulated are from 2011 forward, but the vast majority are from 2015 and 2016.

Extra Notes: The Los Angeles Film Festival responded, “For the US FICTION, LA MUSE, and NIGHTFALL categories (2016) (24 films total)—13 paid, 9 were granted waivers for hardship or diversity. 2 are alumni and got waivers for that.” We haven’t been able to verify this. All 10 of the filmmakers we spoke with that played at LAFF got fee waivers, including 4 from this year, 4 from 2015, and 2 from 2014. As we contact more filmmakers and more get back to us we’ll update the data set.

David Nugent of the Hamptons Film Festival says they programmed at least 2 feature narratives from blind submissions last year, but I haven’t been able to find them. Also, 2 is a low number.

Out of 100 movies one anomaly keeps standing out in stark contrast to almost everything else in this article. A movie called Embers by Claire Carré continually achieved what seemed impossible. Without Hollywood connections or big stars (though Jason Ritter is awesome) Embers paid a submission fee, and got in, to Chicago, Atlanta, Ashland, Dallas, and Cleveland film festivals among others. It was often the only film I found that paid a submission fee to these festivals, or at best one of two. It also got programmed at Slamdance midway through its festival run as a special screening, despite the fact Slamdance almost exclusively programs premieres. What Embers achieved, over and over again, was far more impressive and unlikely than being picked from the slush pile at Sundance. The festivals that programmed Embers from blind submissions were frequently taking the bulk of their programming from the award winners at the marquee fests. What Embers did strikes me as about as impressive as winning an Academy Award. Embers will be available on video on demand in the fall.

 

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Research by Julia Mok, Beverly Parayno, Adam W. Keller, and Kyle Williams.


Stephen Elliott is the author of seven books, including the memoir The Adderall Diaries and the novel Happy Baby. He is the founder of The Rumpus. His feature film debut, About Cherry, was distributed by IFC. More from this author →