The Cost Of Film Festival Submissions
I was lucky enough to have a budding filmmaker stay with me for a night recently by the name of Tom Allen. He'd completed an amazing bike journey to quite a few corners of the globe and fallen in love with an Iranian woman along the way, and had teameedup with a filmmaker to produce a lovely film called Janapar, Love On A Bike. We inevitably spent much of the evening discussing films, festivals and other such scintillating topics of conversation. I was gob-smacked to learn that he and his film producer partner had spent nearly a thousand pounds on film festival submissions for their debut film. A thousand quid! So I asked him a few questions about the submission process and was appalled to find out that it is standard practice for film festivals to charge an administrative fee for submitting your film. On the face of it you may be excused for thinking that this needs to happen to pay for the administration of the submissions. Somebody has to log them, file them, and most importantly, watch them and rate them, deciding whether or not to include them in the festival programme. Then there's the communication with the filmmakers, letting them know you've received their film, telling them whether they have been accepted or not, giving them feedback. However there's one key factor here and that is that film festivals don't pay the filmmakers for the privilege of screening their films. There are often cash prizes at stake for the winning films, but the majority don't earn a penny. All they get is the accolade of having had their film played at a festival.
ShAFF is a home-grown festival and has developed very organically. By that I mean that I didn't consult a big rule book on how to organise it, or what the dos and don'ts are. I used my common sense. In the early days I'd often talk to filmmakers - Al Lee, Paul Diffley and Dave Brown have been very influential in my decision making - to bounce ideas past them and get their perspective on something. It never entered my mind to charge them for the privilege of screening their films for free! I've always maintained that the filmmakers should be at the top of the tree when it comes to film festivals. Without them we would have no festivals. Sure the audience is vitally important, and sponsors are essential, but none are as important as the filmmaker. In my questioning of my guest I was incredibly disappointed to hear that some festivals don't even let the filmmakers know that they have been unsuccessful, and the vast majority don't offer any feedback as to why. It's often a very difficult thing to do, and I have had one or two heated exchanges with filmmakers who have not appreciated my feedback (I only give it if asked), but I think it's important to give it as it only serves to make the industry that bit richer.
So what do filmmakers actually get out of submitting their films? I rather flippantly said earlier that they only get the accolade of having their film screened at a festival. Well this in itself can be quite a deal, especially for budding filmmakers, and especially for those with sponsors to please. In the case of ShAFF we also send all successful filmmakers an 'Official Selection' graphic that they can put on their websites / DVD boxes, in the hope that this helps the film stand out from the competition. We encourage filmmakers to submit festival edits of their films. This kills two birds with one stone, allowing us more flexibility on the programming front, and helping the filmmakers to use the edit as an extended trailer to promote the sales of the full film. We also put a great deal of effort into liaising with the filmmakers, and often the sponsors of the film, propagating chatter on social media and helping to promote both the festival and the film. We also invite all filmmakers to the event and encourage them to engage with their audience. Unfortunately ShAFF doesn't command the sort of budgets that allow us to fly in filmmakers, but if they can make it over we can often put them up in a hotel and shout them some beer at the bar at the very least. At ShAFF this year we had more filmmakers than ever make it to the festival and we got some lovely feedback from them. One pair, a producer and director from Holland came out of one of the screenings of their film and were blown away to see and hear it in a big cinema venue, but more interestingly to be able t gauge the audience reaction first hand for the first time. There can't be much more satisfying for a filmmaker than to see and hear a room full of people gasping and laughing at your work. This pair said it had been an invaluable experience for them and would help them when it came to crafting their next film! As a festival organiser that's the sort of feedback I really, really appreciate. Last year we built a new section of the websire dedicated to meeting the filmmaskers.
There are a number of filmmakers out there who don't submit to festivals because they believe that people should pay to screen their films. I quite agree with them, but unfortunately the economics of running a festival like ShAFF don't allow that. We've shown some good growth in ticket sales over the last few years so in the longer term, as our audiences grow and become more sustainable, I plan to start introducing a model where we pay filmmakers for screening their films. Only then would I consider charging a submission fee. Granted, it's a lot of work administering the films, but I see that as part of the job and am perfectly accepting of it. For interest it is a pretty monumental task to actually watch all the films, but watch them I do, shortlisting those suitable for the festival programme for a team of voluntary judges to also watch and give their opinions. You probably think that the majority of films are fast forwarded through to save time, but that's not the case. I've learned that it's essential to watch at least ten minutes of a film to really make a call as to whether it is going to make the mark. If it hasn't engaged me in ten minutes then it is really not going to make it onto the shortlist. There have been too many films that start weakly, but have such an engaging story to tell, or such strong central characters, that they really deserve to be screened (if you've seen Journey On The Wild Coast you'll know exactly what I mean). I also watch every film through to the very, very end, as there are often some hidden gems there and it pays, as the festival programmer, to know that they are there!