November 7, 2018

Why I don’t enter film festivals

In the old days, networking was an accident. Two screenwriters would meet at a film festival because they both had an interest in Bergman, not because they were looking for collaborators. Then they’d go on to write something optioned by Warren Beatty. But, that wasn’t why they went.  They discussed films, became friends, and only then decided to work together.

When I went to film festivals, it was mostly to watch films.  I never thought of networking, although I did dream of cash prizes.  

Why didn’t I enter?  Many of them had age or placement restrictions.  I couldn’t enter the Welsh International Film Festival because I hadn’t lived here for three years yet and I wasn’t born in Wales.  Others charged entry fees, and (growing up in America) I was taught at an early age to be suspect of any artistic contest that charges an entry fee.

(In fact, when I asked which poetry contests were worth entering, I was always told that those that charge were scams.  Things are different now, especially in the UK, but in Colorado I think it was illegal at one point to charge entry fees, and considered a form of gambling!)

But anyway, I attended the first festival in the UK not as a hopeful, but as a spectator.  I could see Hal Hartley films here, in a one screen town!  And Gamera!  And Welsh language movies that otherwise would have been direct to television.

The short film screening was a disappointment. There was a big prize, as far as short films are concerned. There was great attendance for some of the features (which were foreign films, not competitive). But, when I watched the shorts, there were more people on screen than in the audience.

Rumour had it that the winner of the Welsh International Film Festival went on to direct Human Traffic. However, I can’t find that film (which was girls kicking around a soccer ball) on Justin Kerrigan’s IMDB page. Maybe no one but me, the judge, and the editor ever saw the completed film.

My favourite film didn’t win. I spoke to the director afterwards.  If it’s not too much trouble, can I ask you some questions for my article?

Wow! he actually made time for me! I was badly dressed, mumbling, with no money, and just wanted to interview him for a self-published magazine that had not even had one issue.  He knew that, and didn’t care.

He was flattered that anyone wanted to know about his film. I asked him how he did certain effects, why he made certain creative choices, and how he found such great talent to work with. He answered every question as if I had been working for Daily Variety, Rolling Stone, Radio Times or Vanity Fair.  Or, as if he were on the witness stand.  Sorry for grilling you like that.

But, I was the only person who asked him about his movie.  That was sad.  All that work, to be met with disinterest.

Unfortunately, I forgot his name, and the name of his film. I can’t tell you whether his career took off or not.

Perhaps the winner’s career, if the rumours are true, took off because of that festival.  Legend has it that he used the winnings to help finance Human Traffic, and the win also got the actress interested in doing the feature.  No, I don’t think she saw the short film either, just heard about the prize winning.

But, cash prizes aside, we used to go to film festivals just to watch movies. They were like music festivals, or literary festivals.  (I didn’t go to music festivals, my favourite music was film music.)  They weren’t about launching careers, but rather about art and entertainment.

Since then, I’ve received links on sites like LinkedIn from festival “winners.”  Their movies were far inferior to the “losers” I saw in the old days.  I guess it’s true, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  But come on, one of these winners is literally someone wrapped up in toilet paper, moaning, like a mummy or something, not moving from a stool, and a little girl looking on.  The little girl does even less than the toilet paper mummy.

On Filmfreeway, last time I checked, there were 6000 competitive film festivals listed.  Most of these are in the US and UK.  And, many film festivals don’t use filmfreeway, because they don’t want to pay a fee.  That’s up to 6000 new “award winning filmmakers” a year.  But, are there enough people interested in watching films to fill the seats and watch all those festivals?  Even at 100 seats (which is small for a cinema) and only one screening per festival (many go on for weeks) they’d need to sell 600,000 tickets for a decent attendance.

Other than me, how many people do you know who have actually watched short films at festivals?  Probably not 600,000.

I did want to enter festivals for Dara Says.  We ran out of money, so I only entered some free-to-enter ones in towns by our crowdfunding backers.  One said it didn’t meet their criteria of being an adaptation, being inspired by Tartuff was not enough.  Another wanted us to write about the original music score, and we used stock music.

The main problem was genre.  So many festivals sound interesting, but have weird limitations.  The question became not “is our film good enough” but rather “does our film fit their remit.”

We had a student on a work experience placement look for festivals that matched our film.  She hated it.

We had our production assistant look for festivals that matched our film.  She didn’t seem happy with it.

I asked the producer.  No one wanted to match our film to eligible festivals.

Eventually, we decided to stick to festivals that were also markets.  But, as we couldn’t afford to go to Cannes, Sundance or Tribeca, we didn’t bother.

It wasn’t a total waste of time.  I made a poster (which wasn’t very good) in case a festival might want to screen it, and created some other promotional materials.  Unfortunately, we didn’t have stills and the other promotional materials that most festivals wanted.

It was all like drawing with crayons really.

So, when I wrote the script to my next film, did I think of festivals?  No.

For a time, I thought, let’s just write books or plays.  Or, try to get a job as a project manager, find something else to retrain in.

I haven’t made another proper feature since.  I’ve written a few scripts, completing stories I’d started years ago.  But, I’ve decided that “enter festivals and hope for the best” is about the dumbest distribution plan anyone can think of.  Yes, it worked for Napoleon Dynamite, but even then you need to put aside enough money to actually enter the thing (and probably need to be there to meet with studio execs.)

I’ve since learned that most films gain distribution before they enter festivals.  The festivals are a nice party for the actors and director, but film is not a sport where you win your way to the top.  I think I knew that before, but ignoring it helped give me an artificial incentive to finish a microbudget feature.

If I ever get invited to a festival, not invited to submit, but properly invited with expenses paid, I’d probably go.  If a distributor asks me to go, well, that goes with the territory.  I’d love to speak to people who actually paid to see my movie.  Or, even to full time critics, or some kid learning about film like I was.

But, short films in competitive festivals? well, I suppose if a client thinks winning awards will help them push the message of their film, then I might go for it.  But, if I was interested in my film being screened in an empty auditorium, then I’d write Lego Ninjago II.

Basically, the problem is, I’m not a very competitive person.  I don’t mind who the best is, as long as I’m good enough for my target audience and my films are worth watching.  I’d rather be the second best film made in 1984 than the best in 2014.

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