I am a little tired of reading poorly written and researched articles about film festival submission fees. They usually begin with the premise that any festival that requires a fee is a rip off or scam, and end with a call to only patronize free events. If that is how you feel, then there’s no need to read further. But if you want to hear about the necessity for fees, why they are implemented — and the ultimate benefit filmmakers receive through them, then continue on.
To put my knowledge in prospective, I have created two film festivals (one quite well-known), have written two insightful books about film festivals — for both filmmakers and people who wish to create tone, and am a founding member of the first association to professionalize the Film Festival industry. I have spoken at hundreds of colleges, universities and film organizations, and in the past 10 years, have juried for 54 events, and have consulted with another 32 festivals on business practices, marketing and film acquisition. I also run a large private listserv where 1,200+ festival organizers and programmers exchange resources, film titles — and provide much needed emotional support, especially when angry or ungrateful filmmakers act rashly. Maybe I know too much.
Film festival submission fees are a necessary evil for North American events. Unlike our colleagues in Europe, Asia and other parts of the world, our festivals are not heavily underwritten by local or national governments. While the list of sponsors listed on any festival website might look impressive, there is a good chance that the majority of support received is in-kind, meaning plenty of energy bars, cheap plastic swag, and beer — but no cash to offset the real costs: venue rent, marketing, salaries (if the festival organizer even takes one), and other expenses.
TRUTH 1: Submission fees help to close the financial gap.
For the majority of festivals, ticket sales average about 30-40% of revenues. Grants, sponsorships and cash donations, another 40-50% — which leaves submission fees — a paltry 10-20% to make the difference. In working with colleagues at hundreds of events, I have never heard of a festival’s submission fees accounting for more than 25% of expenses — with the majority at 10-15%. Compound this with a typical festival’s cash flow: most of it all comes in the month before and the week of the festival — submission fees are a way to bring in a relatively small amount of income in during the other 47 weeks of the year.
TRUTH 2: Films that receive a fee waiver are treated the same as other films
I know there are plenty of blogs that state otherwise, but it is blatantly not true. Most festivals has enough problems getting through the increasing number of film and script submissions to have the time or systems to filer out those few that were granted a waiver. Waivers are not given out lightly. Programmers and organizers evaluate most waiver requests to find out the pedigree of the filmmakers, evaluate their past projects, and maybe even look at the project under consideration. By granting a waiver, festivals are actively investing in you. That $50 fee could have kept the internet running for another week — but some programmer believed enough in the project to forgo the cash ti give some filmmaker a chance. If you think for one minute that programmers waive fees only to reject films, you really do not understand the circuit.
TRUTH 3: Submission fees serious filmmakers in the circuit — and posers out.
Let’s face it — with the universal availability of HD cameras (and I am seeing more and more films shot on smartphones), everyone thinks they’re a filmmaker. Before I got into the film biz, I owned a large graphic design firm that was a pioneer in the use of personal computers for layouts. Just like it was then: just because someone has the equipment and software, it does not mean they have the skills, or more importantly — the talent — for success. Filmmaking is the same. And many novice media makers who shoot their friend’s parties, or a cute viral video do not have the chops or resources to play at a reputable festival. Festival submission fees are a gatekeeping tool — those who have talent and have properly budgeted their projects are also the ones who understand the system and are willing to pay to play.
I know this is is a controversial notion, often rejected by filmmakers as self-serving or elitist — and it is. Festivals who charge a fee should be held to a greater standard, and most do. These events strive to select the best films that are appropriate for their audience, in the time constraints of their event, with the emotional impact they want their audience to feel, that play well with other films, and are made by filmmakers who are respectful of festivals and their colleagues. I am well known for my catchphrase: there is a festival for every film, but your film is not for every festival. Filmmakers who understand this — really understand how festivals work and for whom — gladly pay fees because they know the potential opportunity to screen at these events far outweighs $30-$75.
Film Festivals offer the ability for filmmakers to connect to audiences and other film industry people. When on the festival circuit, your primary (and really, only) task is to build your audience: create superfine who love your film, your ethos and your style — and want to support your future projects. If you attend a festival and watch you own film, you might as well stay home. You should be watching the audience to see who loves your film — and then cultivate that relationship. For most events, they cannot create experiences like this without the offset of a submission fee.
I have a great deal of respect for my colleagues who work at or create events that do not collect submission fees. They are master fundraisers, and have the financial support of companies, governments and individuals that believe in their work — and the importance of independent film. In a perfect world, festivals would need to resort to submission fees, but until the world is perfect, this is the system that most of us have inherited and must work within. If you don’t like it, then get involved. Volunteer at your local film festival: do anything from screening films to refiling beer cups. Get to know the industry, and help to make it better.