Film Festival X is a Scam By Skizz Cyzyk. Just so you know where I’m coming from before you start reading this article, let me tell you a little about myself...

Just so you know where I’m coming from before you start reading this article, let me tell you a little about myself. I started making films in the early ’80s. In the early ’90s, I started attending film festivals, either as a filmmaker, audience member, volunteer staff or crew person. By the late ’90s, I found myself engrossed in an actual career working for film festivals. I have been a film festival director, programmer, juror, projectionist, advisor, administrator, technical supervisor, usher, you name it. My point is this: I know all about film festivals and I know all about the relationships between films, filmmakers, and film festivals. I am frequently contacted by filmmakers asking for advice about festivals. There is one frequently asked question that, no matter what I say, has its answer ignored.

The conversation usually starts like this:
Filmmaker: I was approached by [such and such a festival]. Do you know anything about it?
Me: I am aware of [such and such a festival], and I think it is a scam.
Filmmaker: But they told me they have heard great things about my film and that I should enter their festival.
Me: I bet they asked you to pay a huge entry fee too, right?
Filmmaker: Yes, but they said they’ll refund the entry fee if my film gets rejected.
Me: I predict your film doesn’t get rejected, so your entry fee won’t be refunded.
Filmmaker: That would be win/win for me then, wouldn’t it? I either get my money back, or I get my film screened.
Me: Touché.

I am not going to name the festival I’m talking about. Instead I’ll refer to it as Film Festival X. Film Festival X has been around for years and has separated countless filmmakers from their money. I have read many articles, similar to the one you’re reading right now, all about the evils of Film Festival X. Somehow most of those articles have disappeared from websites within months of being posted, and the people who wrote those articles ceased all discussion on the subject. It’s speculation on my part that Film Festival X makes enough money from naïve filmmakers to afford the kind of pressure needed to have something completely removed from the internet, and to scare their critics into silence.

Just imagine how much that would cost! At the time of this writing (May 2011), an internet search for "Film Festival X" brings up no festival by that name, so legally, this article is about a festival that does not exist (wink). If I am mistaken, and a real Film Festival X exists, that is a different festival than the one this article is about.

Here is how Film Festival X operates. First, they search around online, looking for lesser-known, attention-hungry filmmakers. The perfect victims have put a lot of effort into their websites, but maybe not as much into the embedded video clips that appear on their sites. They might brag about hometown screenings or small regional festival screenings, but not screenings at major festivals like Sundance, Slamdance, SXSW, Tribeca, etc.

I used to run a small festival that posted filmmaker contact info online and each year, during the month after the festival, filmmakers would tell me they were approached by Film Festival X, who gave them the impression that my festival recommended their films to Film Festival X. Red flag! The only contact I have ever had with Film Festival X was when they approached me about one of my films that they had heard great things about and encouraged me to pay a huge entry fee to submit to their festival (the fee, of course, would be refunded if my film didn’t get in).

ADVICE #1: If you are a filmmaker approached by Film Festival X, and they tell you that another festival recommended your film to them, verify it with the other festival to see if Film Festival X is telling the truth. Festival staffers recommend films to friends who work for other festivals but I have never heard of a festival recommending films to Film Festival X.

ADVICE #2: Any film festival that approaches you with an interest in your film, but is not willing to waive the entry fee, is most likely more interested in your money than your film.

ADVICE #3: Check the websites for Sundance, Slamdance, SXSW, Tribeca, and a few other big festivals to see what they charge for entry fees. If those more-important festivals charge $50 to $100 for entry fees, and a lesser-known festival charges $100 or more, you should question the validity of that lesser-known festival.

Film Festival X piques the interest of the naïve filmmaker, gets his/her money, and his/her film. Next, the festival starts tacking on all kinds of additional fees. There is a screening fee to cover the theater costs, a promotions & publicity fee to cover the costs of getting press for the film, a printing fee for the film to appear in the festival program book, a distributions fee to cover the costs of additional screenings after the festival, and so on. I found it interesting that so many films screened at Film Festival X won awards, making me question just how many awards the festival gives out? Then I heard that each award winner is asked to pay for a trophy or plaque, so the more awards given, the more potential award fees are collected.

ADVICE #4: After paying the entry fee, a filmmaker should never have to give any more money to a film festival. Festivals should cover the theater costs, promotions costs, et cetera; not the filmmaker.

I have talked to many filmmakers who, despite my advice, ended up handing over thousands of dollars to Film Festival X. Afterwards, when I asked them if they felt ripped off, surprisingly, they said no. They got what they wanted: a theatrical screening of their film in a large city, press, additional screenings, and an award. Plus now they can put "Award Winner, Film Festival X" in between laurel leaves on the front page of their press kits, websites, and DVD boxes.

So why do I keep insisting the Film Festival X alum filmmaker is naïve when he/she ignored my advice and still got exactly what he/she wanted? Well, they essentially bought the accomplishments that most filmmakers work towards earning. We could debate about whether or not that’s cheating, along the same lines as steroids, payola, and bribery, but even I’ll admit there can be more than one way to reach a particular goal and not everyone worries about how goals are met as long as they are met. The general public isn’t going to know how much money was spent to get a name in the paper. However, while friends and family of the filmmakers might be impressed, the filmmakers have just made themselves look bad in the eyes of anyone who knows better, who are usually the same people they should be trying to impress.

ADVICE #5: If you are only concerned with impressing your friends and family, go ahead and buy your bragging points from Film Festival X.

In all my years of programming film festivals, I have seen hundreds of entries that showed up on my desk, with "Award Winner, Film Festival X" boldly announced on the front page of the press kit or DVD box. Nine times out of ten, THOSE FILMS SUCKED!!!!!!! I’m not just talking about films that weren’t good enough to get into other festivals, I’m talking about films that were so terrible that someone, at some point, should have pulled the filmmaker aside and said, "You know, you should probably give up filmmaking, or at least abandon this particular project." What about the one out of ten that didn’t suck? I expected it to suck because of the company it kept. In fact, I expected it to suck so bad that I dreaded watching it. When I finally did watch it – even if it didn’t totally suck – if I didn’t love it in the first twenty minutes, I wasn’t likely to watch the rest of it because I expected it to get much worse. What good can come from starting out on the wrong foot with someone whose job it is to judge your work?

ADVICE #6: Whether or not your film sucks, associating it with a festival notorious for giving awards to films that suck is going to scare away in-the-know industry types who might have been able to help you.

Again, though, what is so wrong with getting what you pay for? To that, I say add up the costs and see if you really are getting what you pay for. What does it cost to four-wall a theater for one screening? What does it cost to print up a handful of press kits and mail them to media outlets? What does it cost to invite industry people to your screening? A filmmaker can do all of these things, and probably for much cheaper than Film Festival X is likely to charge. But, says the filmmaker, what about being able to say my film screened at a festival and won an award? Well, if you’re not concerned that the festival is known or respected, book your own screening, call it a festival, and give yourself an award. You wouldn’t be the first filmmaker to set up a "vanity fest." A festival I used to run, which would screen over 100 films each year, had an annual operating budget that was less than what many filmmakers pay to screen one film at Film Festival X.

What do I expect to accomplish by writing this article? I expect serious, art-minded and career-minded filmmakers to stay away from Film Festival X, in an effort to not damage their own reputations in the film world they are working hard to be taken serious in. At the same time, I expect attention-hungry hack filmmakers, with more money than sense, to flock towards Film Festival X.

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