A few questions for film festivals...

...which independent filmmakers would prefer not to ask.

As we crawl into the post-pandemic era for film festivals, independent rights holders remain in a precarious position with regards to their leverage within the film festival culture and economy. In fact, it’s more confusing out there, and less transparent, than ever. Most festivals have adopted the “hybrid” approach (ie. Premium VOD) as a permanent component of their model. Frequently, festivals are presenting large swaths of their programmes as “virtual-only,” though many are not being transparent about this fact when they first invite a production, at least not where a director or producer is the rights holder. For festival invitations that are issued to distributors or sales agents, the exhibition terms tend to be much clearer.

If you are an independent rights holder and your production is invited to a film festival, and that invitation is kind of vague, here are some suggested questions to ask BEFORE confirming your film’s participation. However, keep in mind that being aggressive or snarky in dealing with festivals is not constructive, nor is being too sheepish and acquiescent. It’s a business negotiation. You are trying to figure out the terms of the deal, and if these terms are fair, useful and of value to your goals. In fact, often it’s not about money. Perhaps start with something like, “Thanks for your invitation to present <my film> at <your festival>. Before we proceed with confirming our participation and provide the requested materials, we have a few questions.”

If the invitation hasn’t included any details about the nature of the presentation, that’s a good first question: “Please provide more details about how your festival will present my film. Will these be physical screenings, or VOD, or a combination?”

If the festival is doing live screenings in a cinema, will they be inviting the director and providing any travel support?

If the festival is doing VOD screenings, you need more details. Which platform will be used? How long will the film be available? Will there be a cap on streaming purchases? Will there be geo-blocking? What is the pricing? Is the festival offering a fee and/or revenue share to rights holders? Will there be any reporting available following the streaming period? Will there be an opportunity to do a virtual introduction or Q&A for this presentation?

If the festival invitation hasn’t provided any information about which programme the film is being listed in, then ask about that too. Is my film in a competitive programme? If not, is it eligible for any awards? Which programme my film being presented in?

Festivals are marketing platforms, but their primary efforts are directed toward marketing themselves as events and markets, locally, nationally or internationally. As a rights holder, it’s your responsibility to take the lead in marketing your film’s presentation at that festival. Again, ask some questions. When will the festival announce its programme? Does the festival provide any support and resources around generating local publicity and outreach for rights holders? Is there a media list? Can you include links to our website and social media on the festival’s website? Will be you posting anything about our film on your social platforms? If so, please tag us.

Now…many, if not most, independent filmmakers won’t ask such questions, which illustrates the power imbalance and, at times, exploitative nature of current film festival distribution and exhibition. My question to festivals, then, is simple: When you invite a film how about being transparent, precise, and forthcoming with regards to your intentions and terms as licensees?

Sean Farnel