Festivals, Filmmakers, Fair Trade.

A flashback.

In February 2013, IndieWire asked me to write some articles about film festivals, given I had been advocating for “fair trade” between festivals and independent filmmakers/rights holders. Almost a decade later, I’m still advocating on these same issues, for better or worse.

Of all the chatter about how festivals can save independent film, why don’t any of the festivals seers implement the most obvious solution? Pay the fucking filmmakers. Let’s call it the 35% rule: 35% of earned revenues at film festivals should go directly back into the pockets of filmmakers.” - Sean Farnel, IndieWire, February 6, 2013

As the comments on this article indicate, my immodest proposal generated much discussion and a few rebuttals, also published in IndieWire (which, ironically, never paid me).

“Sheffield Doc/Fest is a film festival that gives a filmmaker access to raising production funding. A film festival that makes sure all the right people were there for filmmakers like Malik, with staff who did their absolute best to match the filmmakers with meetings they would never be able to get by themselves. There are other film festivals who do that, too. It’s almost impossible to put a value on that service. On a basic level, you can measure the value of the deals in dollars, which would far outstrip the screening fee model proposed by Sean.” - Heather Croall, IndieWire, February 28, 2013

Except that markets, forums, pitches, etc. are also products that generate income, on the backs of independent filmmakers, in support of the host organizations.

“But whether or not a festival can or should pay is ultimately just the first question we should ask, and then we should quickly move on to the deeper, thornier questions that might actually lead to some meaningful change. Such as? Well, such as: why have film
festivals at all? I can tell you this – nine out of ten of them can’t justify their existence anymore with a straight face.”
- Brian Newman, IndieWire,March 18, 2013

Ha, indeed. And this was written before the advent of Without-A-Box, FilmFreeway, etc, and the 8000+ “film festival” multiverse. Why don’t the credible festivals do more to protect the “brand?” There are so many dubious, scam festivals out there.

“In his Indiewire article “Fair Trade for Filmmakers,” former Hot Docs programmer Sean Farnel made the case that film festivals owe something more to filmmakers than the honor of being selected. They owe them money. His contention that festivals should give filmmakers a cut of the ticket sales yielded strong reactions. Last week at the 2013 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, Farnel appeared with True/False co-director David Wilson and Sundance senior programmer Caroline Libresco to discuss the article and making the festival experience better for filmmakers.” - Robert Silva, IndieWire, April 8, 2013

That Full Frame panel was called “Pay the Fucking Filmmakers,” at which True/False festival co-founder David Wilson announced that T/F would therein offer filmmaker honouariums. Then, IndieWire asked me to write a summary and expand upon the issues discussed in that panel (again, without remuneration).

We all agreed that, as a first step, the imperative of any film festival should be negating all costs incurred by a filmmaker in attending their event (more applause for Wilson!). I confessed that my 35% rule was a provocation, maybe even a bit of a red herring, and that the whole point of the discussion, for me, is getting a better deal, and tangible value, for filmmakers presenting their work at festivals. Travel expenses and honorariums are a great start. And here are a few other practical suggestions for those festivals looking to make their events more filmmaker friendly…” Sean Farnel, IndieWire, April 10, 2013

If a festival invites a film but won’t pay a screening fee or cover travel and accommodation for a filmmaker (who may want to attend for one or more of the reasons above) then I may decide to turn down an invitation. For others, I make the calculation that simply having the film there and sometimes going out of pocket to attend are valuable for the commercial or intellectual life (commercial and intellectual) of the film. We’ve been persistent and resourceful enough to get a film made, but that’s only half the job.” Daniel Chalfen, IndieWire, April 15, 2013

Daniel’s suggestion to “be picky” and not to accept a festival invitation “that pays nothing and doesn’t help grow the potential revenue of the film (or offer other personal or professional benefits)” has, a decade later, gone largely unheeded. Laurels are a kind of currency, for many filmmakers, who collect them like Pokémon points.

While there are myriad experiences to be had at any international film festival, there are strict taxonomical guidelines — known only to a small conclave –defining the exactly seven types of film festivals. Following is a brief account of each.” Sean Farnel, IndieWire, February 27, 2013

Lest anyone think that I’m all tough love. Generally, I have much fun at, and with, film festivals, having acquired idiosyncratic expertise around their history and function over the years, which I hope to continue to share and ruminate upon in this space.

Sean Farnel