What Are Film Festivals For?

The primary function of film festivals is not amplification, but a winnowing of market attention.

This short essay was first published in the context of a research report, "What Are Film Festivals For?", published by the Documentary Organization of Canada in September, 2019.

What are film festivals for?

When we’ve posed this question at my Festival Concierge workshops filmmakers invariably check the boxes that have been rote assumptions within film festival culture: exposure, acclaim, publicity, sales, marketing, audience engagement, professional development, networking, awards, laurels, travel. These are attractive value propositions. They are, even, attainable outcomes—for some productions.

But we must be cautious. There is a significant variable to consider: the vast majority of films submitted to any given festival are not selected. Take the Sundance Film Festival as an example. It is, by any measure, the world’s best film festival for premiering an English-language feature documentary. It checks all the boxes and has been singular, among film festivals, in shaping the contemporary canon for English-language creative documentary. In 2019, the Sundance Film Festival received 2,649 feature documentary submissions, according to data published on DocumentaryBusiness.com. Forty-nine of those productions were ultimately presented at Sundance, less than 2% of the total submissions. While it’s reasonable to assume that Sundance is among the most difficult festivals for which to be selected, its acceptance rates are not an anomaly. Were such data transparency offered from other major festivals, we’d expect to see similar results.

This suggests that the primary function of film festivals is not amplification, but a winnowing of market attention. We can generously hypothesize that less than 10% of feature documentaries submitted to film festivals are selected for programming. The irony is that, for most documentaries seeking a path to market through film festivals, the major obstacles are film festivals themselves.

Within any artistic aspirations, the odds against access are rarely a deterrent to the attempt. And rightly so. Happily, mitigating the dismal rates of acceptance at film festivals is the sheer ubiquity of these events. How many film festivals are there? Again, the available data is scant. In 2013, the U.K.-based film data researcher Stephen Follows suggested that “there are around 3,000 film festivals currently active.” FilmFreeway, the leading festival submissions platform, currently has listings for some 8,000 film festivals. So, for those makers seeking to collect film festival laurels to adorn their posters and websites, there is bountiful opportunity.

However, just as festival gatekeepers focus market attention and add value to a small fraction of films, the makers and the industry around them do the same with festivals. We do our own winnowing, conferring value upon festivals through how we prioritize submissions and premieres and where we gather in critical mass, all in pursuit of the aggregate buzz. The list of festivals we filmmakers value, then, is considerably smaller. How many of the world’s 3,000-8,000 film festivals matter depends upon who’s asking. For those that assume a currency in film festival laurels, the answer seems to be “all of them!” But, most of us know that not all laurels have equal weight. Through content buyers, sales agents, financiers, programmers, juries, media, funders, and other stakeholders, the value of film festivals is concentrated within a fraction of annual events.

We are claiming that conventional assumptions around the value and purpose of film festivals (at least for makers) are grounded in the hypothetical success rate of a very small percentage of productions submitted annually to the major festivals. It’s bad math, for makers. The rest of it, thousands of other films and festivals, percolate in the peripheral, gaseous glow that emanates from the hot canonical core of the top-tier festivals. While many of our assumptions hold true at the core, there are no immutable laws in the periphery (except that the drinks are less frequently for “free”). Yet, it is within this ether that the vast majority of what happens at film festivals happens. Taken as a whole, are global film festivals a circuit, a market, a platform, a network, a bazaar, an ecology? These are practical questions if we are to determine strategies and tactics for navigating this topography as part of a sustainable practice of making and exhibiting documentaries.

Our intention here is to move beyond assumptions and anecdotes about film festivals. As we’ve suggested, most of how we think about festivals has congealed around the function of a fraction of films and major film festivals within a much broader ecology. But there is a significant opportunity here for doc-makers to make better use of the wider film festival system.

Sean Farnel