Do festival awards matter?
The simple answer is “yes..well…sometimes.” Like most questions in this business, there is a simple answer for casual conversation, and a truer answer for a more in-depth analysis.
It would be nice to say that all film festival awards are valuable for independent film distribution, but the truth is that it mostly comes down to what Festival it is (what actual award it is is less important for the most part). The simplest rule is, if a particular Festival matters, then an Award from that Festival matters even more. If a particular festival doesn’t show up on anyone’s radar, then the Award won’t either. The easiest comparison to draw is the use of press/publicity quotes in marketing…i.e. nobody cares about a glowing review from a press outlet they’ve never heard of. But if a respected journalist at a respected publication gives you a great review…well that matters a great deal.
We’ve worked on a lot of seemingly “small” films, like CONTRACORRIENTE by Javier Fuentes, VALLEY OF SAINTS by Musa Sayeed, A RIVER CHANGES COURSE by Kalyanee Man, and THE INVISIBLE WAR by Kirby Dick that jumped up hugely in prestige and profile when they won big awards at the Sundance Film Festival. Suddenly “everyone that’s anyone” had heard of these films even though they paid no attention to them just two days before. By getting the ultimate stamp of approval, they suddenly became “serious” films in the minds of those who pay attention to such things.
But let’s not exaggerate… as much as they changed the general perception of the films, I don’t think they really changed the acquisitions picture for any of these particular titles. Maybe the PRICES went up for those that did get bought, but I don’t think it radically changed the number of buyers interested in the titles. And not all of those ever got serious acquisition offers anyway.
I think there are three major ways that festival awards matter. First of all, it distinguishes you from the glut of available titles at any given festival as one of the films that one should pay attention to first. Meaning, if you are the kind of person (Industry, press, or consumer) who is paying attention to a particular festival, then of course one easy way to determine what one should see first is by starting with the ones that have won the awards. I think this is PARTICULARLY true for OTHER film festival programmers, who face the daunting task of pouring through thousands of available titles and submission to their festival. Why NOT start with the ones that are winning awards? Its just good triage technique.
Secondly, if someone is a discerning film consumer looking to discover new films to watch, why wouldn’t you pay attention to the films that are winning the awards? To that end, I think the right Festival Awards have tremendous marketing value…but really only for the discerning consumer. So, that’s not the majority of consumers, but there ARE a lot of cinephiles out there. And they are the first audience any independent filmmaker wants to reach.
Let me give you a simple marketing example….I am on the e-newsletter of LOTS of films that send me updates on their progress all the time…and for the most part I pay no attention to them. But if I start to notice that the film is winning a lot of great awards…which can be easily put in the subject line and the header of the email….of course I take note of that and of course I become more interested in the film. Suddenly it changes in my mind from one of a million films vying for my attention to one that must deserve my attention…because it is being validated by “tastemakers” I have heard of and have some respect for.
On the subject of the marketing value of Festival Awards, there are a couple of truisms I’d like to address:
1) The general perception is that Audience Awards matter more than Jury Awards, because they reflect the will of the people (which more closely resembles your eventual target audience), while Jury Awards reflect the view of the elite (those select insiders chosen by festivals to judge according to their own snobby tastes). In truth, I don’t think this theory stands up to rigorous analysis of the data. Sometimes it is the opinions of the jury that most closely mirror the press and taste-makers that propel a film onto greater success after its Festival run.
2) Part of the problem with Audience Awards is that in many ways they are popularity contests, not dissimilar to high school president elections. Because of the way Audience Awards are voted on by everyone in a given screening, sometimes its just the film that packs the house with the most crew and friends and close-knit community that wins the Award. Sometimes even a great Q&A can swing the results. And enterprising filmmakers should take note of this….as it is not unusual for a small film in a small theater to win an Audience Award because the filmmaker simply had more friends in attendance than anyone else did.
Unfortunately, the dominance of digital distribution in today’s independent market has made the marketing value of film festival awards a lot LESS relevant than they used to be….and that’s because iTunes, cable VOD et al don’t really offer much marketing space where you can actually SEE any of the Festival awards. When you used to browse through a video store and pick up the box cover, you could actually SEE all the laurels and rent it for that reason. Now you’re going to have to see the laurels in an email or banner ad or hear about it in a review or something…and then go LOOK for the film. That’s a lot less immediate than it used to be, and it makes the job of marketing a lot harder.
Finally, lets not downplay the fact that a lot of Festival Awards come with MONEY! There are some staggeringly large Festival awards out there…Dubai, Heartland etc…but I don’t advocate submitting to festivals just to go after the award money. That’s just gambling and your odds are probably better on a slot machine. But when a film starts to rack up a few awards, it can certainly get into the five figures of revenue…..and in this market that’s certainly nothing to sneeze at!
Jeffrey Winter August 1st, 2013
Posted In: Film Festivals
Tags: A River Changes Course, awards, Contracorriente, Digital Distribution, distribution, festival programmers, Film Festivals, independent film, Jeffrey Winter, prizes, Sundance Film Festival, tastemakers, The Film Collaborative, The Invisible War, Valley of Saints