When to Say No to a Festival
Bryan Glick is director of theatrical distribution at TFC
I love film festivals by-in-large and they have done great things for many of our films. In fact, we have multiple films this year that have generated over $50K in revenue on the festival circuit. Many companies cling to the myth that playing festivals hurts distribution deals and revenue, yet most of our top festival performers still received six figure distribution deals while continuing to generate revenue, awards and exposure on the circuit.
While The Film Collaborative is perhaps best known for monetizing the film festival universe, we provide just as much support in creating an overall festival strategy (which frequently includes playing some top festivals that don’t pay).
One of the most frequent questions I get asked is, “When/how do we determine that a festival is not worthwhile?” And, frequently, I see filmmakers making similar mistakes in terms of what festivals they say yes to. So with that in mind, here are real world examples of when and why (and often where) film festivals should be avoided.
The first three things we ask when determining whether or not a film festival should pay are:
- Do the domestic and/or international industry attend?
- Do the domestic and/or international press attend?
- Are other film festivals going to look to this festival’s lineup to fill their slate?
If the answer is yes to all 3 of the above questions, the festival probably doesn’t need to pay you a fee (and won’t offer it either), as they are providing significant additional benefits. These are the festivals we call impact festivals…and, in truth, there are not very many of these.
However, if they are not fitting the above criteria, then we believe they should be paying you a fee, as they are not what we call an impact festival and therefore need to offer compensation for their screenings. An exception of course is when major travel could be involved—though it is important to note that many festivals will pay a screening fee and cover travel. We don’t include festival travel or perks in our revenue totals but we have filmmakers that don’t pay rent the entire year and simply travel from festival to festival.
With this basic information in mind let’s pivot to festival no-go’s.
Over the summer, a film that I’ll be releasing theatrically next year got accepted to the Downtown Los Angeles Film Festival. The festival mandated that the filmmaker (who lives in NYC) attend the screening and refused to pay a screening fee. They also made it clear that they would not pay for print traffic or travel. Meanwhile, they would put the film in an auditorium that seats several hundred people. There was no way we were about to give away $5,000 worth of tickets and have to pay for the privilege to do so for a non-impact festival. If the film was capable of selling out in L.A., we’d rather apply that to the theatrical, or, for less money, do a special preview screening for an invited audience of maybe 100 people. Looking to those 3 questions above, I could honestly say the answer was “no” to all 3. There was a tiny bit of downtown only press but we were not going to get a THR or Variety review by playing this particular venue. And the festival demands were beyond absurd. If they can’t afford to even cover someone’s shipping, they should not be operating.
Perhaps the bigger issue, however, is that the festival is in the second largest city in America. If you plan to have a theatrical release you have to weigh the pros and cons of playing any fests in those 5-10 top target theatrical markets.
Along those lines, I was advising on another film whose central subject lives in Rhode Island. The Rhode Island International Film Festival had invited the film, but this festival also refuses to pay screening fees. It was not going to be the festival that would be causing the film to sell out, but rather the appeal of the subject, and all of us recognized this. Not only would Rhode Island not pay, but they were very unpleasant to deal with, and so the filmmakers wisely took the film to another festival that would give them just as much (if not more) exposure in the market. This other festival also paid a screening fee and they truly worked with the filmmakers so that they would still be able to use their capital accordingly when the time came for theatrical.
While both of these examples were obvious no go’s we frequently run into the more complicated matter of whether or not a film should play a bigger festival in a city that does not pay, hold until theatrical, and/or play a festival that does pay but is less prestigious. Perhaps the most common manifestation of this is broader international film festival (think the enormous Seattle International Film Festival) vs a niche specific fest (Like Seattle Translations). In this case it really depends on time and strategy but again if the filmmaker holds huge sway in that city it’s almost never worth giving it away for free. In these cases filmmakers really need to look at the size of their audience in the market.
With our film Tab Hunter Confidential, I was clear early on that I did not want the film to play any festival in Palm Springs. Tab Hunter is a former matinee idol and gay icon. The combo of which made it clear to me that despite its population of 100,000, Palm Springs would be our top theatrical market. The Palm Springs Film Festival is a truly amazing festival but since our brand awareness within our target demo was high, it allowed us to create an event arguably bigger than what the fest could provide. Cinema Diverse, which is Palm Springs LGBT festival, is run by a true mensch who I knew would still support the film’s theatrical even if we declined his admittedly well-paying festival. Skipping the festival opportunities allowed us to sell out a 500-seat theater and generate over $10,000 in box office in Palm Springs. Tab is a great example of assessing value all the way around, as TFCD made the choice with the producers to walk away from a distribution offer and instead self-release on iTunes where the film peaked at #2. You can read more about that release in my colleague David Averbach’s blog article from last month.
We had a different situation with (T)ERROR, when we opted to play two festivals in Manhattan. Following the film’s Sundance premiere, we took it to Tribeca and Human Rights Watch New York. Tribeca allowed us to continue the awards/prestige trajectory and (T)ERROR was the opening night film at Human Rights Watch, which enabled us to position the film with several politically-oriented festivals. It was smart for this title, but it admittedly made booking a theater in NYC quite complicated. Several venues did not want the film, as they thought it had exhausted its audience. The film played for 3 weeks at IFC Center and went on to win IDA and Cinema Eye Awards. If this film had been a world premiere at Tribeca, I likely would have turned down Human Rights Watch, not because it doesn’t have value, but because of possible future theatrical issues.
In the city of San Francisco these choices are constant as the city has some of the top festivals of almost every niche (Jewish, LGBT, Asian, Environmental, etc.) in addition to the well-respected San Francisco International. In that market, if there is a niche we can position film for, that option is almost always better in the long run than playing a San Francisco Film Festival. Screening at Frameline can be the difference between a 5 figure LGBT festival run and being passed over by the entire LGBT circuit. This is where knowing the audience for the film is so important in evaluating festivals. And I encourage every filmmaker to figure out what niches the film can be positioned for and what the top 2-3 fests are for those niches.
More recently, I’ve dealt with a simple reality of time. Perhaps the most difficult thing to do is figure out when a festival is too demanding compared to what it is they offer. For the Love of Spock is one of our top festival and theatrical bookers of the year and, with the 50th anniversary of Star Trek in September and 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it’s easy to see why. I admittedly found myself quite frustrated that non-impact festivals in rural towns of less than 50,000 were offering chump change and asking for crazy requests like having the director attend their festival during the first weekend of the film’s theatrical release. With one festival in particular I turned them down three times only to have them try and go around my back. The filmmakers were responsible enough to let me know what was going on and we ultimately passed. If a festival is being unreasonable compared to what they offer, it is perfectly fine to say no. Your time has value after-all.
The most likely reason that we will say no, though, is premiere status. Holding out for a top European premiere (Berlin, Locarno, etc.) instead of launching at the first fest that says yes in that region. Most festivals are understanding when it comes to navigating premiere status, but beyond the World, International, European, North American premieres of a film, most of the other obligations are really stretching it. And if there’s 4 festivals in New Mexico that will pay for a film ahead of one that’s asking for the Florida premiere we will usually say take the 4 paying festivals. This is the one area, however, where we see filmmakers turning down festivals that they should be saying yes to. Every year I see filmmakers pulling films out of festivals after Sundance in a hope that Cannes will take their film. And most of the time it hurts the film as they sit out dozens of festivals only to get rejected by Cannes and be subsequently forgotten after all the other fests like Berlin, SXSW and Tribeca have passed. Once the filmmakers get the rejection letter from Cannes they try to reroute course, but some of the festivals that fought for the film months earlier will hold a grudge and instead turn the film down.
Luckily, most festivals are welcoming places and 9/10 a festival that says yes can and will be a positive notch in the film’s exposure belt. But when fests are not willing to pay or are a huge drain of time and resources, that’s when you have to be prepared to say no. Of course keep your theatrical release in mind but you only need to focus on the top few target markets. As you look at the fests in those markets, figure out what your brand awareness is and how the festivals can or cannot help you connect with an audience. The truth is most festivals happily will promote their alumni titles when they open.
Bryan Glick October 27th, 2016