"People Can Be Exploited": How Below-the-Radar Film Festivals Prey on Struggling Moviemakers
Illustration By Adam Simpson

"People Can Be Exploited": How Below-the-Radar Film Festivals Prey on Struggling Moviemakers

Beyond the glamour of Cannes and Sundance, a network of international events promises to boost the careers of nascent filmmakers, but those opportunities often come with hefty price tags — and plenty of disappointment.

After several years toiling over her debut short film, Eternal Waltz, Cindy Marinangel made an eleventh-hour decision ahead of its U.K. premiere at the Eurocinema Film Festival in October 2018. Despite tight personal finances, as producer, writer and star of the centuries-hopping romance, she concluded that she needed to be there.

Borrowing money from her parents to pay for the flights from New York to London, the first-time filmmaker emailed organizers excitedly to tell them that she would be attending and would be able to take part in any Q&A discussions, as previously mentioned in her invitation. "So sorry for the late reply!" she wrote, just four days before the screening was due to take place at the Royal Holloway University on Oct. 30. "Thanks for the update! We are waiting for you!" came the reply.

Landing on the morning of Oct. 29, Marinangel checked into her Airbnb (a spare room in the somewhat unglamorous west-of-London town of Slough, perhaps best known as the setting of Ricky Gervais' original The Office) and got ready for the red carpet opening-night reception, where she would be able to mingle with fellow filmmakers from the 22 other shorts taking part in the event.

But Marinangel still hadn't heard back from the organizers about Eternal Waltz's exact screening time, and wanted to invite friends. With no other contact except the solitary email address she'd been coordinating through, she rang the university.

There was a problem.

The school knew nothing about the Eurocinema Film Festival, and it certainly wasn't taking place within its walls. Marinangel was outraged. She fired off several angry emails before eventually receiving a rather short reply Oct. 31 — a day after the festival was supposed to take place — saying that there had been "some issues" with contacts at the venue (something denied by the university, which contacted the London Metropolitan Police's fraud department).

She contacted FilmFreeway, the online festival submissions platform through which she had applied to the festival months earlier (and paid the necessary fees, which for Eurocinema ranged from $15 to $105 depending on which of the 10 different deadlines entrants applied by).

While she may have been the only person to travel to the U.K. to attend, she wasn’t the only one to complain; another filmmaker with a short in the selection having written to say that the festival organizer David Schmid – the same person Marinangel had been coordinating with via email – wasn’t answering messages.

FilmFreeway removed Eurocinema from its books, and gave Marinangel $200 in credit. But it wouldn’t be the only questionable event operating – and accepting fees – using its website. Earlier this year, FilmFreeway revealed that it had de-listed 42 phony festivals.

Marinangel's experience may be among the worst, but is just one of a catalog of complaints lodged as the number of festivals worldwide has ballooned in the past few decades. At the same time, online platforms like Withoutabox (started in 2000, shuttered in September) and FilmFreeway (launched in 2014) have given emerging filmmakers a means of easily finding and submitting to film festivals en masse. In 2013, film industry data researcher and producer Stephen Follows found 3,000 active film festivals, 75 percent of which were created in the past decade; in June, FilmFreeway reported that it had 8,000 festivals on its platform.

Though some obscure festivals haven't lasted long, others are flourishing thanks to filmmakers who are happy to shell out $40, $60, $80 or more in individual submission fees. But the costs often don't stop there. Alongside travel and accommodation expenses, many of these events serve up an increasing array of costs that are rarely mentioned in the application: to promote your film, to take part in workshops, go to awards dinners and sometimes even just to see films besides your own. While this world of low-profile events includes many entirely legit affairs, it also features some that run the gamut from merely disorganized to potentially exploitative — all marketing themselves to inexperienced filmmakers desperate to build their names and careers.

Exposure to this potentially damaging festival circuit usually begins with sites like FilmFreeway, which allows filmmakers to submit their work and pay the necessary fees involved. Though filmmakers can receive refunds after applying to a seemingly fake festival on FilmFreeway, they have little recourse when it comes to "pseudo festivals" — a name coined by film bloggers — or real events attended primarily by filmmakers but rarely by industry gatekeepers or members of the press.

"Our goal at FilmFreeway is to provide simple, reliable and trustworthy submissions to film festivals and creative contests for filmmakers and artists everywhere," says a company spokesperson. "This is only possible when filmmakers trust all festivals and contests on FilmFreeway to act in a professional, ethical and honest fashion. Festivals that do not adhere to this strict standard are removed from FilmFreeway."

Just what qualifies as a "pseudo festival" depends on the filmmaker one speaks with: Some argue that even festivals without significant industry or media presence offer good networking opportunities for those seeking collaborators (as well as IMDb credits, laurels and red carpet photos), while others say they exist primarily to make money off of vulnerable wannabes.

Australian filmmaker Claire J. Harris felt that the Nice International Film Festival fell in the latter category after she attended in May 2018 with her feature Zelos. Nice, part of a 15-year-old European chain called Film Fest International that holds events in Madrid, London, Milan and, soon, Antwerp, touts on its FilmFreeway page that the festival's dates overlap with the Cannes Film Festival a few miles away, "naturally filling our venue with a wealth of talent." The event "is perfect for either an individual seeking funding for an unproduced screenplay or a finished production seeking distribution," it adds.

But after she was accepted, Harris began to notice what she believed were red flags: Festival emails advertised optional expenses, including around $152 per night to book hotel rooms through the festival (which was actively encouraged in later correspondence); $225 for banners that were hung in the hotel's lobby; $250 or more for ads in the festival's magazine; and $245 — "my dinners for a month," she says — for the awards ceremony.

When Harris arrived at the festival, which she learned late in her travel planning was in a hotel near the Nice airport (and more expensive than many Airbnbs in the heart of the city), what she saw didn't quite match her expectations. Attendance was low (she and other filmmakers allege their screening rooms only hosted attendees fest organizers personally invited), and she didn't meet any industry representatives or press. The screenings themselves took place in conference rooms ("literally just a projector in a room"), playing back-to-back each day and with no public audience. Panel discussions may have been free, but there were no moderators (and became “somebody just talking about their film for 20 minutes”), while the large, costly banners merely lined the hallways of the hotel. As for the pricey awards dinner, where she says an “absurd” number of awards were handed out, each 10-person table came with a cap of two bottles of wine.

Though Film Fest International has repeat attendance and fans, several sources who spoke to THR echoed Harris' frustration. Oluwaseun Babalola, who attended the Madrid edition with a film while living in the Spanish city, attempted to go to a panel one day and a filmmaker meet-and-greet another day: "None of these panels or workshops or anything was happening," she says. Her film played to a room of just the people she invited, and volunteers began packing up the room's chairs before it was over. Another filmmaker who attended a Madrid edition of the festival and wished to remain anonymous also describes seeing films playing to "empty rooms."

Film Fest International president Carl Tooney tells THR that the festival offers "everything free except for the awards night," and other expenses are optional. Regarding the hotel venues, Tooney — who owned a company specializing in truck advertising and operated a short-lived advertising "festival" in Paris — says that, early in his work in festivals, his organization did rent cinemas but "found very few people were coming to them" and wanted to make venues more convenient and networking-friendly for filmmakers. Former executives in the industry, including a former managing director of Warner Home Video and a creative executive on The Bourne Supremacy and Mr. and Mrs. Smith, have come since, he notes: "Every film is completely supported, … and some of the films are completely booked out," he says. (Filmmakers have sent THR images of empty screening rooms.)

The Oaxaca Film Fest in Mexico also boasts about high-end industry connections, and yet, after the festival's latest edition wrapped Oct. 10, several filmmakers told THR they jokingly nicknamed it the "Oaxaca Fyre Fest" because of the high price of admission and organizational issues. The 10-year-old festival holds roundtables and conferences and has claims to have "industry alliances" with Turner and Viacom, per its website, to allow filmmakers to pitch ideas while they attend. While none of these companies would comment for this story, THR has confirmed that there currently is no relationship between them and the fest. In fact, HBO's and UTA's insignias, which had appeared on the festival's industry alliances page, were removed after THR began asking about their connection to the festival.

According to emails provided by 2019 attendees, the Oaxaca fest required filmmakers to attend in person and send evidence, if they had not booked tickets through the festival, that they had booked a flight before films were scheduled to screen. Filmmakers were provided six tickets to their film free of charge, but in order to participate in panels, conferences, table reads and pitch sessions — all marketed to filmmakers — they were asked to buy a pass, which varied in cost depending on attendance history. Filmmakers participating in the shorts selection and attending the festival for the first time were offered $249 and $498 passes, the latter including a five-night hotel stay; a filmmaker who had previously attended and won an award was offered a $799 "legacy" pass that included a hotel stay as the only option. Passes also got filmmakers into screenings in the city's historic center, all industry events, a pitching session, a tour of the city, and all "cocktails and fiestas."

Optional fees included: $30 for each project pitch submitted for consideration to the "Industry Partners program" designed to "bring [projects] to life" (the festival says it wants to develop or distribute feature pitches); $13 to enter a competition where a project chosen by "industry executives" would win a "sit-down" opportunity with those executives as well as a free pass, hotel stay and $4,000; and $99 to commission Dove Sussman, the writer of the Clive Owen-Morgan Freeman movie Last Knights, to pen a review of a filmmaker's projects that could be posted to IMDb if the filmmaker liked it. (IMDb did not respond to multiple requests for comment about this pitch.)

While they attended the festival, filmmakers also encountered organizational glitches. Protests against the sitting governor of Oaxaca by indigenous peoples in front of one venue caused the fest to cancel an entire day of programming, and three filmmakers present report that several titles originally scheduled for that venue didn't end up playing at all. Director Stephen Billick did not show his film because time had run out at another venue. "I traveled to Oaxaca only to have my film not screen," he wrote in an email to THR. Later, another protest interrupted the closing ceremony, this one over one of the festival's sponsors, a mining company called Minera Cuzcatlán, which has been accused by activists of polluting local water sources and violence. Multiple filmmakers said protestors banged on windows of the event and spray-painted a door of its venue. The festival has since canceled the company's sponsorship.

In a statement, the Oaxaca Film Fest said that the requirement that filmmakers be present at the festival to have their film screened was a special 10th anniversary mandate, as was the $799 package for former festival attendees: "The Legacy [returning filmmaker] program will not be returning in 2020. It is not 'who we are' as a festival," a representative wrote. The Oaxaca fest also maintains that all films canceled due to venue or technical glitches did eventually play during the event, though several filmmakers claim this was not the case. Of the $99 film reviews, the festival says it brings in a writer every year, and "those who participate in those reviews find them helpful and priced fairly vs. other coverage in the market place."

The festival also addressed the fact that the event featured nearly five times as many films in 2019 than 2018. "Did we prepare? We believed we did. Did the execution of the event reflect that[?] The majority of our attendees would answer yes. However, for us we did not realize the strain on the infrastructure of Oaxaca itself we created." The Oaxaca Film Fest, which has no social media presence, closed reviews on FilmFreeway until days before this article was set to run.

On Monday, two days before this story was set to publish in print, as the festival was informed, the Oaxaca Film Fest sent filmmakers from the 2019 event an email saying that their fee to submit to the event for the next five years would be waived. Accepted filmmakers from 2019 will also have their next five years' festival pass fees waived if they wish to attend, whether or not they have films accepted, the festival added.

These festivals are hardly alone in advertising optional fees to filmmakers. The Beverly Hills Film Festival, which accepted more than 150 screenwriting finalists this year and more than 160 in 2018, requires finalists to buy a ticket — $275 or $350 for "preferred seating" to ostensibly get closer to industry figures in attendance (producer Mike Medavoy was an honoree at the 2019 edition) — and be present at a ceremony where the award they are vying for is handed out. "We provide a beautiful optional event so that filmmakers from all over the world have the opportunity to be in the room and network with top entertainment industry executives," the Beverly Hills Film festival said in a statement, while noting that filmmakers do not have to be present to receive an award.

The Action on Film Megafest — comprising 17 festivals — in Las Vegas encouraged filmmakers in 2019 to submit their projects to at least one other festival within its event for the maximum opportunity to win awards, according to emails reviewed by THR (submissions for the children's program are free, while individual submission to other competitions can cost up to $85, per the festival). Organizers charged $175 for filmmakers and $135 for screenwriters that year for the optional awards ceremony dinner, which in 2019 filmmakers complained was a Chinese buffet. (If filmmakers wanted to attend the affiliate festival's awards ceremony, they would have to pay for that as well.)

"If a filmmaker has a script or film that is submittable to any other show, we always tell them to absolutely submit — you do give yourself more possibility to win," says Action on Film Megafest creator Del Weston, adding that that KJ Dim Sum & Seafood has been the festival's award ceremony venue for two years now. As for the separate awards ceremony for the affiliate festivals, "five of these events are represented one night and five the next night, so there's a separate cost for that show: it’s a completely different event and awards," he says.

In 2019, the Chandler Film Festival in Chandler, Arizona, gave accepted filmmakers a free ticket to their own screening but charged them $119 for a full festival pass and $50 for a single-day pass to attend filmmaker-focused events like workshops, discussion panels and networking events. (In a statement, Chandler says that it is changing its practices in 2020.)

Larger, more established fests generally don't charge extra for passes. At Sundance, for instance, a filmmaker is offered tickets for 10 screenings other than his or her own, while in Toronto, filmmakers receive 10 tickets to public screenings and can get into all press and industry screenings.

Thanks to the digital revolution, led by Withoutabox before FilmFreeway became the dominant force, filmmakers now have a tendency to “blitz” submissions, says Katie McCullough, head of Festival Formula, a U.K.-based consultancy that helps filmmakers navigate the festival circuit. And she claims they often do so without proper due diligence. In this new age, McCullough says, filmmakers "need to be more savvy."

This savviness includes being a bit more particular, and not simply chasing laurels to plaster over promotional literature and artwork.

“Filmmakers are so eager that they will pay for a laurel, pay for an award … which kind of doesn’t mean anything. They just get so blinkered,” says McCullough. “We always say, it’s better to have a small number of really good festival screenings on your poster than have a whole poster full of them.”

One scriptwriter in November 2018 proudly took to Twitter to celebrate his recent win at the Eurocinema Film Festival, the event that didn’t take place.

"It's not that there's no place for small festivals," Harris says. "Some of those small festivals, they still don't have free travel and board or nice facilities, but they feel like they're just people who really, really like small, independent films. They don't feel like they're trying to make money off of you."

But industry figures argue that some responsibility must also lie with the submission platforms themselves, especially FilmFreeway — which makes a not-inconsiderable 6 percent commission on each admission fee (3 percent with a "preferred pricing" plan). "They need to understand that this is an area where people can be exploited," says Cath Le Couteur, founder of subscription-based online indie filmmaking community Shooting People. "The tech is good, they just need to make sure they’re not promoting festivals that are not legitimate."

FilmFreeway points to what it calls a "thorough vetting system" to make sure all its listed events are indeed "legitimate," one of which requires every new festival to show proof it has secured a venue (The Eurocinema Film Festival had had two previous editions in Geneva before, THR understands, ownership changed hands). But that still doesn't account for the festivals that do take place, but leave attendees feeling disappointed.

A FilmFreeway spokesperson says there is a “deactivation policy for festivals that do not act in good faith or fail to adhere to their promises to filmmakers,” and it keeps a “detailed record of every filmmaker complaint." If a festival's star ratings fall too low or reviews are consistently poor, the festival can also be deactivated, per the platform.

However, filmmakers themselves say they feel pressure to review festivals kindly. Even if they do have bad experiences, many note that they and others are reticent to post bad reviews for fear of making their film look bad, or appearing like they were hoodwinked and/or of burning bridges with others in the industry. Perhaps most alarmingly, some filmmakers who spoke for this story discussed their bad reviews being "pushed down" quickly after they posted them by a sudden flurry of good reviews. "Most of the reviews on FilmFreeway are good ones. The bad ones slip the net," independent filmmaker Henry Scott-Irvine, who wrote a positive review of Film Fest International on the platform, says.

Not all small festivals that require filmmakers to pay for their travel, accommodations and pass are suspect. "There are festivals that ask you to pay for your pass, but then it's not to go to empty screening rooms. They're giving you something for your pass," says Sandrine Cassidy, senior director of talent development, festivals and distribution at USC, who works on festival placement for student films.

But Cassidy stresses that more needs to be done — by both online platforms and the fests themselves — to ensure inexperienced filmmakers aren't exploited by an opaque system.

As for the Eurocinema Film Festival, its non-existent London outing wasn’t quite the final hurrah. Festival organizer David Schmid — who would only correspond with THR via email — initially denied that Marinangel’s film was ever selected. This claim was contradicted by the festival’s own website, which was frequently edited following email exchanges (at one point it changed the listed venue of its 2016 edition from "Nottingham" to "Geneva" after THR pointed out that the banners from the red carpet photos clearly said "Geneva").

Schmid tried to arrange a replacement for the London event in early 2019, sending out invitations to filmmakers, including Marinangel, to a new edition in The Hague, Netherlands. But it was cancelled when management at the intended venue, Humanity House, learned what had happened in London. Asked to clarify, Schmid claimed that a festival had instead been held in Geneva in March. Three filmmakers with titles in the lineup contacted by THR said they didn’t attend, while another said he was “not aware” if his film screened. There also appears to be no account of the event on social media. (Schmid eventually stopped answering THR’s emails.) 

Experts who advise filmmakers on festival submissions and selections say that, ideally, a festival should honor the risk filmmakers are taking on them. After all, while festivals may seem to outsiders like a superfluous part of film marketing, independent filmmakers rely on them for networking and potential distribution, investment and development opportunities. 

"A filmmaker should think that they deserve to be screened; they should know they don't owe anything to festivals," says Cassidy. "It's a codependency thing, and it should be a fair relationship."

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HOW TO LAUNCH A (FRUGAL) FILM FEST

Thanks in no small part to the emergence of online submissions platforms, thousands of minor film festivals have sprung up around the globe in recent years, with several websites allowing festival organizers to easily attract filmmakers to their events. FilmFreeway, which dominates this space, boasts more than 8,000 festivals of all shapes and sizes on its service. And for any budding Thierry Frémaux operating on a tight budget, the smallest events can be launched, according to experts, on a shoestring and still turn a profit. According to Katie McCullough, founder of consultancy Festival Formula, some can be set up for as "little as a few grand."

Venue and equipment costs are the biggest outlays, but McCullough says for a conference room in a hotel with a projector (many festivals offer exactly this setup), a figure of $3,000 would easily cover this. THR's own inquiries at a London hotel that has hosted several small film festivals indicate a couple of rooms actually could be rented for just this amount.

The next step in the process is the all-important submission fee. Festivals on FilmFreeway charge varying rates, but for a new event, $30 is a standard place to start (and this price can rise if the event sets several deadlines). With FilmFreeway taking 6 percent of each submission fee, an upstart festival operating from a hotel need only attract 106 submissions to break even.

Of course, such a rudimentary fest setup likely would disappoint attendees and struggle to survive. More established under-the-radar events — ones with bigger venues, panel discussions and all the trappings of a fully fledged, legitimate festival — cost significantly more to run and attract far greater numbers of submissions. Philadelphia's Blackstar Film Festival, for example, gets about 1,500 submissions, while the Woodstock Film Festival has around 2,000. But even festivals such as these — which also have sponsorships, grants and thousands of fee-paying attendees — still find it difficult to get by. Woodstock head Meira Blaustein admits that, even after 19 editions, finances are such that it's still a "struggle to make sure everyone is happy."

Adds McCullough, "Nobody runs a film festival to make money." — A.R.

Oct. 31, 11:59 a.m. Updated to reflect Film Freeway's current commission percentage.

Nov. 8, 8:34 a.m. Updated to reflect Action on Megafest's 2019 submission fees.

This story first appeared in the Oct. 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.