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McNelly Goes Off on Film Festivals

Lucas McNelly, a #2wkfilm filmmaker, puts into words a lot of what I’m feeling about film festivals right now:

Here’s the model. See if this makes sense to you.

Step 1: A person spends several thousand dollars and months, if not years, making a product.

Step 2: That product is then sent to some other body which, for a fee in the range of $30-$100, will consider it for inclusion. They get a lot of them, though, so there’s a good chance they won’t give it a full consideration. They might not even look at it. Either way, they keep the money. They will show something like 5% of them to their audience.

Step 3: Repeat the process 50-100 times.

Step 4: Congratulations! You’ve made the cut! What do you get? Money? No. Fame? Probably not. A chance to sell your product at the event? Maybe. Access to valuable lists of audience members? Not really.

100 films: Festivals are dead. Long live festivals.

Currently making a film (Up Country) with $4000+ netted in a Kickstarter campaign, McNelly feels he’s already gotten the interaction with audiences that festivals often promise but don’t deliver:

We’re interacting with audiences directly, which was really where the big value add-on was for festivals. We needed them to find an audience.

We don’t need them for that anymore.

And I know what you’re going to say, that you need my submission fees to stay in business. Too bad. Raise your own money. I did.

You can always start a Kickstarter campaign.

I’ve been following Up Country and several other film projects on Kickstarter. I’m not sure it’s a more sustainable model than the old indie model. $4000 is barely enough to make a feature film, let alone pay a filmmaker’s basic living expenses while making and promoting it. I’m betting McNelly plans to return to Kickstarter to raise post-production funds and maybe again for promotional funds. That’s a lot of extra work that isn’t filmmaking — what economists call rent seeking.

I can see the Kickstarter audiences one is interacting with directly get just as ticked off as the filmmakers who feel like they keep paying festival entry fees for little dividend. I.e., Kickstarter filmmakers better not only complete the projects, but complete them in a way that satisfies the audience.

Anyway, Kickstarter hasn’t been around long and it remains to be seen how it will evolve. Film festivals have no excuse. They are definitely a form of rent seeking, the equivalent of auctioning off a twenty-dollar bill – an auction where all the bidders lose their bids whether or not they win the $20.

McNelly is right. Such a system cannot be supported if filmmakers withdraw. It is the festivals that have audience support (or corporate sponsorship) that will survive. Let the ones who earn their bread from the toil of rejected filmmakers perish.

1 Comment

  1. You’re making a LOT of assumptions about how film festivals work, what they promise, and their purpose. Not every fest exists for the reasons you stated. Just FYI, submission fees usually account for less than 30% of a festival budget, usually a LOT less. Any festival that exists solely on submission fees will have a miserable inaugural year and never be heard from again.

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