Film festivals serve an astronomical role for filmmakers in the filmmaking community. They provide the space to screen and premiere films and could even connect filmmakers with interested distributors. But, is just having your film screened at the big ball enough for filmmakers, particularly in lieu of monetary compensation? Dear Producer teamed up with Film Festival Alliance (FFA), a non-profit organization that serves film festivals and those who run them, and created a sustainability survey report for film festivals and filmmakers, where they pose the question: Should film festivals better compensate filmmakers?
In this article, we’ll review the findings from 75 North American festivals in Dear Producer and FFA’s Film Festivals and Filmmaker Sustainability Survey Report. And even though the survey doesn’t include many top festivals like Sundance, Tribeca, or SXSW, it still provides some telling insights on what filmmakers should know when seeking the right film festivals. The largest participant in the report is the Seattle International Film Festival, one of the largest in North America, among others like New Voices in Black Cinema and the Chicago Underground Film Festival. Keep reading to discover if compensating filmmakers is achievable for every kind of film festival.
What were the numbers for film festivals 2020?
Before we take a look at the numbers, we should note the obvious. 2020 was unlike previous years due to the pandemic. This, of course, affected the number of festivals and the films that were accepted.
Of the 132 participating film festivals that responded to the question in the survey, 78% stated that they still held some form of an event in 2020 despite the challenges of the pandemic. “The show must go on,” seemed to be the mantra for many festivals which is particularly illuminating. As more film festivals provide more robust virtual screenings (or a hybrid of virtual and in-person events) the virtual model could shine a light on what’s to come.
Here’s what the landscape for screenings looked like in 2020:
- 82.5% – Virtual cinema screenings
- 24.3% – Drive-in screenings
- 17.5% – In-person screenings
- 16.5% – Other
According to Barbara Twist of Dear Producer, film festivals screened over 13,000 films to audiences in 2020, which is the total number of screenings rather than unique films. So, the number of unique screenings is much lower. And of the 13,000 screenings, 3,850 were feature films whereas 9,178 were shorts.
Film festival operating budgets
Film festivals come in all shapes and sizes. Anyone who has ever browsed the catacombs of, say, FilmFreeway will advise you of just that. Festivals span the field of event types, genre categories, entry fees, festival focus, among other variances. That said, could compensating filmmakers by sharing their operating budgets and paying screening fees to help filmmakers, or hurt them in the long run? Well, many of them (especially the larger festivals) already compensate filmmakers in some form or another.
Most festivals vary anywhere from 1 to 30 days with an average of 10 days of screenings. Now, why does the length of the festival matter? Well, even though the length of the festival doesn’t necessarily correlate with box office revenue, the top earners did run a festival length above an average of 13 days. Let’s examine the size of the operating budget below that falls within the “top earner” category.
Those film festivals with an operating budget of above $1 million or more ran on average of 15 days. Interestingly enough, those that ran on average of 19 days fell between $500,000 and $1 million. Then, those that operated between the $100,000-500,000 mark averaged 11 days. And, finally, those festivals that had an operating budget below $100,000 ran slightly over a week at 8 days.
This is significant to note because the top earners are obviously the largest film festivals at $1 million+. Keep this in mind as we continue to explore the box office and revenue numbers shared with filmmakers.
Film festival box offices
Next, let’s look at the purported box office numbers. Only 68 participating film festivals shared their numbers, of which, 10 reported $0. That leaves 58 festivals, which combined, generated $2,743,734. By those numbers, it would appear that on average, film festivals rarely make their money back from the box office.
Here’s what the survey reveals of the overall box office as it correlates with operating budgets:
- $355,067 – Under $100,000
- $579,262 – $100K-$500K
- $278,498 – $500K-$1 million
- $840,346 – Over $1 million
- $690,561 – Unknown
The box office revenue listed above is paired with the numerous participating festivals, so it’s not a 1-to-1 correlation. Now, if we were looking at every film festival owned and operated by one large entity rather than various independent operations, these numbers would seem convincing when it comes to filmmaking sustainability. However, this isn’t the case. This means that few if any at all ever make back at the box office what they spend in their operating budget.
So, when the report asks the question: Did festivals share revenue with filmmakers? And notes “Mostly no,” it unsurprisingly follows up by stating that the festivals in the two highest tiers shared the most at 86%, though they only represented 17% of the survey respondents. In a system where every film festival would be bound to share revenue, only the big fish could survive, leading to more exclusivity than inclusivity and ultimately fewer films getting screened on the big screen.
A shrinking pie…
The festivals that did share revenue amounts to $138,943. So, our $2,743,734 pie shrinks to $2,604,791. In addition to sharing 5% of revenue, film festivals paid out a substantial sum of screening fees to filmmakers (for mostly feature films, of course). Festivals shared $390,305 with both filmmakers and distributors with the highest-paid by a festival amounting to $79,635. So, this means we subtract yet another 14% chunk of the pie from $2,604,791 for a resulting $2,214,486.
When we also consider speaking fees and other stipends distributed that came to $98,721, we come down to $2,115,765. Some festivals, like the aforementioned Seattle International Film Festival, even provide cash prizes of $1,500 to winners of varying categories. In fact, the survey report goes on to mention that $504,059 went toward awards, grants, and prizes in 2020. So, this brings our pie down another 18% to $1,611,706.
It’s difficult to parse what film festival had what operating budget. But there are plenty of other factors to consider, like event location, full-time staff, advertising expenses, and other costs involved. What we do know, however, is that festivals with operating budgets over $1 million contained 162 full-time employees altogether (in the survey). Whereas those under $100K had 27. Combined from every tier, there were 283 full-time employees in all. Now, what that translates into in compensation is unknown.
Should the role of film festivals be filmmaker sustainability?
When some filmmakers consider film festivals, they think of them as the tail end of their journey. They can get their film in front of eyeballs, meet with agents, and if they’re lucky, they can find a distributor. Though, depending on your skill set and where you stand in your career as a filmmaker, your expectations may vary. If you’re screening a short film, for example, you may just be happy to have an audience. Whereas, if you have more experience, you’re probably aware that the festival is the end all be all. You should have greased the wheels of the festival, enticed agents prior to submitting, and set your sights on selling.
The report quotes: “No other arts-presenting form regularly does not compensate the work of the artists it presents. This should become the norm in the U.S. in order to legitimize festivals as a key piece of the film exhibition ecosystem — neither as a tool for studio marketing nor as an amateur open mic night style event, but as a sustainable and sustaining piece of a film/filmmaker’s ultimate journey.”
To the above point, one could certainly argue that there are many film festivals that act as a legitimate feature of the film exhibition ecosystem already, pending size and reputation. Films are sold every year for accumulated numbers that far exceed the box office by agents or distributors who can bring them to the marketplace. But is it really fair to hold every film festival to the same standards? For instance, should Film Pittsburgh be held to the same criteria as the Toronto Film Festival?
However, to share revenue with every filmmaker as well as a screening rate would certainly impact the number of film festivals available to them. Sure, the larger film festivals would survive, but they would only become that much more exclusive with a smaller market of film festivals able to compete under such compensatory guidelines. And one could only assume that it would be that much more difficult for budding filmmakers to gain recognition.
The Bottom Line
The landscape of how film festivals conduct events had exponentially changed in 2020. As a producer or filmmaker hoping to glean how to approach the festival circuit in 2022 and beyond, it’s key to understand how festivals have adapted.
The big question arises, can film festivals better support filmmakers? Sure. But by compensating every filmmaker would most likely result in small to mid-sized festivals shuttering rather than bringing filmmakers together.
One could even argue that if you’re trying to get paid at film festivals, you’re doing it all wrong. Especially if you’re rolling in with a feature film, your goal is to have previously approached agents, make crucial connections, and sell your film. Rather than see film festivals as the end of your journey, you should regard them as the beginning.
Film Festivals and Filmmaker Sustainability Survey Report
It’s worthwhile to read the full report by Dear Producer and FFA for all of the stats and findings from 2020. This was an exceptional job done by their team and a great service to filmmakers everywhere — especially since these kinds of numbers aren’t easy to come by.
In fact, the only comparable report we could find was published all the way back in 2013! So, please be sure to give both Dear Producer and Film Festival Alliance a follow for more crucial information regarding filmmaking and film festivals.