Welcome to the deep, dark hole that is film festivals. Where to start?

The industry is propped up by these institutions called ‘festivals’, and typically, films live or die by their success at gaining entry, which in turn, gives them notoriety and label of achievement. It’s like a cool-kids-club, and you’re not invited, unless you have a good film. But who has either of those?

My relationship with film festivals has been somewhat brief and limited to date. I’ve made almost eight short films, and my film festival entry tallies to about the same amount. Admittedly, it is only until recently that I’ve even bothered with considering their importance and what benefits they actually have. With my first four short films, I was just keen to get them online and have someone watch them. This benefited me greatly, because it helped to build a small audience, which encouraged me to keep making films. But this means I’ve also had no wider recognition from industry professional or people of ‘importance’. So it seems film festivals are still the route to take if this is your goal. But is it mine?

There are all sorts of film festivals out there – for all the different types of films, there are just as many different types of festivals. I use a website called FilmFreeway to enter my films for submission, and currently it has over three and a half thousand festivals to enter. A staggering amount really. So along with this independent filmmaking boom, film festival organisers are slowly catching up. “There is a buck to be made here,” someone said. The cost of these vary also. From $0 to $75+. You can spend your film’s budget twice over just entering it into festivals, which give you no guarantee that it will actually be shown. So why bother? Surely it would be better to spend that money on making another film? But festival submission is just another stage of release, and notoriety and entries to festivals is almost always the end goal. Yes, this is how the industry has always worked, and it’s a quick fire way from someone to judge if you’re legit filmmaker without actually having to watch your work. For every accepted submission, you typically get a ‘laurel’ which enables you to advertise that you’ve been successful, and it also allows the film festival to highlight themselves as something prestigious – something to aim for.

This is all well and good, especially if you have a healthy budget. But until now, I haven’t – at least in comparison to many other short films being made. So my budget for film festivals has only developed out of necessity for trying to find my ‘next level’ – whatever that means. I hoped by now that I would be capable of making a short film that would smash the doors off any festival, and they’d be begging me to show my work at their event, and would probably need to pay me rather than the other way round. But so far, that just hasn’t happened. So why not? Your ego starts toying with the possibility that you’re just not good enough – an honest assessment, I’m probably not. And the fact that for every festival perhaps they get five-hundred submissions, maybe more, and they can only show fifty. So, my films may not be ‘bad’ but just not in the top fifty out of five-hundred (gulp!). Or perhaps I am entering them into the wrong types of festivals – too prestigious or too sort after. Maybe I need to start aiming a bit lower. Or perhaps, they can tell I make films mostly by self, and the answer is to start spending more money on the actual film to make it look a million dollars, and then festivals will come calling. But Rodriquez’s El Mariachi didn’t look a million dollars, and look what happened to him – but I think that ‘oh look, people can make films on the cheap’ movement has passed. Something else is coming next.

So admittedly, I’ve always been disillusioned with the idea of film festivals. I hate seeing young filmmakers talking about ‘festival entries’ and how “they don’t seem to like my films” – so basically the exact thing I’ve just been whining about. But the difference is, what I make and how I choose to make it, is not determined by whether it will succeed at festivals or not. It seems many young filmmakers I talk to, skew their work to appeal to film festivals and a wider audience – I just can’t do that, probably because I don’t know how. But I make what I need to make, and anything else after that is just a bonus.

So why an essay on Festivals if their not so important to me?

Probably because it bothers me to see so much emphasis put on gaining entry to them. I haven’t come across a single filmmaker who has admitted to me unprompted, that they just make films for films sake. They always have an ulterior motive. Which is film festivals. And it’s great for them, I’m not trying to take away their importance. But I do have a problem with this being an end game. I understand that many people would surmise that what they are hoping to achieve is a ‘festival win’ which will give them the exposure to go on and make something bigger and better. That’s understandable. But how many people are actually going to win these things? And how many people can be first in the cue? So I guess I am just hedging my bets, and assuming that acknowledgement will come to me naturally if I just keep working on hard on trying to improve rather than aiming for that win.

However, with the way social media has infested our lives, gaining entry to a film festival is becoming less about what this means for your career or what contacts it may bring you, and more about sharing the achievement with your friends and followers for ‘likes’. It’s true to admit that I get a lot of ‘likes’ whenever I post something about a festival entry – U suppose because people can identify this as something to applaud (as if making the film is not worthy enough). In my opinion, what this has led to is an increase in ‘bogus’ film festivals, often in the form of ‘online film festivals’ that will accept any old guff for $10, and in return the filmmaker gets a laurel which they can use of their social media. So the transaction of cost and benefit is changing. We pay to get laurels, so people think our work is worth watching – but hasn’t this always been the case? Probably, yes. But now, who is watching our films at these festivals? and how many?

It’s fair to say that I’ve done fairly well setting up my social media accounts to encourage people to watch my films, and it’s only last year that I’ve held back on releasing a film online straight away. Because, yes, I did want some acknowledgement beyond my friends and followers, and film festivals offer that. But knowing which is worthwhile, and which is just after your money, is a rocky path to start walking down. Filmmakers are vulnerable in their need to be noticed, and we are always looking for that pat on the back, I just wish we moved away from this need to tag our films with laurels as sign of accomplishment, and look to gain direct feedback from audience members – whether that be through screenings or online release.

I put it to you that more people will see my films online that all the film festivals I gain entry to, and posting films online is free! But albeit, no laurel. D’oh.

So one of the things I did to try and combat my cynicism is to try and start something myself. Something that I felt was needed, and what direction people should be taking their work. After filming Killer Bird in 2015, I was somewhat frantic with nervous energy, but with nothing to do, I had an idea for a Facebook group. I called it Short Film Sharer. It’s a basic idea, where people join the group, administrated by me, and either share or watch short films. It’s an interactive group, and I encourage members to share their favourite shorts as well as their own. In total, I’d say the amount of sharing is split 50/50, but I am starting to back away from sharing, as we’re close to two thousand members, and people post quite regularly. So this is not your typical film festival, but hopefully it achieves what festivals are typically meant to do for filmmakers – exposure. It’s free to share to the group, and you’re guaranteed acceptance as long as you meet the submission criteria (the most important people that it is a ‘short film’ – you wouldn’t believe how many people try to share something that isn’t a film), and from there, other group members can watch the film and even comment on it and give feedback – which is something you’d unlikely get a film festival, even if you attend, reaction from the audience can be hard to judge. So we use the old method of ‘likes’ and ‘thumbs up’ to gain a general response, but comments are the best judge. It’s truly wonderful for me to see people using the group for it’s intended purpose without any nudging from me. It is now largely self sufficient, and all I have to do is accept new members and accept the posts. So in its basic form, it’s a platform for filmmakers to share their work to a specific audience of film lovers. If you join the group, it’s because you have an interest in short film – the same way you’d attend a film festival.

It’s evident to me that I am in the small minority of people who values festivals as one of the lesser importances of making a film, but this still doesn’t mean they should be ignored. They are still another platform for you to have your work seen (which is in fact the most important aspect), and for a selective few, they will indeed have the greatest impact. But let’s all try to value the process more, and admit that laurels do not make our film any better. Yes, they are acknowledgments, and that’s fine, but when a young filmmaker asks me whether he’ll be getting a laurel for submitting to Short Film Sharer, my heart sinks. I tell myself that these poor guys and girls won’t last long in an industry which is geared towards disappointing the artist, and we have to find ways to acknowledge our achievements beyond film festivals.

There are plenty of filmmakers out their releasing their work online, and I applaud them, and I hope they’d agree with me that they’ve received more benefits from doing that as opposed to paying to enter festivals.