Issue 2

Satisfying the Client: Meeting the Demands of Film Festivals and Funds

For an aspiring, up-and-coming, or just any independent filmmaker, film festival grants and film funds are often the only hope to get films made, let alone distributed and seen by audiences who can contribute to the filmmaker’s success. It is indeed this funding that gives an extra boost to filmmakers that may never otherwise find the resources to create anything at all. In this way, festivals and funds certainly promote and engage with the creative process of filmmakers who need encouragement during the early stages of what may become a successful career. However, it may be difficult to discern when film festivals and funds cross the line from helpful encouragement to harmful guidance.

Using guidelines that exclude certain filmmakers from receiving help via funding indirectly, and perhaps inadvertently, causes these filmmakers to create a different product than what would have been made otherwise. Then, this behavior is reinforced through positive encouragement and praise from the same festivals and funds. While festivals and funds do help create success for unknown independent films and their makers, the guidelines required to receive this help often force the filmmaker to shape the film away from their artistic vision. Filmmakers end up working loosely by contract for the festival or fund they apply for and, as such, creativity is taken from the artist and put in the hands of the executives behind the money used to fund these films.

Without doubt, both film festivals and funds provide many positive advantages to developing filmmakers. The extra funding provided would often go unmatched if it were not for the goals of the festival or fund to advance filmmaking as a creative form. For the filmmaker in question, funds provided through the aforementioned grants or competitions are irreplaceable. However, the problem arises out of the incomparable nature of the opportunity these extra funds provide. Because filmmakers can often only receive sufficient funding through festival grants and film funds, they are willing to let their film serve as free marketing for the same organizations. While this can be beneficial to both parties, the obtrusive placement of an organization’s branding on a film should not be taken lightly. Yet, scholarly works, and even those that criticize film funds, discuss this branding in the same context as the positives the funds provide as if they are on the same level. According to Miriam Ross, “[Film funds are] used by filmmakers to attract further financial support. [They are] also increasingly used as a brand in marketing material for completed films and [their] distinct logo appears next to film festival awards on posters and DVD cases as a marker of the film’s significance.”[i] While Ross discusses these two tactics so nonchalantly, attracting further funding silently is much different than a festival or fund using the film as marketing material and establishing dominance as a curator of quality content simply by stating that they are. Even though filmmakers more than likely want the names of festivals attached to their films to increase exposure, it is a negative practice that fuels the destructive effects of festival and fund patriarchy.

Another example of equating positive and negative practices is made by Tamara Falicov who writes, “[Film funds] provide a crucial avenue of film funding for directors from emerging film cultures that may not have state film funds at their disposal, let alone private investors. Listing these funds at the end of their film might also serve as a ‘ticket’ to gain access to exhibition venues and distribution channels associated within and outside of these first-tier film festivals.”[ii] Falicov is right in saying the listing of funds during the credits of a film can bring the filmmaker more success. However, it is this exact scenario that reinforces the dominance of festivals and funds.

It is made clear that the attachment of well-known logos of film festivals and funds to a film serves as an effective breaker of barriers of entry. Sans logos, a film may find a difficult path ahead of it to secure any sort of distribution deal once it leaves the festival market. Distributors and other audiences see these logos as pre-approval for their own viewing and approval. In fact, the attainment of these otherwise unimpressive logos is seen as a rite of passage in which quality content is found by a small group leading the festival or fund organization and the rest of the content is left behind and determined unworthy of the festival’s branding. This is a dangerous practice which leads to two separate but equally important problems.

First, this method of selecting films which can receive further praise and advance a filmmaker’s career leaves out films which do not qualify for certain festivals or funds due to a vast range of qualities that filmmakers often cannot change, such as geography or access to resources. Even with qualities that filmmakers may be able to change, especially when pertaining to the nature of the film’s content, the guidelines set by festivals and funds should not influence the creative decisions a filmmaker must make; it is simply bad practice.

The second problem that stems from a festival or fund’s selection of what they deem quality content is simply that; the individuals behind the given festival or fund certainly cannot be left to decide which films are the most important, relevant, and for lack of a better word, best. In the worst case, these individuals are the leaders of a corporation and are presumably most interested in the success of their business, not necessarily the success of the films they are judging. Thus, the films they select will reflect the views of the business, not the artists’ own aims. Fortunately, many funds choose more appropriate individuals to select films. In the case of the Tribeca Film Institute Latin American Media Arts Fund, Falicov points out, “One might speculate—given the corporate funding model—that [corporate views] might shape the kinds of films selected for funding support. However, the jury is composed of independent film professionals and Latin American film curators.”[iii] While this scenario is far better than a jury of less informed judges, it hardly solves the problem as stated previously. These individuals, no matter how intelligent and knowing of the media arts, can only give their opinion of which films are ‘best’, a term whose vagueness reveals itself as quite fitting for this topic, as there can never be exact guidelines to determine a film’s quality. It is, and always will be, based solely on the opinion of those watching it.

Thus, it is understandable to become blind to the ways in which the method of judging film festivals and funds employ can be harmful. After all, because film is an art form, there is no way to truly determine quality. Opinion is the only tool available to measure a film’s value, and it should be left to each viewer to use this tool. The problem exists with festivals and funds not because they select some films over others. Again, selection by opinion is unavoidable. The complication arises from creating arbitrary guidelines to which a filmmaker must conform if they wish to be considered for the only funding they may be able to receive. The decision of these few judges behind a festival or fund quietly but greatly affects the outcome of future applicants’ films and their artistic vision. Allowing this decision to continue affecting the works of independent artists this way establishes the film festival or fund as having a role in the films’ productions. Ross calls this effect “a decision-making flow initiated by the first world and accepted by the third world.”[iv] While Ross uses this description to specifically describe a fund’s relationship with undeveloped film cultures, it applies to all relationships between festivals or funds and their applicants.

When the decisions of festivals and funds determines whether or not a filmmaker can even make their film, the term ‘third world’ in the sense that Ross uses it no longer applies to just developing countries. As filmmakers must change their content to tailor it to specific guidelines in order to be considered, the whole artistic community behind filmmaking becomes the third world which is forced to accept the ‘decision-making flow’ of the first world festivals and funds. No matter the origin of the film or the background of the filmmaker, they are subject to the organization’s approval. With no other options to explore, the filmmaker shapes their films to most closely meet the expectations of judges. In this way, it has been said that the film festival or fund becomes a producer. Ross explicitly describes this assignment, suggesting that a festival grant or fund “moves beyond the role of financial benefactor or marketing tool and influences the filmmaking process to the extent that it can be understood to take up a position of film ‘producer.’”[v] She further describes this role as she explains the way organizations control circulation and distribution of the films they fund.[vi] The film’s producer is left with no choice but to let the fund take over part of their job. Falicov finds this role assignment to be true with film festivals as well, stating, “[Film festivals] are now more active players in developing new projects by having a hand in adjudicating film pitches, helping fund them, and then launching said films.”[vii] With this evidence, it is not unfounded to compare a film festival or a fund to the film’s producer.

Perhaps a more accurate analogy than a festival producer is that these film festivals and funds are clients to the filmmakers. When filmmakers must shape their film to meet guidelines, they are essentially changing their vision to meet the demands of a client. As this practice continues, filmmakers begin making films similarly to the way commercial work is made—the filmmaker no longer has final say on what content they produce, for they must satisfy their client above all else. In the film festival world, the end product is given to, and used by, the festival to draw an audience more than it is used to share the filmmaker’s vision. The filmmaker produces a product for the client—the film festival or fund—so they can use it to promote themselves. Michael Pattison describes this promotional aspect, writing, “The quid pro quo of [film festival] awards, which are often decided through a juried competition, is that the festival in question provides financial assistance and industrial expertise to a film — perhaps in its latter stages and in need of final funding — before hosting its premiere, and promoting the film as its own discovery.”[viii] While it is not surprising for a film festival to seek their own gain from films they ‘discover,’ it is selfish for a festival to see films as a means to their own ends of popularity.

However, it is not the ethics of the festivals and funds that is problematic, at least not for this debate. It is that young and unestablished filmmakers have nowhere else to turn. With so much content saturating the market, it is supposed to be the festivals and funds that seek out content that holds potential regardless of how far they stray from the norm. Instead, these organizations search for a specific set of requirements in films they consider funding. Thus, it is becoming necessary to work for a client to become noticed. It is simply almost impossible to gain success without going through individuals, such as those managing festivals and funds. James Benton of Raindance Film Festival admits, “Getting a film made is more about who you know verses how good you are. You could be the next Sidney Lumet, but if you do not have viable connections to producers, promoters or equipment, you will be left out while the better-connected filmmaker will have more opportunities.”[ix] The barriers to entry of the film industry seem to only be broken through success in the eyes of certain individuals that control money flow for filmmakers that have yet to establish themselves. While this is a harsh truth in itself, it is unmeasurably made worse by the indirect shaping of films trying to earn this approval.

While intentions may not always be malicious, festivals and funds do more harm than good when constricting applicants to specific guidelines that play a part from the early stages of a film’s creation. Rather than leaving a filmmaker to explore their creativity without bounds, filmmakers who desire success are forced to make films much in the style of commercial work, where festivals and funds play the role of the client. What is left for young and unestablished filmmakers is but a small hope that festival programmers may still notice quality and talent where recognition is due. For now, it is quite like a game filmmakers must play in which they test the limits of the amount they can keep their vision while still satisfying the right people. A filmmaker can only hope for a future in which the situation changes and guidelines no longer determine the ideas one such filmmaker can develop. Still, it may be possible for films to receive funding for no other sake than the film’s, and subsequently the filmmaker’s, success.

[i] Miriam Ross, “The Film Festival as a Producer,” Screen 52.2 (2011): 261.

[ii] Tamara Falicov, “The Festival Film: Film Festival Funds as Cultural Intermediaries” (2015): 1.

[iii] Falicov, “The Festival Film,” 12.

[iv] Ross, “The Film Festival,” 266.

[v] Ibid., 262.

[vi] Ibid., 267.

[vii] Falicov, “The Festival Film,” 3.

[viii] Michael Pattison, “How Global South Filmmakers Find Funding Through Film Festivals in the Global North,” Filmmaker Magazine, November 2, 2015, http://filmmakermagazine.com/95983-how-global-south-filmmakers-find-funding-through-film-festivals-in-the-global-north

[ix] James Benton, “Every Young Filmmakers’ Fears,” November 9, 2012, http://www.raindance.org/every-young-filmmakers-fears/