Transitioning to Film Festival 2.0






Since the dawn of time, one of the gatekeepers to independent filmmaking success has been the film festival. Get your film in the right one, impress the decision makers, and your ticket to stardom and riches will be punched. As the biggest showcase for films without distribution, festivals have long been seen as a top-tier way to get your project out into the world.

Problem is, if you’re not named Sundance, Tribeca or South by Southwest, that might not be true anymore. The benefits of DIY distribution may now outweigh those of the traditional film festival. In the age of the artist/entrepreneur, how can the American film festival adapt to find value for filmmakers – and to help sustain itself?

Me and the Rising Star gang at our Mark Twain House rough
cut screening in February


For a long time, festivals around the country have treated filmmakers less as partners, and more as revenue streams. Entry fees are the bane of many indie filmmakers’ existences. Yet, it has to be said that entry fees are a major way film festivals make money. I’ve worked with New England film festivals for eight years; I’ve seen that local sponsors are happy to exchange in-kind services for advertising, but rare is the mom and pop business that’ll put up cash. If you don’t have Sony or Apple underwriting your festival, times are really hard.

So what’s the solution to keep everyone happy? One innovative approach is the New Mexico International Film Festival, which debuted this February. They ask for entry fees, like other festivals, but if your film is accepted, you actually get your entry fee back. Accepted films also get 50% of gross box office receipts, and space at venues to sell their own merchandise (where filmmakers keep 100% of sales). This filmmaker-friendly style will surely attract more submissions from filmmakers around the country.

Courtesy of the New Mexico International Film Festival

I don’t think festival submission fees will ever disappear (though one can dream …), but as we move forward, I think smaller festivals will have to come up with financial incentives like these to keep submissions coming in.


My friend Tom runs a film festival here in Connecticut, and he recently told me he’s thinking of opening an online store on the festival Web site, where you could buy films the festival shows. And he’s talking about splitting the revenue 50/50 with the filmmakers.

At first, I thought this was a great idea – both the fest and the filmmaker can make some money. But when I floated the idea on Twitter, many of my indie film friends didn’t like it. They said since the filmmaker is responsible for promoting the screening, they should have a bigger hand in sales of that movie.

So that’s the question: who’s bringing the audience to the table to watch your movie, and who’s benefitting from that audience? Tom said many of his potential sales are from Connecticut residents who come to the festival, and fall in love with a movie they’ve never seen before. If that movie is from another country, or another part of the U.S., it’s safe to say the festival is bringing that audience. But if that movie is from a local filmmaker, with a large local following, the filmmaker is bringing the audience.

If your film played here, how much of the audience would
come from you?

The mailing lists of the filmmaker and the festival could also provide evidence to answer this question. If a filmmaker’s mailing list is bigger than the festival’s, that could be negotiating leverage for the filmmaker, and vice versa. And if everyone’s in the mood to share, exchanging mailing lists could also provide mutual benefit (if they’re both of similar size).

I can see festivals making separate deals, film by film, for how to split revenues of DVD sales (and possibly ticket sales, too). Agreeing on who’s filling a screening, and compensating them fairly, are issues festivals may have to deal with more and more in the future.


Another festival here in Connecticut is toying with the idea of actually producing its own feature film, directed by local filmmakers who’ve had films show in the festival in previous years. This film would be shot in the festival’s host city, and would highlight the cultural and social hot spots the city is famous for.

Sounds cool, right? The host city gets a huge economic development and tourism boost by the film being shot there, and the festival creates an asset they can exploit for years (by selling tickets to festival screenings, selling DVDs, TV/VOD sales, etc.) But wait! That would require the impossible – by doing this, the festival would turn itself into a production company, right?

Pretty much, yeah.

Filmmakers are evolving into distributors and marketers of their work now, so why wouldn’t a festival be able to evolve as well? They have the distribution and marketing part down pat, so expanding backwards in the process, into production, is their natural next step. This could be a big draw; being able to create new work, with some sort of underwriting, might bring many talented filmmakers to the table. If the experience is positive, the festival may have increased its stable of filmmakers from which to draw future content for itself.


Now, by no means do I think these are the only possibilities. Filmmakers and festivals, together, will help determine how Film Festival 2.0 is born. What are your ideas? What do you think festivals should do to keep themselves relevant? What would interest you as a filmmaker? Are there any festival directors here who could share their thoughts and experiences? Let’s talk about this in the comments. Who knows? The future may start here …

Marty Lang is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Film, Video and Interactive Media at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut. He wrote and directed his first feature film, Rising Star, in October 2010, and it is currently in post-production. He is also the Assistant Director of the Connecticut Film Industry Training Program. He loves traveling, UConn basketball, and pugs. Follow him on Twitter, too!