Attending a film festival is exhausting. You race around town to screenings and stand in lines throughout the day. Then at night you run around town to parties, sometimes several of them. I’m not about to complain. Leading a life in film is an immense privilege and I try to remind myself of it all the time. But there’s no question that festival-going can take its toll on your body. On more than one occasion at SXSW, I thought that there should be festival volunteers on 6th Street handing off Gatorade to badge holders. Kinda like a marathon, only minus the running.
Instead, in reality, the sponsors of film festivals are always trying to ply you with massive amounts of incredibly unhealthy stuff. Among the free “refreshments” offered at SXSW this year were cigarettes, fried fish, inordinate amounts of beer, whiskey and tequila, and an “energy” drink with so much caffeine that its container cautions to “limit intake to maximum one bottle per 4 hours.”
I’m not saying I didn’t partake of some of this stuff. I’m just… well, I’m the son of a nutritionist. I think about these things.
I also think about the health of film festivals and the filmmakers that they host. Seeing the long lines and sitting in (or being shut out of) the many sell-out screenings in Austin certainly confirmed that SXSW has a healthy prognosis.
For filmmakers, though, I’m less certain.
As the barriers to making a film continue to be lowered, I fully expect submissions to SXSW to double within three or four years. Assuming the number of films being programmed remains the same, the acceptance rate will drop to something like .5% or even lower. That’s not a typo. That’s half of one percent. SXSW is not alone in this; other, similarly prestigious festivals will have roughly the same odds of acceptance.
I grant you, the odds of getting your film into SXSW (1% this year) are better than, say, the odds of winning the Powerball Jackpot (1 in 195,249,054). But, then again, the cost to play is higher for festivals. I’m not just talking about festival entry fees. First you’ve got to make your film.
Similarly, the payout ratio for the Powerball ($1 for a chance at +/- $350,000,000) is far better than that of making a movie. Most filmmakers and their investors would love to just double their money. As we all know, many films don’t make their money back at all.
This isn’t an argument for quitting film and instead playing Powerball. Most people making films at this level aren't solely in it for the money -- they're in it because they have stories to tell. At least, that's why I'm in it.
But considering financial sustainability has to be part of the equation too. If it's not, well... it's not sustainable.
And part of that means that filmmakers these days need to ask tough questions both of themselves and of film festivals:
When you consider the costs of festival entry fees, festival travel and lodging (if not provided), food, and promotion (posters, etc), how much are you paying, per head, for each audience member that saw your film?
How much are you paying for each review or blog post that fest screenings generate about your film?
If your film sells out a screening, where does that money go? Will you see a penny of it?
Are you comfortable paying for people to pay others to see your film?
In the final cost-benefit analysis, are festivals worth it?
What do you get out of the deal?
I mean, of course, in addition to the free cigarettes, beer, and energy drinks.
We’ve known this for a while, of course, but it bears repeating: For the independent filmmaker, festivals used to be the answer. Now they’re the question.