Best practice benchmarks for film festivals


Not all too long ago, short film festivals were few and far between. Their organizational form and mode of operation was pretty much the same all over the world. Festivals with international competitions followed similar, if not identical, sets of rules and conventions. Today, however, there are thousands of events and occasions that describe themselves as festivals. Most do not deserve this appellation, many work with obscure regulations, and some even make do without any rules or terms & conditions at all.

It’s becoming increasingly difficult for both the industry and the audience to distinguish between these events and to judge their quality. Filmmakers in particular are faced with the decision of whether and where to submit their films in view of the plethora of practices on the festival circuit today. Unfortunately, an increasing number of black sheep can be found among the festival organizers – operators who have introduced practices that are unfair to the audience, their festival colleagues and above all the filmmakers. Against this backdrop, some uniform conventions and standard criteria would certainly be a welcome addition to the festival scene.

A model could be provided by the “Code of Ethics” in 1995 by the International Short Film Conference (ISFC). This code would however have to be adapted flexibly to a wider circle of organizers.

The Code of Ethics espoused by the International Short Film Conference is a detailed catalogue of rules and principles for fair treatment of films and filmmakers at festivals. Although the ISFC, an international association of short film festivals, is no longer active, its ethics policy still has an impact today. In particular the major international festivals have incorporated these principles into their own sets of regulations. The Code of Ethics has hence become a kind of distinction or seal of quality.

What motivated the drafting of this Code of Ethics? At a time when new festivals were springing up all over, the initiators of the code in the International Short Film Conference discerned an atmosphere of “confusion and drifting apart of practices”. As stated in a press release announcing the Code of Ethics, the association was observing with concern “a few dangerous excesses and trends”. It feared that the recent positive achievements of the festival scene as a new network for the dissemination of short film could be in jeopardy.

Alongside this public justification, which mainly recommends a kind of best practice in dealing with films and filmmakers, there were additional, internal, motives. These had to do with relations between festivals, which after all not only have much in common, but are also often enough rivals. It was hoped that committing festivals to a common set of rules would help to even out the playing field. If the rules are followed, no organizer can get an unfair edge on the others by implementing “˜illegitimate’ practices.

This type of code thus also marks off a dividing line, shutting out organizers who are not willing to follow the rules. The latter are no longer part of the club and hence in a sense disqualified. FIAPF, the international producers’ organization, may have set a good example here by drafting a list of criteria by which to rate festivals. The best-known result is the recognition of a feature film festival as an “˜A’ festival. This is not merely a lofty honour, but rather a question of status.

In any case, the ISFC’s Code of Ethics forms an excellent basis upon which to discuss the matter and derive suggestions on what can be done in terms of short film festivals.


Preamble: What is a festival?

The crux already begins with the word “˜festival’. This concept has long since been watered down – a trend that the International Short Film Conference’s Code of Ethics was designed to halt. Especially in the short film arena, film events are often described as a “˜festival’ for promotional purposes without really earning that title. The inflation of the festival concept has already gone so far, though, that organizers can hardly been blamed for using the term without hesitation or qualms. The word “˜festival’ is unfortunately not copyrighted, and many events that are in fact genuine festivals do not bear this title, but call themselves instead “˜film days’ or “˜film week’.

True film festivals are events held by the industry for the industry. They are comparable from a commercial standpoint with trade shows or industrial fairs, and in cultural terms with artistic platforms. Their purpose is primarily to offer an opportunity for exchange and encounter between professionals and creative talents.


Attempt at a definition:

In a preamble, the authors of the Code of Ethics tried to come up with a uniform definition of content that would lend itself to setting up positive qualitative and quantitative norms while also forming a clear line of demarcation. They state, first, that a festival views cinema as an art form and films as artistic works. And they go on to say that the main task of a festival is to present films that have not yet been released or are seldom screened.

Furthermore, criteria for selection, presentation and programming are named, such as the importance of a festival developing its own artistic position and of presenting films from artistic, societal or historical perspectives.

Notable in the preamble is also the comment that new festivals should first obtain an overview of the overall situation on the festival scene in order to insert themselves within it as harmoniously as possible, forming a valuable complement to the offerings already available. The codex thus disapproves of the establishment of parallel events for existing festivals and on the observed inundation of the scene with new festivals.

Events that cannot be taken seriously in accordance with this definition because they serve exclusively as popular entertainment for the general public are not excluded directly, but rather indirectly by an additional positive criterion stated in the preamble: the role of a festival is to arouse the curiosity of the audience and to promote the spread of information and education. Although the latter two are malleable concepts, the message is nonetheless clear!

Since the Code of Ethics is aimed at major international short film festivals, its individual provisions are not always suitable for application to national or regional festivals. The following thus makes a few proposals for corresponding adjustments.


General criteria

  • Festivals are organized and administered by independent bodies. (Counter-example: a film competition hosted by a business as part of its marketing campaign is not a festival.)
  • The duration of the event is a criterion: an event that offers a programme for just one or a few evenings should not call itself a festival. The code recommends that international film festivals run for between five and twelve days with several daily presentations.
  • At festivals that call themselves “˜international’, at least 50% of the films should come from abroad, from several different countries.
  • Festivals should invite the authors of competition films to come to the festival and meet representatives from the trade press and the industry. The latter group consists particularly of producers, distributors, buyers, curators and other festival organizers, who are likewise invited. (Conversely: events without trade press and professional industry representatives in attendance are not film festivals.)
  • The majority of a jury must consist of film professionals or artists.


Best-practice benchmarks benefiting authors and filmmakers

  • The organizers must publish a written set of regulations defining, among other things, conditions for participation, how films are selected and what prizes are to be awarded. The regulations for international festivals should be available in several languages.
  • The festival catalogue should provide a synopsis and cast & crew list for each film, along with the complete address of the producer, distributor and/or print source.
  • The films should be shown in their original medium, format and length (e.g. no video or DVD copies).
  • All films in a competition are to be treated equally in terms of publicity, presentation, discussion opportunities, screening venue and number of screenings.
  • The film prints should be insured.
  • Copyrights must be observed.


Rules against abusive and unfair business practices

  • No fees may be charged to submit work or take part in the festival.
  • A written consent form must be signed by the rights holders of all films presented.
  • A film may be screened only a limited number of times at the festival.
  • Film excerpts advertising the festival in the media must be no longer than 10% of the running time of the film, and a maximum of 3 minutes long. Here as well, the written consent of the rights holder must be obtained.
  • For touring programmes following the festival, separate contracts must be concluded. The authors must receive a share of any income realized (for example through admission fees). Otherwise, the same rules apply for tour events as for screening during the actual festival.


Exclusivity or broad exposure?

The rules in the Code of Ethics of the International Short Film Conference go into much further detail than proposed above. They include very precise, even quantitatively specified rules for conducting a festival. This may be important in an international framework, in which a few major festivals agree on common practices in order to avoid competing.

But on the national or regional level, this would have the effect of excluding many organizers. The idea is not to distinguish a few “˜important and correct’ festivals from the others as an exclusive club, which is the impression one gets from the ISFC’s Code of Ethics and the FIAPF. Instead, criteria should be defined in such a way that as many serious organizers as possible are able to get on board.

Nevertheless, the criteria must not be so flexible that they constitute a carte blanche for all possible practices. No concessions can be made, for example, when it comes to fair treatment of the filmmakers and respectful handling of their works.


Rental fees and application fees

Unlike on the international festival scene, the financial framework conditions for short film festivals must be evaluated differently and the rules expanded and adapted to the character of each event. For example, the ISFC’s Code of Ethics prohibits the payment of rental fees for films. But for short film festivals, which are increasingly serving the function of a screening platform – in fact often the only one available for certain films – the opposite would actually be desirable.

The Code of Ethics of the Short Film Conference also frowns on asking filmmakers to pay application fees. This rule was probably taken from the European Film Festival Coordination’s code of ethics, which is worded almost identically to that of the ISFC. But in many countries outside Europe where there is no public funding for festivals, such as the USA, this kind of prohibition is probably illusory.

As always when money is at stake, abuse and fraud can be found here and there. Cases now and then come to light, for example, in which application fees are charged online for an event that is either not a festival or that doesn’t even exist at all.


No free content for fake festivals

Short film events for the broad public that make a profit on admissions form a special case. The organizers of such events, which provide neither exposure beyond the region nor an infrastructure for professional visitors, can hardly call their undertaking a festival and should by all means pay rental fees to the filmmakers.

Large-scale open-air short film events could take their cue from the usual practice in the feature film sector, where a higher lump-sum film rental fee is paid than when a film is shown at the cinema. Financial benefits enjoyed by the organizers could thus be passed onto the filmmakers.

Basically, it is necessary to prevent event organizers from purporting to put on a “˜festival’ in order to obtain free content and use the resulting profits to finance their own operation. For Internet competitions this is unfortunately already common practice.


Imposing sanctions difficult

Rules can usually be enforced best when violators are at risk of sanctions. The example of the International Short Film Conference shows that this is possible within an association. In general, the more prominent the organization, or the better the self-regulating body can position itself before the professional public (see FIAPF), the greater the chances that such rules will have an impact on non-members as well. This would be the best possible solution. But a major step could also be to orient efforts along best practice guidelines, i.e. benchmarks that are accepted by as many organizers as possible and are implemented by them voluntarily. This would in turn put pressure on other organizers, or at least allow for a differentiation between those who follow the rules and those who do not. Ultimately, it’s up to the filmmakers themselves whether an event is supported and recognized as a festival.

There will always be some black sheep. That’s why every filmmaker would do well to ask around on the film scene and to read the fine print before submitting a film to a purported festival. And if the event doesn’t even have a set of regulations or any fine print to read – beware!

This text is based on an article that was published in the AG Kurzfilm’s 2009 Short Report.

The Code of Ethics of the International Short Film Festival Conference was adapted to short film festivals in 1995 at the Carrefour des Festival. That same year, the former European Film Festival Coordination passed a nearly identical code whose rules also apply to feature film festivals.


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