Film Festivals in Cinema Programmes of Major Cities – A New Global Business Model

Mack Sennett shows his film “Mabel’s Dramatic Career” (1913), Photo courtesy Orange County Archives (Public Domain)


The first part of the research focused on scam festival calls for entries, as well as on pseudo festivals that are held beyond the public sphere. In connection with the growing number of short films seeking an audience – which as a rule continues to mean in cinema screenings – festival models have also emerged that are aimed in a classic sense at the general public, and that right in the centres of our cities. The second part of our series explores such new types of events.

These events actually describe themselves as festivals, but they do not conform to the ideas and expectations of a classic film festival. In fact they are film programmes for cinema screenings that, supported by algorithms and global networks, have acquired several features and characteristics of festivals, but which lack their social and cultural components. However, due to the speed at which they are spreading and multiplying, they are hoodwinking the public and thus changing the existing festival landscape.


It is not so long ago that each country or state had just one or two representative film festivals, whereas today every larger city or town have their own festivals. With some major cities holding up to 100 events that give themselves the title of festival.



Film Festival Numbers


No one can say exactly how many film festivals there are. But the online submission platforms do provide some good indications. This is because almost every festival uses their services, even if the larger and most important festivals never avail of them and other ones have opted out of them in the meantime and developed their own procedures.


Currently, the commercial market leaders FilmFreeway lists 6,649 film festivals, Festhome has 1,800 and Withoutabox accounts for 1,409. When the “short” filter is activated during the search for festivals, then 5,547 festival organisers remain at FilmFreeway and 1,171 at WAB (as of 8 June 2018).

That is quite a lot and certainly a far higher number than just ten years ago. In 2006 when it was the sole platform, Withoutabox had a total of ‘just’ 500 festivals under contract.



Question of Definition: “Film Festival” Not A Protected Term


What these numbers do not reveal are the character, the seriousness and the importance of these events registered on submission platforms. Their self-descriptions and portrayals on the platforms all sound similar. And very few surveys have been conducted here. Unfortunately, “festival studies” is still a relatively young field of research, one which has not yet focused on short film. For this reason I am only in a position to speculate here on the basis of the few figures known, the self-presentations of the festivals and my own research work in the area.


To gain a better understanding of the structures involved, it makes sense to differentiate those events that call themselves festivals on the basis of types, commencing with a definition of what an ideal one is. The ideal kind of film festival can be gleaned from the qualities and characteristics utilised as criteria in the codes of ethics from the International Short Film Conference and the German Short Film Association (AG Kurzfilm).


If we take the average range of these criteria as a yardstick and also take into consideration festival listings from trustworthy institutions and associations, a positive list of about 300 to 400 short film festivals results globally that correspond to the definition of a proper short film festival. So what is the case with the remaining 5,000 festivals promoting themselves on FilmFreeway and looking for film submissions?


Firstly, I assume that a not insignificant number of these “platform festivals” do not exist at all in reality (i.e. fakes). A further block of them are “pseudo festivals” that are actually held in reality, but without any screenings in a cinema, or only with screenings for invited participants that are not open to the public. These events do indeed aim to scoop up the film entry fees, but at least they pamper to the vanity of the filmmakers participating in them. I described several examples of these two types of festivals in the first part of the series.


A relatively large group consists of “audience festivals”. These are organised by funded cultural initiatives and held in cinemas and alternative screening venues, and are aimed at local audiences. A further group with a similar local focus consists of open-air screening events or one-off festivals, and that with both commercial as well as non-commercial organisers.



Commercial Cinema Programme Festival: A New Kind of Festival


You can find them in every larger German city, as indeed in ‘short film countries’ such as Spain and France: Cinema screenings of short film programmes that their organisers call festivals. They often consist of just one to three-day events that have only one aspect in common with a festival: The films in the programme were submitted to it and a selection of them is then screened publicly to the cinema audience in a competition programme. Unlike local audience festivals from cultural initiatives, these “festivals” are managed and run by commercial enterprises. The organisers are either independent businesspersons or small firms (such as limited liability companies) and, with increasing frequency, international consortia.


The festival programmes are not compiled by the cinemas themselves, but organised shop-in-shop by the festival operators who rent the cinemas for this purpose. It is usual to agree to a flat-rate cinema rental sum or provide a share of the box-office takings. The festival organiser’s service here consists of selecting and arranging the films for the screenings. The film prints themselves are as a rule forwarded directly – mostly as data transfers – to the cinemas. In this way, the festival organiser merely assumes an administrative role.


As for the cinema operators, their services consist of reserving the programme screening time slots, providing the cinema personnel (box office, admission, projection room) and promoting the event using their usual channels (press, programme info on the internet). Such events can represent lucrative additional income for the cinema operators, as they do not have to pay any film rental fees and their income is not dependant on the box office takings when the cinema is rented out.


Most of the organisers of such festivals operate in a concealed manner. In other words, they utilise the anonymity granted to them by commercial submission platforms. It has never been so easy to establish a “festival” anonymously using a random location, to promote and publicise it globally, and to collect fees for the submissions to it. A typical ploy with such organisers is that the only address provided in the online invitation for entries is that of the event venue being rented out for the festival. And details are almost never provided about the organiser’s legal form and structure. Indeed it frequently occurs that even the name of the person responsible for the event is missing. With only the submission platforms’ accounting departments knowing the real names and bank account details of the persons involved…



The Business Model (please do not do this at home!)


By dispensing with a selection committee to view the submissions, fees or expense allowances are saved. Instead, the screening programme is compiled from recommendations by festival agencies, or the festival organiser invites already known films or filmmakers directly to the event.

Likewise a jury is also not appointed. The organisers themselves decide on the winners in a back room, or ‘democratically’ leave this to the audience. Or, alternatively, prizes are dispensed with and all of the participants receive a certificate and a JPEG with laurels.

In the same way, a presentation of the programme and rounds of discussions with the filmmakers are foregone – which reduces the amount of time required for the event and lowers the cinema rent.

When they live in another country or state, the organisers do not even have to attend the event. Instead, they recruit a local presenter, such as an actress or actor, for instance. Which saves on travel costs.

The same programme, or a revolving part of it, is repeatedly screened in cinemas in other cities, states and countries, or utilised for further screenings in new combinations – with the films themselves only having to be organised and administered once.

The supplying of the film prints (which are mostly downloads and only rarely real prints provided at the cost of the sender) is undertaken by the filmmakers and the preparation of the playlists (from files) is done by the projection room staff in the festival cinema.

No written texts or editorial support are required, nor is the printing of related publications. The film titles and authors are publicised quickly online without any details of the crew or cast and film synopses. Likewise, lists of accreditations and festival catalogues are unnecessary due to a lack of media and professional visitors at the event.

However, some aspects are critical: A photo wall for the photos of the prize-winners and regular posts on Facebook and Twitter – the budget simply has to cover these!



The Berlin Example – A Short Who’s Who of the Globalised Festival Landscape in Berlin


Cinema programme festivals, as I have termed them here, can be found across the globe in all metropoles and major cities. But exact figures on them are rare. In Canada, the City of Toronto Administration has counted more than 100 active film festivals. However there are no figures for Montréal, the city in Canada with the highest density of festivals.


The University of California, Berkeley, has counted 27 festivals in the Bay Area, while the State of California lists 169 festivals on its self-presentation page. I know, however, from my research work for the first part of this series that in the San Diego/La Jolla area alone there are more than 80 events that call themselves a festival – with about 50 of them as short film festivals.


In Germany, Berlin is presumably the city with the highest density of festivals. It is estimated that just under 100 festivals which screen short films are held there. But only a few of them fulfil the minimal requirements for a proper festival, such as: The event extends over several days, with an open submission procedure, transparent selection process, independent jury, get-togethers and discussions with the filmmakers, documentation of the festival programme and information about the organisers…


Most of these festivals are held in the Kino Babylon und b-ware! Ladenkino cinemas, in Acud or in Moviemento, as well as in the Arsenal Institute for Film and Video Art, and in cultural centres. They have illustrious names such as (cinema, entry fee in brackets): “Around International Film Festival” (Acud, $30 to $40), “Berlin Lift-off Festival” (Union, $15 to $100), “Capital Filmmakers Festival” (IL Kino, €45 to €55), “German United Film Festival” (b-ware!, $35 to $75), or quite simply “Berlin Short Film Festival” (Kino Babylon, $45 to $55) and “Berlin Independent Film Festival” (Kino Babylon, £25 to £95).


There is one aspect that I overlooked initially, but which I discovered through my research on the “International Filmmaker Festival of World Cinema Berlin”: Most of these festivals consist of ‘chain stores’. In other words, they are not small local festivals, but a part of festival networks that are organised and held in each case by the very same companies or persons in numerous cities throughout the world using the exact same model. Ascertaining this is a difficult task because most of them operate in a covert manner and do not publish any information online. For instance, when a festival’s host is located in the USA or Australia, it seems to be okay when no legal information is provided about the festival ownership, such as its imprint details, not to mention its data privacy statement, as now required under EU law. And as the owners themselves use anonymization services in many cases to mask their IP numbers, much still remains shrouded in darkness even after my research work. A short excerpt from my results is provided hereunder.


With three festivals of its own in Berlin – all of them in Kino Babylon cinema – one international chain has been well represented in the city for a quite a while: The “Berlin Short Film Festival” from 28.6. to 1.7. 2018, the “European Short Film Festival” last held from 1.10. to 4.10.2017 and the “Berlin Independent Film Festival” due next year from 13.2. to 19.2.2019. The last one uses its closeness timewise to the Berlinale and the unspoken implication this provides of related networking benefits to promote itself to the filmmakers submitting works to it.


One name in common found at these festivals is that of Claudine Biswas-Mackenzie, sometimes as a curator, at other times as a festival director, and even graced with an MA by Kino Babylon cinema. While you can learn everything about her thespian talents and much more on various online casting portals, nothing can be found about her professional or commercial relationship with the festivals (as self-employed owner? Co-owner of a company? Front woman?). Likewise, she is unknown in the festival and short film scene. Yet for that, her name can also even be found as the responsible person at the following festivals: “Paris Independent Film Festival” und “Paris Short Film Festival”. Moreover, she has been involved with the “European Film Festivals” in Stockholm, Athens, Moscow and London, which cannot be unravelled anymore due to internet sites being taken down and changes to URLs, as well as with the “Cannes Short Film Festival Nizza“. This should not be confused with the “Cannes Short Film Festival” that possible belongs to a different grouping but perhaps also to the same company (with Mary Symmons and Erich Schultz, who are not represented in Berlin).

P.S. On the subject of the Cannes Short Film Festival, see this contribution in the Cannes Guide.


When perusing the programmes for the festivals from Claudine Biswas-Mackenzie over the last year, I realised there were eight films that also appeared in the programmes of the other festivals. Moreover, a not entirely unknown director and video artist by the name of Ira Schneider has been regularly represented at the festivals and received awards (11 in total) between 2015 and 2018 at each of the events, something that he does not mention on his own website. This casts a certain light on the prize-determining process here, as well as on the organisers’ consideration for films whose submitters actually pay for the events with their entry fees.

On a side note, in one of the extremely rare press reports on these events that was presumably published deliberately it could be read that: »The anonymous jury is composed of carefully selected industry professionals from around the world.«


The “ARFF Berlin // Around international Film Awards” belong to another grouping that holds the same events in Barcelona, Paris and Amsterdam.


✈ Berlin ✈ Manchester ✈ Tokyo ✈ New York ✈ Toronto ✈ Los Angeles ✈ Amsterdam ✈ Paris ✈ Sydney ✈ London

Moreover the Lift-off Festivals, which are organised by a major corporation, can now also be found in Berlin. The Lift-off Global Network with offices in Pinewood Studios (UK) organises festivals in 10 metropoles. The CEO is the film producer James Bradley. In addition to the festival department, the business empire also has distribution and production units, all of which are connected ‘synergetically’ with each other (i.e. submitters may apply with a production that can then be tested at the festivals and, if successful there, subsequently included in the distribution catalogue).


The activities undertaken by Adis Venero are highly homemade in their business approach and even a bit odd at times. She is behind the Berlin-based Capital Filmmakers Festival (»Any year of production is accepted«) that is also held in Budapest, Lisbon, Madrid, Valletta and Vienna, the Courage Film Festival (motto: »Dream, Inspire, Courage, Harmony«), the 180′ Berlin Filmfest (3 minute micro films) and the Meraki Film Festival (»labour of love«). The enterprising Cuban also offers her services as a software business development manager, deals in high-tech kitchen appliances and has even flogged a half Mercedes Benz truck on Alibaba for another company. And of course she also has her own Festival International Cannes.


There are three festival that I have not been able to research properly but which seem fishy somehow, although they are held – or claim to be – in the renowned Arsenal: The “Berlin Motion Picture Festival” named Arsenal as its venue in 2017. According to Arsenal, they did have some contact with it, but no contract was ever signed to hold the festival there. Yet for that, the anonymous organiser still details Arsenal’s Potsdamer Straße 2 address on FilmFreeway as its contact address in Berlin. The next festival is planned to be held from 14.12 to 15.12.18, but apparently this time in IL Kino cinema – with ten deadlines and even prizes in music, screenplay and photography categories, in addition to the film awards.

Likewise, the “Grace! International Film Festival” details Arsenal as its location, although the cinema itself had no knowledge of this when I enquired about it. On just one day in October, “Grace!” intends to hold competition sections with drone films, music videos, experimental films, animation shorts, narrative shorts and documentary shorts. For that, it provides no information whatsoever on its website about its anonymous organiser. And when you click its ticket reservation button, a popup page in Russian appears…

Already on 1 October, the Sunlight International Film Festival – which has a second festival location in Moscow as per its own details – is due to start. Their announcement that on a single day they will screen competitions with prizes in more than 20 different categories, including feature-length films ranging from the best drone film, to the best timelapse, through to the best human rights and best German language feature, is something I’d regard as quite a sporting challenge. The photos from last year indicate that is was a grandiose event. On a side note, I was not able to find any information about a festival of the same name in Moscow…




Unfortunately, the filmmakers and local Berliners had to forego the “BIFA Berlin Independent Film Awards” in April. The Kino Babylon cinema cancelled the event at short notice. On his homepage, the organiser accused the cinema of »sabotage« and subjected the cinema manager Timothy Grassmann to a severe personal attack.

The background to the cancellation was that the cinema staff were unable to download all of the films in the programme. In the subsequent confrontation it also came to light that the organisers had sent links to files which were not in cinema-compatible formats.


This story provides a telling picture of how such organisers operate, pretending to be capable of running a ‘film festival’ over three nights, together with their lack of understanding about minimum standards for the projection quality at a festival. It is no surprise that the organisers of these ‘festivals’, when it is possible to identify them at all, come from unrelated areas with no prior knowledge of the festival business and are unknown faces in the media industry and short film scene. At the same time, however, this situation also reveal the dubious nature of the screening programme policy in a cinema that never misses an opportunity to accommodate such festival events.


According to my research, not only are there umpteen ‘festivals’ like these ones, but hundreds of them and potentially even a four-digit number of them. And in comparison to the costs that ‘proper festivals’ expend, their financial commitment is close to zero. For filmmakers who has not achieved any success at ‘proper festivals’, they should perhaps consider once more what the value and benefit is to them of screening their films under such circumstances, which costs real money. And they could even give a thought to the structures they are supporting by doing so, as indeed to which genuine structures they may be damaging in the process.



The third part in the series will explore economic aspects and festival policy issues. And that especially so as to draw conclusions from these developments, as well as consequences for the current festival landscape – with suggestions for filmmakers, festival organisers, cinema operators and, last but not least, on the culture policy itself.



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