Laurels for Greenbacks – Making Money with Short Films in a Thriving Festival Scene

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Film Festival Banner Meme – CC-BY-SA (sources: diverse CC0 + CC-BY-SA The Last 99)

 

A few years ago, I already reported on a ‘film festival’ that was never held, but for which an anonymous festival organiser pocketed the film submission fees. At that time I regarded it as a one-off case. But today, when we consider the array of announcements and calls for entries on submission platforms, I have the impression that there are now an immense number of ‘festivals’ at which at least one aspect does not ring true: They do not correspond to the classic idea and concept for a proper film festival.

 

The results of my research: Hundreds of so-called festivals can now be found on submission platforms with extremely unclear aims and which have interlinks or connections between them. As the data information about them is as unfathomable as the internet itself, I have decided to concentrate here on a specific festival event concept and take the concrete example of an internationally active player for a case study, so as to provide an understanding of the structures and clarification of the backgrounds to such business models.

 

 

First Contact: Alaska

 

A few years ago, I once reported on an incident that Steve Aufrecht (Professor Emeritus at the University of Alaska) exposed in 2010 in his blog “whatdoino”: An “Alaska International Film Festival”, with a wonderful panoramic landscape of snow-covered mountains and a polar bear in its logo, issued a call for filmmakers to make film submissions and participate in a competition for a fee of $30 to $55. In fact, this festival was never held and the festival’s offices turned out to be a post box address in Anchorage (not to be confused with the real Anchorage International Film Festival). The 65 festival prize-winners were sent a certificate by email and given the right to buy a crystal trophy. (see: whatdoino-steve.blogspot)

 

I found out by chance that the same unknown organiser was also running further festivals using the same scam. At the very bottom of the Alaskan festival’s homepage, the following copyright details were provided, “© 2006 La Jolla Film Festival” – a mistake by the website designer that weirdly continued onto other homepages like some snowball effect. On the website for the La Jolla Festival, which had a similar looking logo design with images of California and a surfer replacing the polar bear, a text was written beneath the “About The La Jolla Film Festival” that began with the words, “The Amsterdam International Film Festival is renowned for…”

 

At that time, I assumed this was an isolated incident, but today, having researched submission platforms and festival websites, I know that there are a multiplicity of such operations and networks with similar traits and characteristics.

Their typical features include: Pictures of beautiful landscapes or striking buildings (the Eiffel Tower, the Brandenburg Gate, the Tower Bridge, etc.), endless lists of categories and awards, submission deadlines extending over many months, high registration fees – but no money prizes. And no information about the festival organisers, not to mention the selection procedure or the juries. The similarities between several festival web presences imply that they amount to networks run by single organisers.

 

It is even possible that the same organisers from all those years ago are still running the same rip-off. On Filmfreeway, for instance, I came across the “California Film Awards”, whose banner image oddly enough has the file name >lajolla_filmakers.jpg<  – just like on the La Jolla Film Festival website that was switched off more than 10 years ago. If this does concern the same organisers, it seems they are now even trying to ‘go straight’: Any filmmakers who are not interested in receiving a certificate embellished with laurels and instead want to have screenings open to the public are now, unlike 10 years ago, openly informed in the regulations – or warned as the case may be – that: “Awarded films are not screened for the public”.

 

However, when combing through the festival calls for entries and announcements on submission platforms, I became aware of another aspect that has changed even more. A new and different festival concept is spreading like wildfire today: Calls for submissions to film awards without any film screenings, but with an awards ceremony at a gala dinner. Filmfreeway provides the option to specifically search for these ‘festivals’ with its “Online Festivals / Awards Event” filter. The last time I accessed it, I found 1,212 entries, including many dubious old faces as well. Even if all the entries I found do not solely concern awards events, there are still an astonishing number of them there, especially when we consider that compared to this, ‘only’ 1,380 festivals in total are currently listed in Withoutabox.

 

A further widespread model at present consists of international festivals that are organised in several cities by a single organiser using the same scheme. The festivals, each with a different programme, are held in hotels rather than in cinemas, and with the awards ceremony taking centre stage in them. Such ‘festivals’ are considered hereunder.

 

 

From Madrid to Berlin

 

In September, I came across a clue in the blog from Ismail Martin that led to Germany. Ismail organises the Madrid en Corto and distributes short films from the Madrid region.  As part of the “Madrid International Film Festival”, he wrote an article about ‘pseudo festivals’ that, in addition to Madrid, are also run in London, Amsterdam, Nice, Milan and Berlin by the organiser Film Fest International.

The Madrid festival was held in July 2017 in the Novotel Madrid Center. On the website, film programmes were announced in hotel rooms between 10.00 and 13.00. Only the titles and running times of the films were provided. Ismail Martin called the hotel and learned that no films were being screened on this day, but instead there would be a festive awards ceremony. I followed up this lead from Ismail Martin with his tip about the organiser and festivals in other European cities, and discovered a kind of parallel universe of international festivals that I had never even heard about.

 

In Berlin, the “International Filmmaker Festival of World Cinema” was held from 30 September to 7 October using the exact same scheme. The festival venue was the Holiday Inn – in Siemensstadt to the west of the city, far removed from the city centre, but in close proximity to Tegel Airport. And just like in Madrid, competition programmes in the hotel’s conference rooms were announced.

(Note: In October 2017 when I was conducting my research on this, the Berlin festival’s website disappeared partly or stopped functioning as a relaunch was in process there. Thus, the links provided may not lead to the same items, depending on the circumstances.)

 

I never found out whether the screenings announced in Berlin ever happened. On the event’s Facebook-page photos, only small video beamers and screens in not properly darkened rooms can be made out, and we see that just a few people are present there, relatively speaking – presumable the prize-winning filmmakers. But for that, at the end of the event – just like in Madrid – a glamorous awards ceremony was held, which everyone attended in evening dresses and tuxedos à la the Oscar Awards. Yet the pictures on Facebook, on the festival website and in the portrait on Filmfreeway were each of different happy prize-winners from across the planet; always on a red carpet standing in front of a similar photo wall and brandishing the exact same trophies. But only the set of pictures on Facebook could be allocated to their specific locations without having any related knowledge. (see http://filmmakerfestivalberlin.com/, Nice? and https://www.facebook.com/FilmFestInt/ Berlin?) And the fact that the banner for the new Berlin internet page shows the prize-winners from Nice can be interpreted as flippancy or negligence on the part of the organisers.

 

In a Facebook post from 7 October, the trophies can be seen lined up on a table – in 4 rows each consisting of 15 statuettes.

 

 

Revelatory commitment from a filmmaker…

 

On the day before the awards ceremony in Berlin, a Facebook entry boasted that the filmmaker Christina Kim, who was nominated with her films “Chasing Birdie” and “Extramaritals”, would be the hostess of an after-screening-party, for which (I suspect) she herself paid. Photos taken at the after-screening-party show Christina Kim standing before roll-ups advertising her films, on which the golden laurels are imprinted that she was due to be awarded the next day.

 

A characteristic aspect of this festival also seems to be that the short film “Chasing Birdie”, which you can barely find on the internet, has not yet been screened at a ‘proper’ festival. However, other laurels printed on the promotion material for the film verify that it participated in the “Silicon Valley International Film Festival”, which was organised by the film’s production company, and in the “Marina Del Rey International Film Festival”. The latter is one of several festivals organised by Film Marketing Services Inc. – a firm with a postal suite in a virtual office in Nevada. But that’s another story, and an interesting one too…

 

 

Further festivals from the same group of organisers: Milan, London, Nice, Amsterdam…

 

After Berlin, the international filmmaker caravan moved on and, as I am writing this piece, it has now stopped off in Novotel Milano Nord Ca Granda, where the “International Filmmaker Festival of World Cinema Milan” is being held.

Programme in Halls 1 to 3, http://filmfestinternational.com/category/milan-iff/

 

This is being followed from 10 to 17 February by London and from 5 to 12 May by Nice. The “Nice International Film Festival” is the sole festival in this group not being held in a major city, but for that it is able to shine and glitter thanks to its proximity to Cannes. After Nice, it is Madrid’s turn yet again, and that with the “Madrid Asia International Film Festival”. By the way, on the Facebook page for “Madrid Asia”. This is then followed in summer by the “Amsterdam International Filmmaker Festival”  and in July by the “Madrid International Film Festival”. Berlin’s next turn is first planned for December 2018…

 

 

Company information about the organisers

 

On the festivals’ shared internet page, which is obsolete by now, it was possible to read under the terms and conditions that Film Festival International Ltd. is the umbrella name for a group of international festivals. Further festival companies are also named there, which however appear to be dormant at present. But Film Festival International Ltd. is not a holding company. In fact, each festival has its own limited liability company as the organising body. These limited liability companies with share capital contributions amounting to just £1 in many cases all have their registered addresses in Margate, Kent (UK). With the same four or five persons repeatedly switching positions as their directors, secretaries and shareholders over the last few years. Two or three street addresses and a post box are named as the locations of the various company offices. At the centre of it all is one Carl Tooney or Carl Lee Tooney. Tooney is the director of about 20 limited liability companies that, apart from a few exceptions (e.g. Tooneys Baked Potato Ltd.), are linked to film festivals or the film sector. Carl Tooney originally comes from the advertising industry. He and his co-shareholders, as well as his circle of friends, are officially named as holding various positions on the festival pages found on submission platforms such as Filmfreeway and Withoutabox.

 

Unlike the festival group described at the beginning, the Tooney group thus operates in a transparent way and organises events ‘in real life’. The conditions for participation are openly declared in the regulations. And it seems that the people who attend the events and win a trophy (see photo), of which hundreds are awarded throughout the year, are apparently happy or at least proud to pose for a glamour photo on Tooney’s red carpet.

 

 

Concept and structure – Berlin festival by way of example

 

The submission applications to the festival are effected via Filmfreeway, Withoutabox and, recently, World Film Presentation. The application deadlines are incredibly long compared to a ‘proper’ festival. For instance, you can already apply from 1 July 2017 for the next “Berlin International Filmmaker Festival”, which is being held in December 2018. Calls for entries have been issued for 18 (!) different award-winning categories, ranging from animated shorts, to drone filming through to best television drama. The films may be up to four years old. The application fee for a short film submitted within the regular deadline amounts to an impressive $65 at Filmfreeway, or more than the fee charged by Sundance. The costs for attending the gala dinner (awards ceremony) have not been released at the present point in time. In 2017, the ticket to the event cost £180 sterling. The organisers offer a package deal, with unspecified prices, that also includes the hotel costs.

 

Only a few pictures of the screenings in the Holiday Inn conference rooms are available. And it is not evident from them that professional projection equipment was used for showing the films there. Many of the seats were empty, with persons from across the globe attending the event, all of whom were presumably prize-winners. In other words, the attendees kept to themselves. Yet for that, the festival promotes itself as having contacts with the international press, as well as with film buyers and distributors. But as no advertising or promotion for the event was conducted anywhere other than within the festival’s own internet publications, neither the press nor the media sector were informed about it and no information was provided about the film titles being screened. So it is of little surprise that no well-known industry representatives from Germany attended the event, or that the trade press did not report on it.

 

In fact, Carl Tooney himself takes care of the press and PR activities with a publication https://issuu.com/filmfestint/docs/berlin_2017, which is released by his company Film the Magazine Ltd. and is written by the team member Steve Grossmith, who runs the company Movie Media and Marketing Ltd. at the head offices in Margate. Even the film experts and advisors used to promote participation in the festival are not independent specialists, but rather team members with multifariously intertwined media sector activities. Such as for instance Ray Davis, who provides the services of his company “The Film Industry Network” for a membership fee. With the prize-winners from the Tooney festivals to be found there in small portfolios of managed films. Or Adam Tinnion, Tooney’s son and co-owner of his own limited liability company, who recommends himself to the festival guests as a marketing expert for social media. And finally, we should not forget the hostess Chelsey Baker, who attends all the festivals for the Hollywood style awards. She offers a mentor programme for start-ups and is head of companies like “The Business Model Ltd.” and “Success Media Ltd.”. In this way, the festivals really do seem to generate a little ‘added value’ for the whole event team.

 

 

15 minutes of fame

 

However, what sounds like a large corporate empire turns out to be more like a big family at closer glance, and it may be assumed that the filmmakers participating in the festivals see this in a similar (positive) way. It is obvious that all of the festival participants are only concerned with gaining some attention and regard, as well as the ‘laurels’, the minor perks (“we offer the benefits that come from having a winning Rosette on your DVD cover”) and the one amazing final photo. The participants doll themselves up so much for this, as though they are celebrities parading through the flashing lights to the Croisette. Although the people on the Berlin photo do look modest and unassuming, at least in comparison to the prize-winners in Nice in an airport hotel – with a view of the runways – who are dressed so over-the-top, you might think they are members of an amateur drama group from the Carnaval de Nice – photo.

 

With all this posing and hubbub, it also comes as little surprise that no information is provided on how the film entries are viewed for selection and by whom, how the lists of nominations come about, and who decides on the awards. In other words, these are ‘festivals’ without cinema screenings, without an audience, without juries and without money prizes. And presumably the guests and participants at these events have no desire to scrutinise this more closely, because they are all ‘winners’ after all. The only amazing aspect is that there are so many filmmakers willing to pay the costs for this self-made jubilation – including the film submission application fee, the travel costs, their evening attire and finally even an admission fee to their own awards ceremony. However, it could well be that there are not all that many applications to the Tooney festivals. At least the discounts offered just before the last deadline would suggest this.

 

According to their own information, the organisers have had 11,704 films in the programmes of the last 32 events. This would amount to just under 370 films per event, which cannot be correct, as the film titles published correspond roughly to the number of awards (according to the organisers’ own information, 463 at 32 events). In the event that this figure actually concerns the number of submissions, it would mean that about US$ 24,000 of income is generated per festival from the fees for film entries submitted within the regular deadline. But it is not possible to determine how many films are actually submitted. What I suspect, however, is that in this case after the costs are deducted, the organisers’ income is not actually high enough to permit a festival team of almost 10 persons to get rich from it.

 

 

Everyone is earning money – just not the filmmakers…

 

Yet for that, this is a system from which everyone does earn money, except for the filmmakers. Till now, we have presumed that short films are not a business proposition anyway. Their sales and distribution represent just a small market, and otherwise only micro income at most can be earned from advertising revenue in the online sector. But as one researches the submission platforms more deeply and subjects the organisers’ websites to closer scrutiny and compares them with each other, the impression grows increasingly that a huge parallel universe of self-named festivals has been established, which take relatively small but numerous fees and contributions to generate a huge total turnover. Yet in this long tail of the short film market, only the fake festivals that solely ‘exist’ online make proper profits… and of course the submission platforms.

 

This development in the festival scene does perhaps explain the enormous increase in the numbers of festivals over the last few years. No one knows how many festivals there now are, nor can they know what a (proper) festival is when so much unclarity prevails. The explosion in newly founded festivals is closely connected, both temporally and causally, to the establishment and spreading of submission platforms. In 2006 – when it still had a monopoly – Withoutabox had 500 active festivals under contract, as per their own information. Just ten years later, Filmfreeway claims to have more than 5,000 festivals registered with it. And roughly 3/4 of them take submission fees…

 

 

The value of participating in a festival and film awards in inflationary times

 

Of course it is true that filmmakers earn no money at the large, serious film festivals either. But they do still offer the filmmakers the prospect of winning a money prize, as well as the promise of gaining non-monetary benefits for their own careers. Several large festivals also provide support to filmmakers in the form of travel costs for instance, permitting them to attend the event. And at least in Europe, film submissions to festivals are free of charge as a rule. Smaller regional festivals that are often run by non-profit organisations even pay screening fees on occasion. Here too, however, short films are at a disadvantage yet again. With full-length feature films and documentaries that have a distributor, it can be demanded of small festivals with only a local reach that they pay a distribution fee. But this is ‘not usual’ for short films.

 

So what motivates filmmakers to apply and submit their films to ‘festivals’ that are held without any audiences, practically speaking? And what motivates them personally to travel to events that result in significant costs for themselves? The boom in ‘festivals’ without film screenings, but with glamorous prize ceremonies at which only certificates or off-the-shelf trophies are awarded, cannot be explained away solely by nativity and stupidity on the one hand, and by deception or even fraud on the part of the organisers. Otherwise, we would hear far more disappointed voices and complaints in the social media. In fact, it seems that events like the filmmaker festivals mentioned above evidently meet a demand and satisfy a need. These range from the pleasure of posing like a dressed-up Hollywood star on a red carpet, to unadulterated vanity, through to the hope of gaining some attention and regard with the award received (or bought in this case) and achieving the breakthrough somewhere else.

 

But this is a miscalculation as such. With the current inflationary number of dubious awards out there, professionals in the industry – be they buyers, producers and even potential moviegoers by now – have long become unimpressed by “official selections” that extend over several pages in CVs or fooled by golden laurels on posters and flyers. Quite the opposite: Such laurels and awards can have a downright negative effect when they are already attached as a ‘pre-roll’ to the preview video submitted to a festival for selection purposes. In these cases, most of the people on a festival’s viewing and selection committee simply tune out.

 

Likewise, even an economy that replaces money as its currency with attention is aware of inflation. In fact, it would be cheaper to order a trophy with a personalised engraving or an august certificate from one of the countless mail order firms. But then the event itself would still be lacking, not to mention the picture in a winner’s pose taken in front of the photo wall for the filmmaker’s own Facebook page.

 

But for anyone who does want to go for this, I have a few addresses and tips for them below.

 

 

For the tips and comments, thanks to: Dave Lojek, Denis Demmerle and Ismail Martin.

 

P.S. … to be continued:

The second part of the research considers another new festival model – public film screenings in inner-city cinemas, which are now spreading like wildfire. This work also explores the question of which impacts this has on screenings of short films and on proper festivals that are exposed to such competition, which is frequently organised on an international level, in their localities.

 

 

NOTES/LINKS

 

Recommendations (selected examples, no liability for errors)

 

Festivals in the Magic Productions Group (company registered address unknown)

Online festivals, partly with awards ceremonies (festival head/organiser: Roy Zafrani) with monthly calls for entries and prizes in more than 40 categories. All winners receive a cost-free certificate (jpg/pdf) by email and the right to acquire a trophy for $290. Not an Oscar – but “IMDb qualifying”

 

  • Top Shorts http://www.topshorts.net http://www.topshorts.net/november-2017
  • Festigious http://www.festigious.com/
  • Los Angeles Film Awards https://www.lafilmawards.net/
  • Actors Awards Los Angeles http://www.theactorsawards.com/
  • And for the first time also in New York: New York Film Awards https://www.newyorkfilmawards.com/

 

 

The festival world of the Film Festivals Group (the Brazilian Connection)

Festival director/organiser: José Claudio Silva (Rio de Janeiro) https://www.filmfestivalsgroup.com/

 

 

 

Great opportunities for prizes are also available at the “Action on Film” (Las Vegas) and “Hollywood Dreamz” (L.A.) see https://www.actiononfilmfest.com/

 

 

Fait divers

 

Chaos and curiosities in Toronto

 

The “Toronto Independent Festival” with the domain name “torontoshort.com” has (still current?) a banner picture with a background graphic of a festival in Milan (instructions: Click on the Toronto image with Firefox and the background graphic appears using the right mouse button.)

From the same organiser: “Toronto Short Film Festival”

… not to be confused with the “Toronto Shorts International Film Festival” with the domain name “lashortsfest.com” in the URL http://lashortsfest.com/toronto/content.asp?PageID=1,

whose director (presumably R. A.), without mentioning his own name, calls for a boycott of the festival director of “Toronto Short” and provides this address  and the same festival logo https://filmfreeway.com/TORONTONXTFILMFEST is also used here…

 

 

Global Film Awards with a web layout worth the money – Not only does Global Independent Film Awards  promise a dozen awards and ‘electronic laurels’, but also bronze, silver and gold medallions for US$40. It’s motto: “You need credibility. We’ve got awards … Groovy, right?”

 

 

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