When the first calls were issued in May 2016 for the newly established “Festival Work Fairly Organised“ initiative, a voice was given to a group of professionals who have been largely ignored to date and who conduct their work under precarious conditions.
For the first time ever, a group of players and stakeholders in and from the film festival scene in Germany have come together so as to improve the working conditions within this specific area.
While queues of people were waiting at the cinema box offices in Leipzig to get tickets to the Dok International Leipzig Festival for Documentary and Animated Film, one of the most renowned film festivals globally, on 4 November 2016, about 80 staff members and representatives of film festivals and film-related initiatives, as well as freelancers and journalists, came together for an urgently needed stocktaking and review. On the surface, so-to-speak, film festivals have never been so successful, with the German festival scene now accounting for roughly 450 film festivals.
Over the course of the four-hour event, one aspect especially came to the fore: Before any labour action can happen in this area, hard statistical work has to be conducted, as well as some wrestling with definitions and terms.
The event was enriched by the presence of the sociologist Lisa Basten and the media scientists Tanja C. Krainhöfer and Skadi Loist from the Film Festival Research Network (FFRN), three experts with festival experience, with each of them having conducted research work for several years on film festivals and the working conditions in the creative industry. Their results of the conducted research here empirically verify the working reality that many film-festival workers actually experience.
From the internationally acclaimed film festivals through to the hobby cineaste event – it seems that the continued existence of a whole industry is dependent on the willingness for self-exploitation by those working in it. Lieber: With seasonal work, service contracts, remuneration far below minimum wage levels are standard practise here, and that with the festival staff being completely responsible themselves for the provision of their own social security. For this reason, the representative from the related ver.di trade union described in her welcoming address the festivals staff as „victims“.
Informal survey among those present at the event:
Who are in full-time permanent employment (unlimited, no fixed term) at a film festival: approx. 12% of the responses.
Who are in fixed-term permanent employment: approx. 13% of the responses.
Who have service contracts: approx. 25% of the responses.
Who are voluntary/unpaid staff: approx. 50% of the responses.
“There has been a lack of networking in the festival scene to date, and money is never discussed,” Grit Lemke, Head of the Film Programme at the DOK Festival Leipzig, said in her opening comments. She, together with Alexandra Hertwig (Kassel Documentary Film and Video Festival), Andrea Kuhn (Nuremberg International Human Rights Film Festival) and Ludwig Sporrer (DOK.fest Munich), was one of the four initiators of the panel discussion. And she too only became aware of the structural self-exploitation when she switched over to a permanent position.
With the business practices currently prevailing in the festival work, fair and adequate participation in the social system and even a minimum of social protection is simply impossible.
Ludwig Sporrer asks the panel: Has anyone here ever thought about quitting their festival work?
Response from the audience: You’re not seriously asking that, are you?
A single hand is raised.
Creative professions with a daily routine shaped by autonomy and innovation are becoming increasingly popular. For twenty years now, the aspirations from a working environment have shifted from merely earning a living to becoming a place of personal self-fulfilment. And this, together with the fear of gaining work that is alienating, has created a situation whereby many now decide against having a normal working relationship and the state social protection that this provides. These are mostly people with excellent training and professional skills, and they come especially from the middle class. In the larger cities, up to 10% of those employed are already working in the so-called creative and cultural economy. And in Germany, twice as many people are working in this sector than in the automotive industry, with them accounting for 1.6 million jobs in total, and that although highly specialised professions in the general film festival area as well as in related associations are not even statistically included here. Social insurance contributions into the German Artists’ Social Security Fund (a special health and pension insurance for artists in Germany) frequently do not provide enough social protection for the creative people covered by it. Moreover, most of the relevant areas of work at a film festival, such as programme curating for instance, are not accepted as being sufficiently artistic for the worker to join the above-mentioned artists’ insurance fund. Thus a whole professional field is potentially facing poverty in old age, with a lack of solutions and approaches to date on how to restructure the social protection system here so as to take account of the ever-growing number of self-employed and freelancers in the creative economy especially. During a discussion between Grit Lemke and Harald Petzold, the media policy spokesperson from the Linke (left-wing political party in the German Bundestag parliament), it became clear just how little is known about this lack of minimum standards in film festival work.
Question to the panel: Who is doing enough financially for their old age?
Question from the audience: Which festival?
It seems that on a political level, there is a common perception that festival work is an expression of some social and civic commitment. And while it is certainly true that many film festivals were initially founded on the basis of private initiatives, over the past few years comprehensive professionalisation has occurred here.
For many communities and municipalities, festivals have become an essential component of their cultural life, with support provided to them in the form of cultural, economic and festival location funding. This results in quite significant benefits for both the national and international film industry, as indeed for the local communities and their economy in the form of cultural involvement and regional economic impacts.
Film festivals are establishing themselves increasingly as alternative screening and exploitation venues for films, and thus assuming a function undertaken by the art house cinemas. Depending on the circumstances, films now attract larger audiences at festivals than they do in standard cinema screenings. Yet such a radical shift away from movie theatres with continuous film screenings to festivals and events has also caused a change in the working conditions. With seasonal work the rule and some festival staff going from festival to festival, and getting short contracts in each case extending over a few months. Festivals which are dependent on cheap and voluntary staff tend to engage droves of trainees and interns in areas of work with high responsibilities at times, and have to re-convey their know-how to the new generation of trainees each time, with all of the effort this entails. In this way, the required continuity is not feasible, with the festival slipping into a kind of “staff percolator” role.
While the municipalities, local authorities and federal German states are more than happy to avail of the cultural and education work performed by the festivals as a means to market the attractiveness of their locations, there is a lack of understanding by the cultural policymakers to also regard festivals as business operations and employers, as increasingly important marketing and exploitation platforms for films, and as the driving forces for a whole industry with enormous appeal far above and beyond this. A study of the indirect profitability of the Berlinale film festival revealed that for every euro of funding provided, four euros of profit are generated in the local economy around the festival. Yet the festival workers who actually make this possible receive either none or very little of these sums, with the money invested instead in advertising, travel and accommodation costs, or with very strict conditions attached to its use. The result being that project funding is available for post-its, but not for personnel. Or as one panel member put it, festivals earn very high non-material profits and gains, but the actual monetary profits end up in the hotels and the train service.
Panel member: When I think about the work I did five years ago at a major documentary festival, if I’d been paid for everything I did at my usual freelance rate of €35 per hour, which of course I wasn’t, I’d have been the largest financial sponsor of the festival, apart from the city itself. And I’m certainly not the person who invested the most in this way in the festival.
So who is responsible for this situation? The cultural policymakers with their lack of appreciation for the requirements of a festival, as well as for its economic and cultural value? Or the festivals themselves, which make no effort to radically change the way they do their budgeting as they grow bigger year by year without increasing the salaries and wages they pay to their workforces? At the panel event, these issues triggered off a heated discussion about how fairer remuneration for festival staff can be achieved. One aim mentioned repeatedly was that at least the statutory minimum wage should be paid – and that at an event which was full of higher-education graduates.
Question: Who has a third-level or university degree here?
All of the hands are raised.
In an industry that is based on a high degree of personal commitment and inexhaustible idealism especially, it seems impossible to initiate some kind of labour action. Instead, other financing models are considered, from commercial funding through to sponsoring. Many festival organisers are both employees and also responsible for sourcing and procuring their festival funding. Which is a schizophrenic situation for many of them. How do you argue collectively for fair remuneration, when fulfilling the statutory minimum wage would mean the end of the actual festival?
Towards the end of the discussion, it became clear that this still young initiative will have to fight on two fronts: As an alliance of the festival workers for fairer conditions and remuneration for their own work, as well as for rights similar to those enjoyed by any employee and that in creative areas as well, and as an alliance of the festival organisers for an improved awareness of the festival scene as such in order to be in a situation generally to establish a basis for fair working conditions. They will have to fight to ensure that the focus here is on the economic-commercial and cultural value of the festivals, with it being publicly presented and acknowledged on this level as well. However, in order to raise the improvement in the situation of the film festivals and the festival workers onto the political agenda, facts and figures about the current situation first have to be surveyed and determined. Which is no easy task, as very little statistical and research work has been conducted to date on the cultural sector.
Surveying data on film festivals is difficult, as the three experts at the event also confirmed. The major variances and lack on continuity within the festival scene in terms of the festivals’ organisational structures, as well as their differing approaches to funding or the amounts involved, hamper the definition of categories here. For these reasons, there are also no figures available on how many people actually work at film festivals and what the gender ratios are here. Do only the permanent employees count as festival workers, or should this figure also include the volunteers? How do we define large, mid-sized and small festivals? Which parameters should form the basis for this? The number of staff, the audience numbers, or the sales figures?
If we want to map and depict the status quo, then a statistical basis has to be prepared. And at the same time, a vision and a collective policy position needs to be elaborated.
The intention is to have some initial responses to these issues by the time the next meeting of the Festival Work Fairly Organised initiative is held during the Berlin International Filmfestival in February 2017.
The first step in this process has now been taken. May the initiators and all the others involved have the stamina and staying power that this initiative demands.
Further information on the initiative is available on the blog: https://festivalarbeit.wordpress.com/
and on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/festivalarbeit