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By George T. Marshall, RIIFF
(April 2004) The world of
independent film has become big business in the last
ten years; so much so that the term “independent”
is a bit of an anachronism. Films such as the “Lord
of the Rings” trilogy are being categorized
by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA)
as “subsidiary/affiliate” releases and
by the American Film Marketing Association (AFMA)
as “independent film”. The one-time association
of independent film as “art film” has
turned largely into a gray area where the demarcation
between studio and independent production is hardly
discernible. What was formerly a niche area, has become
mainstream with arenas for exhibition--the film festival
market--dotting the landscape.
On what appears to be a weekly basis, new festivals
sprout from no where, promising to be bigger and better
than their predecessors. Many model themselves on
Sundance or Cannes; some try to be Toronto or Berlin.
While claiming to be unique, many have become marketing
arms for tourism development of the local Convention
and Visitor Bureaus (CVBs) or Chamber of Commerce.
The filmmakers and their work are not always the driving
influence behind why a festival is created. And ego,
vanity and hubris, linchpins of the old Hollywood
system, are part of the motivation for many working
in a quickly oversaturated marketplace.
There are over 1,950 film festivals world wide and
that doesn’t count the smaller exhibitions that
are curated at institutions of higher education across
the globe. Many of these spring from foreign language
studies departments or film and communications divisions.
Few go beyond their target college audience. These
add to the mix and in some cases have led to mainstream
festivals outside of the academic environment.
New England is saturated with festivals and exhibitions.
In truth, we are very blessed since there is always
something to see and the diversity is great. On the
whole, the festivals here support the true independent
filmmaker with programming centered on work that would
otherwise not be seen in a multiplex.
There are a few, however, which are what I’d
call “catalog” festivals, building their
central programming from work acquired by distributors
or even other Festivals like Berlin and Sundance.
While the quality is there, it’s a cheat for
the struggling filmmaker since their work, if submitted
during a call for entries, stands as much chance of
selection as a snowball surviving a day in hell.
Additionally, these festivals serve as test markets
for distributors looking to build buzz before their
product is released shortly after the festival.
Oddly, despite all of the hype and high visibility,
there is a real sense of mystery surrounding the entire
festival business. Most people have no clue about
the financing, organization and operation of these
events. Then there’s the issue of collaboration,
cross-promotion and support. Except for some rare
instances where personal friendships exist or programmers
share ideas, festivals in New England are stand-alone,
territorial and highly competitive with each other.
The sad irony is that with as many festivals that
exist worldwide (and over 500 in the US alone), you’d
think that there would be an incentive to work with
each other, share resources, address common problems,
and even form a trade association. That isn’t
the case. Festivals act like mini-Miramaxes, driven
by a competitive fervor to be bigger, better and outlive
anyone else. I call this the “Highlander-syndrome”
where the prize is whichever festival is the last
standing. Naturally, someone gets lost in this process
and inevitably it turns out to be the filmmaker. Sometimes
it’s the audience.
Last year a new company out of Los Angeles (with East
Coast roots), began looking more logically at the
entire festival marketplace. Calling themselves, filmBUZZ,
and lead by Kerry Edelstein, Gregory Kahn and Gavin
Block, the intent was to provide market research and
consulting services for filmmakers. Building collaborations
with festivals they began to conduct audience exit
surveys, capture and report audience opinion and industry
trends. What they found was striking, challenging
and remarkable; detailing a vital and growing industry
which is just beginning to find its footing. Festivals
in our region should take note about their findings
and carefully assess its implications.
SOME BACKGROUND ON INDEPENDENT FILM
In a recently released industry report on the Film
Festival marketplace, filmBUZZ noted that “independent
film” had become a mainstream designation. (Note:
Festivals participating in their survey included the
Memphis International Film Festival, Newport Beach
Film Festival, International Family Film Festival,
Nantucket Film Festival, Rhode Island International
Film Festival, San Diego Film Festival, Sidewalk Film
Festival, Starz Denver International Film Festival,
and St. Louis International Film Festival.)
From their report: “According to AFMA, the trade
association for independent film and television, its
members tally over $4 billion in distribution revenues
annually. While this dollar figure pales in comparison
to studio film revenues, the commerce surrounding
independent film is far from negligible. Much like
alternative music became mainstream in its climb up
the Billboard charts, independent film has initiated
an expansion into global popular culture.”
filmBUZZ saw that the proliferation of film festivals
was an indicator of the rising acceptance of independent
film. Once perceived to be underground showcases,
the festivals have become an alternate distribution
platform – one which sees in the US alone over
$100 million in cash and services exchange hands each
Kahn and his group found that at the conclusion of
2003, more than 500 US-based film festivals had registered
updated contact information with a festival listing
service or vendor. In total, more than 1200 festivals
maintained active listings globally from a potential
list of over 1400. While distributors and producers
have historically used festivals as a publicity tool,
many independent film professionals have been slow
to embrace film festivals as a place of commerce.
In the United States, theatrical exhibition deals
have been largely focused around The Sundance Film
Festival, with an occasional contract negotiated from
a larger regional festival.
What filmBUZZ learned was that an in-depth analysis
of the film festival “circuit”, suggested
that this limited consideration of festival fare was
short-sighted. They discovered that film festivals
presented a pre-established infrastructure that is
widely untapped. Audiences at film festivals are actually
a valuable resource for information that is largely
presumed to be unavailable.
They present an opportunity to evaluate new productions,
deliver feedback, and even promote future releases.
These audiences provide this opportunity across hundreds
of unique markets and thousands of unique films, with
millions of unique opinions. And most significantly,
they found that film festivals and festival-goers
are quite possibly the most under-exploited resource
in the independent film community.
The Rhode Island International Film Festival and the
Nantucket Film Festival both partnered with filmBUZZ
in 2003. While I do not have access to Nantucket’s
Official End-Festival Report, I do have Rhode Island’s.
The results were not just fascinating, but in many
THE FESTIVAL CIRCUIT, A UNIQUE INDUSTRY
Before discussing the assessment, it is important
to first highlight the dynamics of the festival “circuit,”
from the economics to a profile of its consumers.
According to the filmBUZZ research, an estimated $89MM
flows through US-based film festivals in actual cash
spending, while another $55MM is made available through
in-kind merchandise and services. On average, 46.5
feature-length films are screened at a festival, and
filmBUZZ has estimated that as many as 13,000 unique
feature films are shown each year in the United States.
Now here’s a unique little fact: Festivals receive
the bulk of their annual operating budgets from corporate
sponsors. On average, a film festival receives $99,500
from corporate entities. Ticket sales ($58,000), non-profit
foundations ($51,000), individual/company donations
($38,000), and local government grants ($24,000) represent
the other common sources of income. The primary uses
of festival revenue are staffing ($65,000), events/parties
($20,500), and exhibition space ($15,500).
Then there there’s the non-cash side. As largely
non-profit entities, festivals also receive a large
amount of in-kind sponsorship. With approximately
91% receiving some form of in-kind sponsorship, the
average dollar value of in-kind sponsors is more than
$150,000 per year. What were these in-kind services?
The most common sponsorships include web design (74%),
marketing services (69%), TV/Radio ad production (67%),
projection/video services (64%), exhibition/theater
space (62%), and food/beverage (62%). Additionally,
add in car rentals, travel (air or train), and lodging,
and you have a major part of your service needs covered.
IT’S NOT A MULTIPLEX, BUT IT WILL DO
For those involved with economic development, filmBUZZ
discovered some potent statistics that reinforce the
impact of the festivals on a local community. First,
they found that over the course of a year, approximately
2 Million people will attend a film festival across
the United States. Additionally, a festival on average
fills 11,900 seats throughout the duration of its
As for the film screenings, audience members will
see approximately 2 films while at the festival.
filmBUZZ found that film festival audience members
were far more frequent filmgoers than average audiences,
and they were both highly educated, and well-informed.
They were also active, dedicated independent filmgoers
both in and out of the festival environment.
AND THE RIIFF FESTIVAL SUMMARY...
So how do these national statistics compare with Rhode
Island? Where does the Rhode Island International
Film Festival stack up with Newport Beach, San Diego,
Nantucket and others? Not too far off, actually.
At the Rhode Island International Film Festival audience
representation was predominantly female and middle
class. (It is, however, important to note that this
was based on 1,041 audience members completing a two-page
filmBUZZ survey out of 17,682 attendees throughout
RIIFF demographic characteristics included:
• 56% of audience members had a household income
of $50,000 or higher
• 59% were female; 41% were male
• Audience members came from a variety of educational
backgrounds with 47% possessing a 4-year degree or
higher and another 41% possessing an associates degree
or some college education.
How did people learn about the festival?
• Attendance of RIIFF was largely driven by
publicity and word of mouth.
• Nearly half of RIIFF attendees heard about
the festival through newspaper or magazine articles.
Another 30% heard about the festival through friends.
• and of singular importance for local artists,
attendance at the festival was largely represented
by local residents.
• Eighty percent of audience members had a home
or seasonal residence in the local Providence area.
And what of the quality if the films themselves?
• The average BUZZ Score at this festival was
75.6 and the average overall rating (on a 1 to 10
scale) for a film was 8.2. Documentaries represented
nine of the top 10 films at the 2003 festival.
SOME FINAL NUMBERS
flmBUZZ found that festivals are precisely where the
core film-going audience is located. Festival attendees
are not simply casual filmgoers; they are dedicated
film lovers. They are the people who will generate
buzz for a film they support, and they can make or
break the local success of a platform release. They
also learned that
• The mean annual operating budget of a film
festival is nearly one-quarter of a million dollars.
Furthermore, another 91% of festivals receive in-kind
sponsorship services donated on top of cash expenditures.
These in-kind sponsorships average more than $150,000
• The average film festival will fill nearly
12,000 seats over the course of the festival. Of these
viewers, fewer than 9% know someone involved in the
film they came to see.
• Festivals make the bulk of their income from
corporate cash sponsorships. With a mean of nearly
$100,000 annually per festival, the average total
corporate sponsorship cash commitment is more than
$40,000 higher than ticket sale proceeds, the second
highest revenue source.
But the really big news was that new film product
can be discovered outside the traditional acquisition
circuit, such as Sundance, Toronto, or Cannes. Many
of filmBUZZ’s top 2003 films were discovered
by distributors after playing successfully to regional
film festival audiences. In Rhode Island that included
“Unknown Soldier,” “Bonhoeffer,”
“Robot Stories,” “Zero Day,”
and the short animated film “Destino”
which went on to an Academy Award nomination.
As the recognition of the value of the film festival
“circuit” takes hold within the mainstream
industry, you can rest assured that it will have an
impact on the product screened, funding resources,
and filmmaker access. It remains to be seen how the
festivals themselves will evolve to meet the upcoming
challenges; of which there will be many. Perhaps the
territorialism will finally morph into something that
provides a more mature and efficacious policy of mutual
collaboration. Only time will tell.If you want to
find out more about filmBUZZ, and its services for
filmmakers, not just festivals, visit their web site
About the Author:
George T. Marshall is the Producing Director of the
Rhode Island-based Flickers Arts Collaborative, the
creators of the annual Rhode Island International
Film Festival for which he also serves as Executive
Director. He teaches film and communications at Rhode
Island College and speech communications and documentary
film at Roger Williams University. He is a director,
writer, producer of commercials and industrials for
numerous business clients in the region and is currently
completing the multi-media components for a museum
exhibit saluting American veterans in Woonsocket,
RI. He can be reached at <firstname.lastname@example.org>