Laurels Monopoly

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Sundance Film Festival has just announced the selected few filmmakers who will present their films this year. Sundance is one of the most prestigious film festivals in the world and all filmmakers want to get their work into this particular festival lineup. I have heard wonderful things about the programmers there, and I know they are making real efforts towards showcasing diverse voices. This year, their program features an unprecedented 40% women-directed films.

To all those un-lucky filmmakers who weren’t chosen this year, Filmmaker Mitch McCabe wrote a heartwarming letter for the No Film School. While this letter is lovely, and I recommend you reread it every time you get a rejection, maybe it is also worth to have a discussion about the system itself.

It isn’t right that in 2015 we still measure ourselves as filmmakers by the decisions of a few chosen film festivals. A wonderful change has been taking place in filmmaking for the last decade. Anyone, anywhere around the world can make a film using very little or no money at all. You don’t need a production house to get you funding, big crew to take care of your 35mm camera, complex post production machinery to process and color your shots, or a company to distribute your film. You can crowdfund, shoot with your smart phone, edit on your computer, and distribute online.

This democratization of filmmaking is slowly but surely making it possible for anyone to make a film, and it is time that the way we award, measure, and critique films adapts to this changing landscape. While making your first film might be easier than ever, getting to the next, high budget filmmaking has possibly gotten more difficult than ever before. And, although the film production industry is finally being called to account for its lack of diversity, we are stuck with a very old-fashioned rewards system that is holding all the pursestrings.

The festival structure was set up for a different world, when there were less films made by less (type of) people, when there was no internet, when there was no digital anything. The best films were chosen, screened, the filmmakers awarded with prestige, and most importantly, investments for their future projects. Nowadays, when it is estimated that over 100 000 short films are made worldwide every year, festivals struggle to keep up with this volume as tens of thousands of filmmakers receive the letter: “Unfortunately…” Many films will never be screened in a theatre and it is getting more and more common, even for established filmmakers, to find it impossible to get into any festivals.

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Filmmakers are obsessed with laurels. Laurels are the sign that your film was chosen to be in a festival’s official selection. Filmmakers put them on posters and promo materials signifying the superior quality of their film. It’s a proud moment and a stepping stone in a filmmaker’s life to receive such an accolade. It’s often short films that launch the careers of new filmmakers—but shorts are rarely distributed theatrically, or broadcasted on TV. The whole system is currently set up in such a way that upcoming an filmmakers’ merit is measured by which, and how many, festivals their films get into. Films, while in festival distribution, are not allowed to be available online, so even if your film is popular on youtube, it would not count towards IMDB credits, or with applications for loans from funding agencies. If your film doesn’t get into enough festivals, your chances of getting funding for your next project are incredibly slim. Laurels or nothing.

One of the first steps has to be changing the way festivals select their films. Programmers of film festivals are given tremendous power and responsibility within this structure. The pool of people who get to decide what is good, and what is bad, needs to be widened and diversified! Not just for the sake of filmmakers, but for the audience as well.

While in theory, we can all make films now with borrowed money while using Canon 5Ds, the chances awarded to filmmakers to step up and make the films that we really want to make is almost impossible. This credit and funding system was set up for different times and cannot cope with the number of films produced currently. The number of festivals has grown tremendously in the last few years, but that doesn’t necessarily mean a higher chance of selection for your film. Smaller festivals will very often copy the list of selected films of bigger festivals to save money and time on programming. Which is understandable, when considering that a mid level festival can easily get thousands of film submissions.

The huge number of festivals might mean a higher chance for exposure for filmmakers, but it is also a tremendous financial stress. An average film festival will ask $30-50 for a single submission, while offering no guarantee that your film will actually be watched during the selection process. Maybe this is not so much for some, but if you have to submit to over a 100 festivals to get into even one or two, the financial constraints can eliminate a lot of talented, but financially strapped filmmakers.

We all think, write, shoot, and screen films within a context of a movie production system that was created for a different time. Made by and for one section of society, and made comfortable and easy for those people. When a system is not set up by you, it is really hard to perform well within it.

The monopoly of laurels needs to end. Beside the festivals we need other ways to prove ourselves and our films. It’s been overdue that the film industry invent a new way of validating filmmakers’ skills and merit. I am not sure if crowdfunding and youtubing are the answers, but for sure they are alternatives that are worth considering, when we think up a system that allows women, people of colour, genderqueer folks, emerging and established filmmakers at the same time to have an even field to compete. To have not only more agency over creation and distribution, but appraisal of their own films as well.