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FilmEx Creates Virtual Annual Conference in Lieu of Usual Pre-Sundance Gathering

Virtual attendees of the 2021 FilmEx Conference

Film festivals of all sizes came together with art-house exhibitors, distributors and filmmakers in mid-January for the FilmEx conference, a five-day virtual conference in January that took the place of Arthouse Convergence’s annual pre-Sundance meeting in Utah. Few are the filmmakers that have not found themselves on a Facebook debate thread at some point with other filmmakers decrying sham film festivals that took their submission fee money and then did not deliver on the most basic expectations. Well, the film festivals, film societies and arthouse theaters that participated in the past Art House Convergence conferences and now this year’s FilmEx event are fighting the good fight to be at the opposite end of that spectrum. 

From inspiring business-model pivots to the democratization of the storytelling experience, the FilmEx conference, hosted by the Film Festival Alliance (FFA), this year highlighted innovations as well as problems relating to the move in 2020 from traditional festival models as film festivals and filmmakers alike dealt with the pandemic on the fly. With over 800 participants, FilmEx immediately became the largest gathering since the inception of FFA in 2010. Festivals ranging from Sundance and the Seattle International Film Festival to North Carolina’s Cucalorus, Birmingham’s Sidewalk Film Festival, Indie Memphis, the Naples International Film Festival, Atlanta’s Out on Film, and Michigan’s Hell’s Half Mile Film Festival all participated in talks about systemic issues in independent cinema and how COVID-19 has disrupted the industry.

Was every issue “solved,” a way over every hurdle “figured out” during the conference? No, but it did provide (as it has in years past) a space for the conversations and exchange of ideas that will lead to better film festival experiences and more beneficial participation from the filmmakers that utilize the film festivals to find audiences and business opportunities for their films. 

“FilmEx is just the beginning of many conversations that FFA hopes to spearhead within our community as we rediscover and reimagine our new status quo,” Lela Meadow Conner, FFA Executive Director, said.

In spite of everything that would seem to depress or counter it, the film festival circuit is still ever-growing, and independent filmmakers (arguably) need to navigate that circuit and exploit those opportunities as they seek audiences and distribution for their films. The film festivals that are members of the Film Festival Alliance and participated in FilmEx range from no-budget and all volunteer-based to millions in funding and a full staff. The are the larger market-based film festivals as well as the smaller niche or genre-specific film festivals and everything in-between. (In full disclosure, I am a member of the organization representing the Oxford Film Festival, which I run.)

Combining Slack chats, Zoom webinars and Filmocracy virtual meetups (all virtual platforms to help with work flow and virtual networking), the event opened with a talk by brother and sister John Ridley (Academy Award winner for 12 Years a Slave) and Lisa Caesar of NO Studios to discuss the democratization of storytelling due to the pandemic. For No Studios, the film exhibition and filmmaker support system in Milwaukee, the mission is about “socializing with purpose.”

“The fascinating thing is not that technology has changed,” Caesar said. “What is fascinating about the market is the adoption of the technology….It creates a democratized access to the universe. We embrace this technology and are making it available to our communities that are typically marginalized. The challenge is the pivot back. Everyone is discovering the ease of use on platforms.” 

An example was their recent Zoom discussions with filmmakers such as Regina King or choreographer Debbie Allen held online but only for their members rather than open to the public. They also use their physical space to host “live” events such as concerts and virtual maker exhibition streamed to their members. While not able to host the audience in person for now, keeping members engaged in a meaningful way and still providing their space for private rentals has kept them afloat. 

That was why their long-term goals are to remain hybrid, a sentiment shared by many of the speakers that week. Their story is not unique as similar sentiments were echoed by numerous arthouse theater organizers during the week of the event. Film festivals that went virtual also swapped stories about mixed success with larger festivals doing better than smaller festivals due to larger teams and marketing budgets. 

And while Letterboxd hosted a conversation with filmmakers such as director Jim Cummings (Thunder Road), producer Benjamin Weissner (Beast Beast) and director Isabel Sandoval (Lingua Franca) about how virtual can further support independent film, Letterboxd offered more sobering statistics showing that same year reviews were down from 20% to 12% on their platform while usage of more familiar classic films climbed. So, the easy take away for filmmakers are that the same challenges remain regardless of being virtual or in-person – name recognition, the ability to “sell” your film to a potential audience member, as well as the film festival and filmmaker to work in tandem to either put butts in seats when we return to theaters or eyes on a streaming platform if we’re presenting the film virtually. The filmmakers also discussed the positives of virtual cinema expanding outreach to audiences. Obvious to some and not so obvious to others, there is a difference between someone making a three or four-hour drive to attend a film festival in their state and setting an entire weekend aside to watch movies with others versus streaming the film from the comfort of their living room because it has been made available via geo-blocking to everyone in that state or region.  

Diversity does not exclude disability

With more access due to lack of travel, typical festival expenses, and the ability to easily integrate captioning and audio descriptions, independent film exhibitors (arthouses and festivals) are making greater strides to reach a larger audience. Whether that will be long term or temporary was a major question of the week. Full Spectrum Features hosted several panels and workshops looking at “how to build more humanity into the festival circuit from employees and better treatment to better accessibility needs on platforms” according to their website. The organization based in Chicago focuses on supporting BIPOC, women and LGBTQ creators with workshops, grants, curation. Of particular note was a workshop about audio captions that went beyond simply paying lip service to the importance of having audio captions, to breaking down some real world examples that participating fests have utilized. 

“The virtual environment is a boon for accessibility,” Editor-in-Chief of Letterboxd Gemma Gracewood said. “It is more than just having one or two seats for wheelchair users. There are a whole lot of reasons a theater may be inaccessible. It is part of film festival culture that you didn’t get a lot of tickets so there is a fear of missing out which sends people running towards the film. But part of the reason we miss out is purely inaccessibility.” 

But while the hybrid model is in many film festivals’ game plan for now and potentially the future, CR Capers of Harlem Film House and Hip Hop Film Festival said that for hybrid models of festivals to succeed, creating virtual loyalty will be key. “We weren’t virtual. We were not online. We were a ‘live’ show. We are changing the narrative, changing the language,” Capers said. “We blew it out, we had private watch parties in the immersive cinema, and we paid the filmmaker from revenue. We believe in checks, not trophies.” 

To be clear, they were a virtual fest, but they made a great effort to go beyond the simple “screening followed by Zoom Q&A, rinse and repeat” routine that film festivals were borderline terrorized by last year because of the not so virtual monotony the format could create. In a similar way, Waco, Texas’ Deep in the Heart Film Festival sent swag bags to its filmmakers to open during a virtual filmmaker launch party and also included a virtual treasure hunt for viewers to find Easter eggs in the fest’s films with prizes awarded to those who watched multiple films and played along. On the revenue side of the equation, a similar model was adopted by our fest, the Oxford Film Festival in 2020. With the move to virtual, we began splitting ticket sales directly with filmmakers, adopting from San Diego Underground Film Festival’s model. Filmmakers’ compensation and the “partnership” in that regard has long been bubbling up as a source of contention between film festival and filmmaker prior to last year and discussions on what else can be done to improve festivals for filmmakers also included talks on better pay models for filmmakers. 

But further discussions amongst programmers on what the standards should be for virtual film festivals, frankly, remained unanswered with many posing questions on the importance of geoblocking films to your state, region, country or leaving it open globally. The majority of the new virtual platforms allow for a way to block who can access the film. A popular solution has been to cap how many virtual tickets are sold to match what would have occurred if the festival had been physical. But the big dilemma is geoblocking and what that means in correlation with premiere status. 

While most filmmakers at the conference noted that only world premiere status matters, for many regional smaller festivals, being the first in their state or region to show a film is a powerful marketing tool. Missing from the talks at FilmEx is what general audiences think. However, a national survey company Avenue ISR partnered with Film Festival Alliance and the Gotham Film & Media Institute asked film festival attendees about festivals. 

While 45% said they won’t return until everyone is vaccinated, only 67% said they took part in a virtual experience this year with most appreciating film offerings but wishing for more e-connections. The full survey can be found here.

Calls for collaboration with geoblocking and premiere status and more inclusion in the industry were not new this year but were for the first time discussed full force by a variety of organizations together rather than in hallways and lines at larger festivals. Solutions varied, and as the 2021 virtual season gets underway, it is clear global or USA geoblocking seems to be the dominant choice at larger festivals. Some filmmakers are strategizing how they play the circuit geoblocking to specific states with each regional festival. At my festival, we let the filmmaker decide and offered a variety of global, US and Mississippi geoblocking. My guess is we are a couple of years out from creating a standard and that further conversations need to be had with festivals and filmmakers and distributors willing to engage in some facts and statistical sharing to see what is best for everyone. 

“It can’t be built on the same foundation we were on before,” Gina Duncan, Producing Director of Sundance said. “We are looking internally and seeing where our issues are, where we need to strengthen and what we need to pivot away from. What got you here is not what is going to get you to the next bit.” Duncan mused that for larger institutions what may be next is not leading but making space and leveraging resources to support smaller institutions. “There are new programmers, new art houses. We have to be thinking differently about how we do this work and why we do this work.”

But Duncan said that collaboration has only just begun with groups like Film Festival Alliance, Alliance for Action, and other groups. One of the major game-changers in 2020 was the Sundance Institute reallocating its travel funds to create a nationwide network with regional breakout groups of film people to dream up the best collaborative tools in the future. The work is ongoing with only the southern region including their website so far, but the Sundance Inclusion map is live here.

The bottom line is that independent filmmakers forever need resources and the introduction of new resources. FilmEx had that very much on its mind and the participating film festivals will continue to be a better partner to their filmmakers because of it (as opposed to those dubious ones that filmmakers talk about on the Facebook debates). Film festivals evolved pretty quickly to handle the challenges and hurdles placed in their way by the pandemic, and what FilmEx made pretty clear is that the evolution will continue both in the presentation of films, the outreach to audiences, and most importantly the benefits offered to filmmakers. 

To learn more about upcoming events throughout the United States with Film Festival Alliance or to see what festivals are members, visit the Film Festival Alliance website.

Melanie Addington is the Executive Director of the Oxford Film Festival in Oxford, Mississippi and former journalist.


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