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Filmmaker Stephen Elliott Investigates a “Rigged” Film Festival Submission Process and Launches the Lo-Fi Los Angeles Fest

After Adderall

Stephen Elliott is an author, filmmaker, and founding editor of the respected literary web site, The Rumpus. He co-wrote and directed the James Franco-starring About Cherry, which premiered at The Berlin International Film Festival in 2012 before screening at other festivals. And the film The Adderall Diaries, based on his memoir of the same name, premiered at Tribeca in 2015. With these credentials, he (rightly?) assumed that his own second feature, Happy Baby, based on his novel of the same name, had a reasonable chance of getting accepted into one of the more than 15 film festivals he submitted to. But, it was rejected from all of them.

Dejected, Elliott opted to go ahead and distribute Happy Baby via Vimeo. But when his next feature, After Adderall, a provocative meditation on the experience of having Franco play him in The Adderall Diaries, was rejected from festivals as well — and, after he racked up credit card bills paying entry fees of up to $100 per submission — he decided to investigate the film festival submission process further.

What were the odds of getting into a film festival with a blind submission, one that hasn’t been preceded by a high-profile premiere at another festival or a prestigious personal recommendation? Elliott polled more than 100 filmmakers and festival programmers trying to find out how film festivals decide which movies to program, why film festival submission fees are so high, and whether the majority of festival acceptances go to films that have been granted fee waivers.

“I had a bad experience on my last movie with festivals,” Elliott told Filmmaker. “And even though my first movie had some big stars in it and I might seem like an insider, I realized I was really an outsider.”

Titled “The Great Film Festival Swindle,” the article, published last week on The Rumpus, analyzes the odds of getting into various film festivals from the paid submissions pile. Blasting out an online survey via The Rumpus and his own social media, Elliott asked filmmakers to report whether they paid a submission fee to submit to festivals ranging from Anchorage to Woodstock.

The survey covered 199 individual festival narrative submissions, with filmmakers reporting that submission fees were paid for just over one third (77) of them. According to his data, the average festival submission fee is $65, with many festivals charging as much as $100. Sundance, Seattle and Los Angeles ranked as festivals that granted a large number of fee waivers to the filmmakers Elliott surveyed. Others, like Brooklyn and SXSW, broke down almost 50/50 between waivers and non-waivers. And a few, like Slamdance and Bend, granted the filmmakers on this survey no waivers.

Though Elliott said he was aware that a lot of films submitted to festivals get fee waivers, he was surprised at how prevalent waivers offered to established filmmakers, or ones with distributors, are. “I think that most people who make movies know that a lot of people at film festivals get waivers,” said Elliott. “I don’t think my first movie [About Cherry] paid any submission fees. But I don’t think I knew the extent of it. I knew it was a thing, but I didn’t know it was that widespread.”

“When you’re charging $100 for people to submit to a festival and they’re not programming from blind submissions, that’s just exploitative,” continued Elliott. “If you’re asking for $100 [from filmmakers], and that’s the main thing funding your festival, then you have to program some of those films.”

Elliott argues that many of the big second-tier festivals like Chicago, which has a late-entry fee of $200, or Atlanta (late entry fee, $90) tend to select from the best movies that have played at other festivals.

“Most movies they’re programming are movies that are already passed through some other submissions process,” he claims. “It’s easier to just pick these really good films from larger festivals, and maybe find a couple from the blind submission process that your volunteers find and champion.” (On its website, Atlanta states that 80% of its selections come from submissions.)

Of course, Elliott realizes that film festivals aren’t getting rich off of submission fees, but he believes festivals should be transparent about the percentage of filmmakers who have their submission fees waived.

In the article, Elliott quoted an unnamed festival programmer who said, “Never pay an entry fee. If they won’t give you a waiver they aren’t interested in the film.” But he also surveyed festival professionals like David Nugent, of the Hamptons Film Festival, and Tony Castle, of the Lower East Side Film Festival, who describe systems that balance blind paid submissions with submissions that have been granted waivers. And he spoke with filmmaker Leah Meyerhoff (I Believe in Unicorns), who encourages filmmakers to ask festivals directly for waivers.

Josh Leake, director of the Portland Film Festival, agrees that festivals owe it to filmmakers to be transparent about their odds of getting accepted. But he questions some of Elliott’s findings. For instance, he said the Portland Film Festival festival rarely gives waivers and that last year, nearly 90% of the films programmed came from blind submissions. “If we could do our submissions for free, we would, but we are majority submissions-based,” said Leake.

Over at his blog, Jon Gann, creator of The DC Shorts Film Festival and author of the 2012 book Behind the Screens: Programmers Reveal How Film Festivals Really Work, weighed in on Elliott’s story. “Festival submission fees are a gatekeeping tool — those who have talent and have properly budgeted their projects are also the ones who understand the system and are willing to pay to play,” wrote Gann.

Meanwhile, after doing all of this research, Elliott concluded that the films which beat the odds by paying submission fees and getting in to top festivals are probably amazing. “Based on my data, I’m betting that those are some of the best movies of the year,” said Elliott, who singled out Embers by Claire Carré, which paid a submission fee, and got in to Chicago, Atlanta, Ashland, Dallas, and Cleveland film festivals, among others.

“What Embers achieved, over and over again, was far more impressive and unlikely than being picked from the slush pile at Sundance. The festivals that programmed Embers from blind submissions were frequently taking the bulk of their programming from the award winners at the marquee fests. What Embers did strikes me as about as impressive as winning an Academy Award,” wrote Elliott in his article. It’s worth noting that Embers didn’t exactly come out of nowhere as the director participated in the 2014 IFP Filmmaker Labs (and wrote about the experience here).

Elliott’s personal response to his survey is to launch a new film festival, the Lo-Fi Film Festival, that won’t rely on entry fees at all. In fact, like New Directors/New Films, there’s no public submission process. The Lo-Fi Film Festival will take place in Los Angeles on July 30, and along with films like Elliott’s After Adderall — the film that launched his whole investigation — there will be a panel discussion on the ins and outs of film festivals with Elliott, Slamdance Narrative programmer Josh Mandel, and former Los Angeles Film Festival Director of Programming Nancy Collete.

Find out more about the festival here.

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