Fair Trade For Filmmakers - A Reader's Digest

An attempt to corral and contextualize an independent film community discussion.


  1. Following sxsw in March, 2010, Mike Haliechuk, of the Canadian punk band Fucked-Up, wrote an incisive article on the economics of  a band playing a sxsw show.  I especially liked the way he employed the term "economic actors" to describe the role of artists at showcase events.
  2. This article reminded me of a 1997 article published in The Baffler, "The Problem With Music," by producer Steve Albini. I had first read it in the collection Commodify Your Dissent, but I've just found it on the Negativeland site:
  3. (might I suggest listening to Fucked-Up whilst you browse the rest of this story)
  4. Fucked Up - "The Other Shoe"
  5. It, Haliechuk's piece, also aligned with thoughts I had been developing about the film festival business. I had been a festival administrator and curator for about fifteen years. Over that time the growth of the international film festival circuit was explosive, as was the growth of the independent documentary movement. Mostly this seemed like a great thing. Though, increasingly I felt uncomfortable by 1) the deference of most filmmakers to my supposed "gatekeeper" role 2) that very few filmmakers were in the position to make a second or third film, and 3) that I seemed a lot better off, economically, than most of the filmmakers I was meeting (though, I'm definitely at economic parity with the average independent filmmaker these days!). It's important to note that I specialized in documentary, and that documentary filmmakers are, on the whole, the nicest people in the world. I not only worshipped what they were making, but I was also making a living off their work. A better living than most of them were making, in fact. That didn't seem right.

    Once established enough professionally to be in a management position at a major festival, I began advocating, internally, for improved travel support and the introduction of honourariums for guest filmmakers. I didn't have much luck. I mostly understood. It was a non-profit organization: we wanted new programmes, we wanted to pay our staff more, we wanted more parties with free booze, or simply to balance the books in the tougher years. Still, I became rather fixed on the notion that we could figure out a way to cut filmmakers more directly into the revenue equation. And, the fact is, when pressed we did pay screening fees (but never to the people I felt most deserved those funds). So, I modeled some budgets, made some proposals.  

    Long story short, and for another day....that's when I stopped working at that festival.

    Among the many many things I wanted to do in this new phase of my professional life was to empower filmmakers to better understand, and leverage, film festivals. And also to demystify these events somewhat. I believe we need transvaluation in the way film festivals function on behalf of supporting independent film, and that filmmakers are likely going to have to drive those changes.

    Several months after my festival departure, in December 2011, I hosted a festival strategy seminar for DOC, a membership organization for documentary filmmakers in Canada. It was great to be a free agent speaking openly and honestly about film festivals. A super long, very rough, summary of that talk is available here.

    A few months later I summarized this talk with more brevity and precision in POV, a Canadian journal for which I'm also a member of the Board. 
  6. Along with giving filmmakers some general advice about strategizing re: festivals, my main target was submission fees. I had argued against these fees, internally, at the previous events at which I had been employed. They are, I feel, taxes on the poor...and I had also seen how unfairly applied and arbitrary were these fees. I suggested the filmmakers simply stop paying them. It was intended as an act that James C. Scott has cheekily called “anarchist calisthentics”: “Every day or so break some trivial law that makes no sense, even if it’s only jaywalking. Use your own head to judge whether a law is just or reasonable. That way, you’ll keep trim; and when the big day comes, you’ll be ready.

    Until this point, the POV article was definitely the most widely read piece I had ever written for the internets. "Hey," I thought, "people seem rather interested in this festival stuff." So I wrote another one, this time for IndieWire:
  7. The reception to the IndieWire "Fair Trade" piece, which quickly became way way more read and shared than even the POV article, fascinated me. Whilst writing it I suppose I thought, “Oh, this may get more of a response than usual.” And, to be totally realistic, when I say the piece “caught on,” I do that with full awareness that it “caught on” within a niche, one snuggled within a slighty bigger niche which itself is nestled in a small bubble, wistfully floating very deep within the pop culture foam.

    Still, even in modest scale, the way people interpret, support, personalize, attack, appropriate, and spin a few opinions mustered one morning before a second coffee (but, to be frank, also long ruminated upon) is an incredible thing to watch unfold. I had written the piece as a provocation, because that morning I had felt like pricking the bubble a bit.

    Reading all the comments, both on IndieWire and in social media, was super addictive and shamefully narcissistic. Still, it also helped to deepen my understanding of the issues confronting film festival business and culture. Mostly people behaved, and were graceful and thoughtful on points of disagreement.

    And, really, I fucking love disagreement. It's the only way things change. I'll happily argue even against things I believe in, just so that those things get better, stronger. And the most consistent theme across ALL the responses, in my assessment, was that the status quo was not working. Film festival culture needed, at the very least, some rethinking, refreshing, and repurposing. One of the more interesting and robust comment threads followed a Facebook “share” by Chris Metzler:
  8. My non-filmmaker friends will have to forgive me as I once again post another film related article. But when it's an article so thoughtfully written, and with the right sort of panache, I have to share it. I'm not sure I entirely agree with the need for explicit revenue sharing at film festivals, but I never pay submission fees and get my travel covered. Nonetheless Sean Farnel does raise an interesting question "How does an artist who has chosen to labor with a gift survive in a culture dominated by market exchange?"

    Jason Cohn without reading the article, the answer to the headline question is FUCK YEAH!
    February 8 at 3:01pm · Like

    Adam Roffman The majority of film festivals in the U.S. operate with all-volunteer staffs who run the festival around their day jobs. Is the festivals have to pay every filmmaker whose work is shown, the festival most likely won't happen. So, then if the filmmaker wants his or her film to play in all of these cities, the filmmaker must either A) get a distributor, which in most cases won't actually get the filmmaker a hefty paycheck despite the popular misconception, or  four-wall theaters themself and self-distribute. So the filmmaker must then pay to rent the theater, pay to market their film in said area, and will not have the experience of attending a bunch of different cities to see their film play to packed houses and have the opportunity to meet tons of other filmmakers, who in many cases turn out to be collaborators on future projects. Most film festivals in the U.S. are just getting by or operating at a loss simply because of their passion for good independent film and wanting to bring it to their town. This article SO does not apply to how things are for festivals in the U.S.. If a filmmaker does the festival circuit and then decides to self-distribute, they can then use that festival as a resource! I just got off the phone with an alum filmmaker and am helping him book a theatrical run of his film in Boston and our festival will help promote that run. So he gets an in at a good venue and free marketing in a town he doesn't live in, simply because he did one screening at our festival.
    February 8 at 3:36pm · Like · 2

    Chris Metzler I'd concur that from my experience Adam Roffman. I'd also be curious on this, if festivals had to share revenues across the board with all films do you think it would encourage less risk taking by festivals in what they choose to program?
    February 8 at 3:54pm · Edited · Like · 1

    Brian Owens Hey Chris, just a question (since I'm on that other side) and because I think it's worth debating - what would filmmakers think if it replaced prize money? Because when I put some number together in my head, our prize budget essentially comes out to a percentage very near that. Would giving everyone a flat fee for the film, and making the prizes only about "accolades" and not money be something filmmakers would be interested in? Just curios.
    February 8 at 3:54pm · Like · 1

    Jason Cohn there are other options, as simple as offering patrons an opportunity to cough up a few extra bucks for the filmmakers if they really liked the movie. if festival goers realized that it actually costs filmmakers money to have their films shown in festivals, they would probably be sympathetic. technology offers lots of easy ways to do this or you could literally pass around a fucking hat during the Q and A!
    February 8 at 3:57pm · Like · 1

    Alex Lee I think in an ideal world, most festival would love to do revenue sharing. I think the smaller and medium sized festivals are the hardest hit. A list festivals are always gifted their films in the stampeded to get noticed and put into their programmes. Smaller and medium festivals face the sting in being asked for screening fees yet they are the ones who are trying to be bold and trying to be an alternative voice to programming. This helps to get the film noticed and seen and increasing the promotion of the film, which hopefully increases the potential of the long tail and exhibition. In some countries, arts and cultural philanthropy is new or virtually unknown and government funding is skewed in favour of larger and better known festivals, which are also enjoying the giving by filmmakers. Noone will demand the A listers to share revenue.
    February 8 at 3:58pm · Like · 2

    Alex Beckstead Chris, being the champion networker (and long time generous member of the indie film community) that you are, Im not surprised that you get fair to generous treatment from festivals. But I do question whether your experience os representative of all filmmakers, especially emerging ones.

    It's problematic to suggest that all festivals should pay filmmakers. But I think that when Mercedes and other luxury bands are branding your festival you should explain why you're not sharing revenue with filmmakers. Ironically, in my experience, it's the little festivals that have offered to pay something rather than act like it should be the filmmaker's privilege to screen (when the reality is that no festival can exist without content).

    It seems to me that this small issue is really symptomatic of the bigger economic issues with filmmaking (especially documentary filmmaking). Namely, who's supporting the filmmaking middle class? It seems to me that the lions share of festival films are either made by people who don't need to make a living off their film, or people who will do anything to make/release their film, even if it ruins them financially. It's highly unequal but does mean there's a steady stream of cheap content for festivals, more than enough of it high quality, so there's little incentive to look at filmmakers as professionals on a career journey rather than films as short shelf life media events.

    I think what would be great to see from festivals is transparency -- what are the revenues, and where are they going, big picture? I'm sure many festivals would prove to be barely breaking even, but in the process are providing a great platform for filmmakers. But some might reveal opportunities for sharing revenue that could help alleviate some of the inequality in the film world.

    This really is a bigger problem than the film festival world. Short term, cheap/free content is appealing to distributors and audiences, but long term, you're defunding a creative culture that needs capital to take risks and innovate. I'd love to see responses to this article that are less about filmmakers demanding a cut and festivals pleading poverty and more about the film community talking about reinvesting revenues in the filmmaking community and behaving in ethical, equitable, transparent ways to each other.
    February 8 at 3:59pm · Like · 2

    Jason Cohn i concur with the esteemed Alex Beckstead, whose eloquence far outshines mine. but i'd still be fine with passing a hat around during the Q and A. i'm not proud. i just want my meals paid if i travel to Toledo, Ohio for a single screening....
    February 8 at 4:05pm · Like · 1

    Chris Metzler Interesting question Brian Owens as in general I think each filmmaker individually would appreciate a screening fee/stipend. However, I do see a benefit to actual cash awards (not money spent on trophies) for the winners. Those cash awards represent a significant chunk of money that can be parlayed into greater things for that filmmaker and that film, so by spreading the love around it perhaps would just weaken what can be accomplished. Also, anecdotally, it seems like offering cash prizes presents an easier way to get sponsors onboard to donate/support the festival as they like having their name with giving an indie filmmaker money and the cachet/exposure it gives them. So I see some potential detriments, but if all festivals did it then I think the even playing field would be awesome as if your film screens in enough festivals it would add up to accomplish the goals that the possible infrequent cash prize would allow.
    February 8 at 4:27pm · Edited · Like

    Chris Metzler Totally agree Jason Cohn, but I think it's something the filmmakers have to empower themselves to do. One thing that would help is for distributors/festivals to not dissuade filmmakers from selling their film's DVDs at festival screenings (or selling downloads from their website during a festival run) and to not see that as always a negative if it's happened. I understand the concern of cannibalizing future sales, especially in this world where films can easily be pirated, but I think it's a myopic approach and underestimates how an audience can and is built.
    February 8 at 4:10pm · Like

    Chris Metzler Ha! Alex Beckstead. While flattering, I will tell you that before I maybe was either I was able to secure those sorts of things as I actually asked festivals and was willing to negotiate. Now I acknowledge that I did benefit from the boomdays of ind...See More
    February 8 at 4:25pm · Edited · Like

    Adam Roffman To answer your question to me from many comments back Chris, yes, if all films had to be payed, then yes, I think many festivals would program solely on what films they thought would sell the most tickets, not what they thought were the best or most or...See More
    February 8 at 4:37pm · Like · 2

    Chris Metzler Word Adam Roffman.
    February 8 at 4:40pm · Like

    Alex Beckstead Not sure if we're talking about the same kind of transparency. For example, a small piece of transparency would be publicly stating a process for granting festival application fees and travel costs (rather than putting the onus on filmmaker to know to ...See More
    February 8 at 10:06pm via mobile · Like
  9. The following week in IndieWire, Tom Hall, Director of The Sarasota Film Festival, weighed in:
  10. I was very happy to see a published response, and especially an articulate, credible and thoughtful one. Tom takes the opportunity to make a case for "transparency and clarity" in discussing the particular economics of his Sarasota fest. In short, according to Tom's argument, most festivals cannot afford to share revenues. They need everything they bring in just to keep their events afloat. Rather than a direct revenue sharing model, Tom proposed that festivals re-examine their value propositions, finding ways to more directly support the commercial life of the works they present. This makes sense, and I had been experimenting with such tactics at Hot Docs (creating a DVD label with a Canadian distributor, creating more space for docs on in-flight entertainment systems, etc).  

    I'd like to see a list of tangible actions that festivals could take in order to "drive audiences and revenues" to transactional platforms. 
  11. One of the more salient criticisms of the "Fair Trade" article was that the international film festival circuit was hardly a homogenous entity. I decided to write my next IndieWire article about what distinguishes different types of festivals. I started writing some kind of serious guide, but that felt absurd, so I wrote something a bit more satirical. In my head it's a mash-up of William Empson's 7 Types of Ambiguity and Ricky Gervais's Flanimals
  12. This festival taxonomy piece seemed to be accepted in the spirit in which it was written, and was also widely read and shared. It was only semi-serious, though I wasn't entirely joking.  I have a really hard time being too serious about any of this stuff.  Still, this was a brief lapse of levity in the discussion, which resumed with another IndieWire published response to the "Fair Trade" article. (I was starting to feel that IndieWire owed me 35% of the revenues that were be generated from this brouhaha). 

    Here's Heather Croall, head of Sheffield's Doc/Fest, also being transparent:
  13. The strange thing about Heather's piece was that she defended the market aspect of festivals, whilst making no mention of the function and value of the public side of her own event. I have no problem with markets, even if arguing for their benefits with an example like SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN is analogous to proposing that buying a lottery ticket will solve one's personal financial woes. 

    Attending a market is, presumably, a business decision. Whether it is a good or bad decision is none of my business. I'm a pragmatic anarchist, that way. And it's clear that Sheffield's market has become, under Heather's watch, one of the few essential boutique markets for creative documentary (boutique as compared, say, to MIPDOC, EFM, etc...).

    However, does Sheffield pay the full expenses of all filmmakers invited to their public film festival? Are there instances in which they pay screening fees? How does the public side of the festival add direct value to the films being presented there? Heather was not so transparent in this regard.

    I also feel that Heather mischaracterized the response to the "Fair Trade" article, unless I completely missed the rampant mocking. This was rather unfair, so for the record here is a fulsome compilation of comments generated by the article (I only found one instance of mocking...and I mocked backed). Oh, and I don't have "ire" for anything (except my favourite hockey team's occasional poor play and painfully long championship drought).

    So, okay, screening fees are small change against the kajillions generated by festival markets.  And, film festivals that don't have markets, but have large sponsors, SHOULD pay screening fees (according to the Heather). Fine. And, anyway, it's really funders that are the problem here: “If we're to find a new financial model of survival for documentary filmmakers, it will require full disclosure of the contractual basis of the relationship between funders and filmmakers – where the money goes, who owns what and who gets what in the split.” (this seconded in the comment section by Nick Fraser). I third that. Yet, it only deflects the premise of my piece. 
  14. My original interest in the issues addressed in the "Fair Trade" piece were sparked by the expressions of similar concerns within the independent music industry (where many artists have been innovative and progressive against a massive economic shift in their business model). One such artist is Amanda Palmer, who recently gave this eloquent talk at TED: 
  15. Amanda Palmer: The art of asking
  16. It occurs to me that, of the many actions film festivals could take to stimulate the financial sustainability of independent filmmaking, encouraging direct giving from their audiences is easily implementable. Yeah, pass a hat, or place a PayPal donation link on the online schedule for each film (where the funds go directly to the filmmaker), or make it easier for filmmakers to sell dvds, downloads, merch, directly to festival audiences (and I don't mean that festivals should develop crowd-sourcing platforms...which, it seems to me, is simply more of them taking a piece of the action...there are plenty of effective third-party platforms in the market).
  17. And, now, even as I collate this discussion, here is Brian Newman asking, fuck-it, “Why have festivals at all?” Brian offers what seems to be to be an accurate creation-myth for the American festival movement. I'd only add that, more recently, another impetus for festival start-ups is urban economic development, which adds a different wrinkle to the issues under discussion.