With apologies to Tom Hall, whose April blog Foreign Film In Crisis? raised serious questions about the future of foreign film distribution in the U.S. and in particular the impact companies like Dreamachine have on U.S. Film Festivals, I feel compelled to draw comparisons between the challenges of securing internaitonal films for play at U.S. festival and the challenges of programming quality LGBT content for LGBT film festivals.
IMAGE Film & Video Center in Atlanta is one of the few organizations that produces and presents more than one festivals each year--in addition to the Atlanta Film Festival in the spring (coming April 10-18, 2008!), we also present OUT ON FILM in the fall (20th Annual Out on Film will unspool at the Landmark Midtown Art Cinema from October 11-18, 2007).
This puts us in the unique position to draw comparisons between the programming Internaitonal fare and booking films for an LGBT Festival.
If you see the world with rose-colored classes, this poster makes sense.
Tom hits the nail on the head when he writes, "This year, the Sarasota Film Festival will spend in excess of $100,000 to outfit our theaters with video and HD projection, hire and train a technical staff, and pay for theater space. A foreign film without domestic distribution will generally play twice at the festival, in a theater that holds 120 people. If I sell the film out twice at $8 a ticket, the festival earns $1920. That is a huge assumption, since most foreign films are a much tougher sell for even a festival. Oh, and don't forget complimentary tickets for artists (we're courteous down here, what can I say?). Add to that the fact that there is no domestic marketing campaign for the movie and that most people won't have heard of the film, and it becomes MY JOB to sell the film to my audiences. Still, in the best of all possible worlds, if you deduct projection costs, two-way print shipping (on most foreign titles), theater rental and staffing costs, then I have already lost money. The usual fee requested for the film itself? €1000. For whom does THAT economic model work?"
We recently received a phone call from a sympathetic booking rep familiar with IMAGE and OUT ON FILM. He wanted to "offer" us a desirable film for the OUT ON FILM line-up this fall. His company plans to release the film theatrically in Atlanta a few weeks after OUT ON FILM. They were holding off until after OUT ON FILM just for us. He said they were even willing to give us a preferred rate for the film, and we have to agree to screen it in the smaller theatre.
A preferred rate on the film? AND we have to minimize our returns by booking it into the small screen?
How lucky are WE?
The economic reality of the situation is that we are doing his company a service. We are providing a niche film from a small company with limited marketing dollars a high profile launching pad. We are giving them a buzz generating marketing push. And we arebeing asked to pay for the privilege of doing so.
The fact is if his company wanted to set-up a sneak previw on their own, it would cost them in the neighborhood of $750. (If they wanted to pay for digital projection, which is what they need for this show, costs could potentially double...) Instead, in the world of LGBT festival programming, where paying guarantees is par for the course, OUT ON FILM is expected to foot the bill, AND pay the distributor a guarantee.
Something is wrong with this formula.
Pair this with Matt Dentler's observation: "I'd be curious to see how many film festivals out there are unable to book the foreign films they want, because of the economics involved. In many cases, film organizations and film festivals are the only manner in which cinephiles can see foreign films outside of New York and L.A. The well is drying up, and the people who will suffer most are the film fans who wanna see the latest Korean export in a format other than a bootleg DVD found at their local indie video store."
Substitue the word "Queer" for "Korean" and you get the idea.
The issue of LGBT programming for festivals is complicated by the fact that the state of distribution for LGBT films is actually quite healthy! Where once LGBT film festivals provided queer filmmakers and queer audiences a much needed venue, now networks like here! and Logo
provide 24/7/365 outlet for LGBT content. Films (like the example listed above) that might have once been the exclusive fare of LGBT festival now have the opportunity to open theatrically (if even for a week.) The "mainstreaming" of LGBT content also has an impact on our bottom line, as LGBT audiences have outlets to find the content, and therefore the festival itself has become just another place to see some films that could just as easily be punched up on-demand, or available on Netflix in 3 months.
Back when the festivals were the ONLY place such films could play, the demands of paying a guarantee for LGBT content made some sense. It was a way to support distributors who championed such films, and (in theory) it supported LGBT artists.
Now that the fests have built the base, and distributors are recouping their investment with ancillary sales on DVD, cable and on-demand, it seems unreasonable to ask festivals to continue to shoulder the burden of paying guarantees while we are essentially doing the work of marketing the films for the distributors.
Can a festival like OUT ON FILM, now in its 20th year, surive without paying distributor guarantees? What impact would it have on the content we can deliver?
We've opened a call for entries and we're asking LGBT filmmakers to submit directly to the festival. It is our hope that we'll be inundated with such high quality content, that the issue will be moot.