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Film Festivals and Online Distribution

by on May.22, 2012, under Distribution, Filmmaking, Internet Television

There's nothing like a film festival Q&A in front of thousands of people with some very good friends.

It’s no secret, I strongly believe that independent series are the sweet spot for filmmakers/visual storytellers/narrative creatives—pick your moniker.  But it’s May in Seattle and that means it’s time for the biggest little film festival in America to kick off again—the Seattle International Film Festival.  I have a long history with SIFF—My short Full Disclosure won the Golden Space Needle Award in 2006, I was on the Short Film Jury in 2008.  This year I’m back with two films—I wrote the original screenplay for Ira Finkelstein’s Christmas, which is playing in the festival and Coffee & Pie, a short film I directed with Amy Seimetz and Sophia Takal is playing as well.  I’m also speaking on a panel about short films—which just proves that the minute to publicly proclaim your lack of interest in something, you’ll be asked to speak about it!

I don’t want anyone to take my excitement about independent series as a disdain for independent films.  I think series are the better option for the future, but features (and even shorts) are a great form of entertainment and artistic expression and are the right format for certain stories.  I have attended film festivals for over a decade and I’ve made a lot of great friends on the film festival circuit—filmmakers and curators/programmers who I really admire and enjoying knowing.  When I think about my focus on independent series, I get a little lump in my throat knowing that I may be removing myself from the film festival world to some extent.  The logical part of my brain knows I’m making the best decision, but at the emotional level, it’s hard to distance myself from participating in something that I’ve enjoyed so much for so long.

What I love about film festivals is how they bring people together into a critical mass of cinema appreciation.  My favorite kind of film festival is something like the Nantucket, Sonoma, or Bend Film Festivals, where the event takes over an entire community as a major cultural event on the community’s calendar.  The smaller towns flood with film lovers and wherever you go, people are talking about the films, actors, stories, parties, and events.  It’s a micro-gestalt.  Festivals like Sundance also have this, but they are so very commercial and industry-driven that some of the purity of real people just digging films that they would otherwise never see is lost.  And big city festivals in LA and NYC just can’t quite swim against the tide of a major metropolis—people leave the screening room doors and the city seems to swallow up the cinematic energy within a half block.

SIFF is a sort of unique animal.  They brag about being the largest film festival in North America.  Where a typical film festival might be a week to ten days, SIFF is a whopping 25—the cynical might say that the festival doesn’t really know when to stop.  But Seattle is a film-going city and it somehow accommodates this volume of cinemania.  And though Seattle is really too big to keep the bottled up energy of a smaller town, the festival is very much in people’s awareness.

So for someone like me who has set his or her sights beyond the world of film festival distribution, what does the Internet hold as compensation for bypassing film festivals?

  • Bigger audiences
    The SIFF opening night film, Your Sister’s Sister by Lynn Shelton had an audience of 3,000 people—that’s amazing.  (I really enjoyed the film, by the way.  Check it out.)  I remember looking out at sold out crowds of over 2,000 when my film Entry Level played at some festivals.  That’s a pretty incredible one-night total.  But I can also remember screenings where I had to hustle just to get 50 people to show up.  Festivals are an amazing way to connect with an audience, but honestly, the 200-2,000 people that might attend a film one night pales in comparison to the number of people who can see a successful series over the Internet in a few days.  For many independent films, festivals will be their primary mode of distribution—one the filmmakers don’t see any revenue from except in the form of ‘promotion.’
  • More immediate dialogue
    Festival Q&As are a good way to connect with an audience and learn what they think of your film.  But can the film festival audience question—often constructed as much to demonstrate the savoir faire or personal-ax-to-grind of the question-asker as to learn about the film—ever express the level of honesty of some random Internet dude writing, “Ths sux!” on a film’s comment page?  No.  The truth hurts, but it also teaches, and the level of honesty that would invoke boos and hisses at a genteel film fest screening is plastered daily in Internet comments.  And make no mistake, the festival-goers were often thinking “Ths sux”—they just didn’t want to look like assholes by saying it in a screening room stacked with the filmmaker’s friends.
  • Year round audiences
    One thing I particularly enjoy about film festivals is the regional-ity.  I’ve noticed that in comedies especially, some jokes that fall flat in one region may kill in another. You can learn a lot from watching a film play in different parts of the country.  But you can also wear yourself out with travel.  As much as I felt honored to be in every film festival I’ve ever attended, there were times when I felt a bit like a beleaguered indie band taking the road show from one town to the next to serve the fans.  As rewarding as it can be, traveling the country to serve up your film one town and weekend at a time can certainly be exhausting.  But with the Internet, you can reach people year round—and for years in the future as they come to discover you.  All from wherever you may be in the world.
  • A chance for audiences to spread the word
    At the end of every film festival screening, I’m sure I asked people to go to the film’s web site/IMDB page/Facebook fan page, or whatever was the big deal at the time.  And some people did.  But for every person who went to the trouble to get online after the screening for a film they loved, there were likely dozens who would have done so if it was an option immediately.  Now, maybe this is the new etiquette of film festivals—to ask people during the Q&A to immediately tweet about or log onto the film’s fan page from their smartphones right then.  That would be pretty ballsy, but I wouldn’t put it past filmmakers to ask—heck I’d ask!  Still, there’s just no competing with how very immediate an Internet series can be forwarded to all the friends of someone who just watched it and loved it.  Film festivals just can’t offer this.

I have to admit, though the scales still seem to balance firmly on the side of independent series on the Internet, film festivals are real treasures to both filmmakers and communities.  There’s not much that’s more human and appealing that watching a film you love—or hate—and then spending longer talking about the film afterwards than you actually spent watching the thing.  I’m always inspired by seeing the films and talking with their creators.  It’s a privilege that I would never want to give up completely.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a screening to catch!

Douglas Horn is a feature film writer-director and a creator of independent series.  Douglas and Dan Southworth founded the web media company Popular Uprising.  The company’s action/sci-fi series DIVERGENCE will release its first season in 2012.  More information at:


How do film festivals compare to Internet distribution?

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