Friday, December 20, 2013


My first Tropfest experience has resulted in a sunburn that radiates with the heat of a thousand suns.

Yes, Tropfest, the largest short film festival in the world, is on again. It's a beautiful summer day in Sydney, and the outdoor Tropfest site is brimming with a festival atmosphere.

I'm assuming.

I didn't stick around for the big event this evening. I took my horrific sunburn and left.

Call me a party pooper, but I wasn't there for the main event. I was there for TropJR, the Tropfest category for filmmakers 15 years and under which runs earlier in the day.

A group of young filmmakers I supported to enter TropJR were finalists, and I was there to support them. They didn't win the major prizes, but the audience response to their film was terrific. There were sighs and laughs, more than enough to inspire these kids for their future films; and make some of us older filmmakers slightly jealous. I was very proud of them.

Most importantly, the kids had a terrific experience in their first major film festival.

Good filmmaker experiences are not necessarily mandatory at film festivals, you see. Filmmakers can often feel used and abused. In that sense, it's an odd world, the film festival circuit. You are often left wondering who the festival is for. Filmmakers? Audiences? Celebrities? All three?

I was chatting to a filmmaker friend of mine recently, Mark, about the weirdness of this film festival cosmos. Mark has made documentaries good enough to be licensed by major news channels around the world, but he still gets the occasional film festival that promises 'exposure' for the chance to show his films. What organisation would offer 'exposure', when another organisation is willing to pay for the same content?

Film festivals. They occupy this strange limbo.

Many are genuinely wanting to encourage filmmakers' careers, and yet they charge those same filmmakers 'submission fees' to enter their festivals. This conundrum becomes murkier when these festivals also charge their audiences to attend festival screenings of the films. Everyone is being charged a premium to participate. Are the festivals having their cake and eating it too?

And so, as I slowly deep fried myself today, I thought about Tropfest's place in the bizzare oddworld of the film festival circuit. I was surrounded by the trappings of what they had built, after all.

And if you have never been, or have no intention of going, I have to tell you, Tropfest is a film festival on an enormous scale. Huge audience areas. Numerous big screens. Huge VIP tents. Food and beverage stalls as far as the eye can see.

Oh, and crowds this size:

Interestingly, to build this Xanadu of the short film world, TropJR doesn't charge entry fees to filmmakers. Get them hooked while they're young I guess. On the other hand, Tropfest, the grown up section of the festival, charges all filmmakers a submission fee.

The public, however, can attend the massive final event for free. And they do, in droves. The effectiveness of this strategy, therefore, can't be questioned.

A fair question, though, is how big does Tropfest have to get, with its numerous sponsors and partners, before it declares that it will no longer charge filmmakers to enter? Could they, god forbid, charge an entry fee to audiences instead?

These ideas only lead to more questions.

Would an audience ticket price destroy the Tropfest final event? Is it exploiting filmmakers to charge them for the opportunity to screen their film to an audience, when the demand level shows that audiences could be willing to pay for it? Or does charging audiences miss the audience engagement point entirely?

The answer to these questions really depends on how you view the world of film and entertainment.

If you are a SUPPLY SIDE thinker, then you believe that the making of a film, which people might enjoy viewing, means the film has an intrinsic value that should be paid for. The supply side approach is the one that has driven the traditional film and television creation model for years.

If, however, you are a DEMAND SIDE thinker, then you believe that a film only receives value by how it engages with an audience. This model is the one that creates gatekeepers/curators, like film festivals, who have built an audience which filmmakers fall over themselves to get to.

So what does this mean in the context of Tropfest?

If you are a supply side thinker, the idea of a filmmaker having to pay to get to an audience is abhorrent. In this scenario, the film festival should be recognising the value of the film up-front (that the film festival doesn't exist without the filmmakers, in fact) by paying the filmmakers for the privilege of screening it. The film festival would then charge audiences, or sponsors, to recoup the cost.

If you are a demand side thinker, then the film festivals have curated an audience, and a filmmaker should be grateful, and pay, for the right to get to that audience. If the audience then responds well to your film, you have a chance to make money off the film through prizes and further licensing.

Personally, I think you can end up at either scenario, depending on a number of factors.

For example, an established filmmaker, who is known and beloved to audiences, and who has a film with actors that draw an even larger audience, should be recognised for their ability to draw their own crowd. In this hypothetical, the festival would be cynical to suggest that their curation alone is what will bring audiences to this film, and should rightly pay the filmmakers a screening fee for what their film brings to the table.

By contrast, a completely unknown filmmaker, with a completely unknown cast in their film, can trade on the reputation of a festival to boost their film's ability to reach audiences. In this case the film's curation, and access to the audience the festival has built, is tangibly beneficial to the filmmaker; and a fee, charged by the festival, could be considered fair.

The issue, therefore, is not the fees, the filmmakers, or the festivals.

The element that makes the film festival circuit the bizzaro world it is, is the lack of communication or a consistent approach to these scenarios. If a film festival simply made it clear that they believe in the demand side value they bring to the table, and perhaps were then instrumental in helping filmmakers monetise their films, then the debate would likely be over.

It should be a simple fix.

Instead, film festivals often say things like "we couldn't exist without the filmmakers" and then proceed to charge the filmmakers to enter.


And in that confusion, I'm not the only filmmaker who is left feeling burned.

Thankfully, I have Aloe Vera and a cold shower to help.


More info:

My very talented friend, Mark:

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