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So, you want to buy a film festival?

by Collin Friesen | The Frame

Guy Davis, owner of the So Cal Film Fest, hosts a Q and A. Collin Friesen

If you're a film fan, especially a fan of festivals, you're in luck: over the next month, eight different festivals will screen movies in Southern California. In North America, there will be more than 7,000 film festivals this year alone. That works out to 20 or so, each and every day.

Clearly, a lot of people and cities want to be in the film festival business. But these new events have an astonishingly high failure rate as they struggle to find a place in the crowded and ever-growing marketplace.

At opening night of the Southern California Film Festival in Huntington Beach last month, Guy Davis — who took over this event just six months ago — isn’t popping any champagne. He’s planning a trip to Costco.

 “We’re gonna print out post cards,” Davis says. “Gonna get ‘em out, just gonna pound the pavement. Obviously not the turnout we wanted so we’re gonna change the game plan.”

This is a small festival — one venue, four days — so every screening is important. Sadly, opening night saw a crowd of about 20 paying customers spread out in the 300-seat theater.

These are interesting times in the festival business. The Big Bear Film Festival shut its doors a little over a year ago after 14 years of screenings. And the Arrowhead Film Festival closed two years before that.

A recent survey by the Film Data and Education blog out of London found that 39 percent of all new film festivals only last for one year before they are out of business.

But we’ve still got lots of regional players and fests that focus on themes or niche films in the L.A. area alone. There’s the Latino International, Universe Multicultural, Indian, the Los Angeles Asian Pacific, Los Angeles Women’s International, the L.A. Jewish film festival, the Kona Surf fest, the L.A. Greek, Outfest, New Media, L.A. International Children’s, Scream Fest, Shriek Fest, Irish Screen America, Pan African, the other Venice film festival and ... well, you get the idea.

So what what would make someone jump into this crowded pool? And how do you “buy” a film festival? 

Davis, a film school graduate and movie fanatic, had been running a business in Arizona but was looking to get into something new when he saw the “for sale” ad on-line. He did some research, wrote the check and, voila! — it was all his.

 “Let’s say it’s the cost of a modest luxury vehicle," Davis says. "We can rationalize it that way: I could have either bought a new car or a film festival.”

Eric Kohn, deputy editor at Indiewire, hits dozens of film festivals every year. He says they get in trouble when they they don’t have a distinct identity.

 “There are just too many bad or forgettable film festivals curated to not meet the needs of any particular audience,” Kohn says.  “It’s almost too easy to cherry-pick films that seem like they should be in a film festival — because of the stars they attract or the subject matter — without taking into account things like quality.”

One of the best examples of a little festival that grew into something big is Slamdance – founded by a bunch of people who, when they didn’t get into Sundance, just moved down the road and set up their own shop in Park City Utah. Peter Baxter is the co-founder. He says people who get into the festival game thinking it’s all parties and glamor are bound to fail.

According to Baxter: “I think it’s an attractive proposition, even romantic if you like, to start or take over one, because it’s so much fun to see film and share film with people. I think one of the reasons they fail is the hard work it takes to make them successful and get them off the ground — and because there are so many, there is competition. And you have to find a way to separate your festival from another which makes it attractive to your audience.”

Festivals get their money not only from ticket sales, but sponsorships and the fees they charge filmmakers to submit their work. Davis says most of the other festivals he’s checked out are break-even propositions at best, so he had no illusions about how lucrative this can be.

The post cards may have helped: crowds for the SoCal Film Festival were better on the weekend and the fest made a small profit.

But Davis is already looking forward, thinking about a name change, from the SoCal Film Festival to the Huntington Beach Film Festival. Less sexy for submitters perhaps, but better for locals.

 “There’s a branding issue," Davis says. "I’ve had so many people come up to me — Huntington Beach residents — and say, I didn’t know there was a Huntington Beach film festival. And that’s a problem.”

And as for anyone who thinks that maybe there’s not enough audience to keep feeding all these events, Davis is more than happy to set them straight:

“If you think movies are an art form — which I do — then in one way if you’re saying we have too many festivals, it’s like saying we have too many art museums. It’s just one more way that movies as an art form are marginalized.  So instead of asking if we have too many, maybe we should be asking if we have enough?”

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