How Film Festivals Struggle To Stay Relevant And Survive

Why is it that cinemas, theatres, art galleries, music venues and dance companies are closing in droves? Film festivals struggle all the time too.

Arts organisations face an uphill battle for economic survival. As our governments in Europe and America slash arts funding, ballet companies, theatres, art galleries, opera companies and film festivals need to think very differently about the economic realities of operating (or fail, as hundreds have).

Film festivals face additional hurdles to other types of arts organisations: Netflix and the pre-domination of online movie providers have captured a huge slice of the audience. This means that the traditional ways people access and watch movies has shifted from movie theatres and DVDs to online distribution.

Additionally, film festivals face an uphill battle to secure commercial funding in the form of sponsorship. Here, in my opinion, is how film festivals deal with the dual challenge of finance and relevance.

1. It’s about the networking

We may live in a digital world, but there’s nothing that filmmakers and film lovers alike love more than a good old fashioned chin wag, hopefully over a pint (or three!).

I attended the Rotterdam International Film Festival this year and loved their different networking drinks receptions. Cannes Film Festival, of course, is basically an 11-day networking opportunity in the south of France.

A festival struggling for survival in today’s changing media habits should focus on the fact that people do love to meet each other in the flesh. Down with the virtual pub. Up with a real beer!

2. It’s about the filmmakers

Attending a film festival is a costly business. When I travelled with the director and just one of the actors to the Brussels International Fantasy Film Festival, I was out nearly a grand after Eurostar from London, two nights in a hotel and meals. So, what to do?

Festivals need to budget for this as they get their event off the ground. Perhaps one way is to offer the filmmaker a share of the box office receipts. Film festivals will baulk at this, but is there a better way to get filmmakers to assist in the marketing efforts for their films?

3. It’s about distribution

The reason a filmmaker wants their film to screen in a film festival is very simple: They want to get it picked up by a distributor so it gets seen by more people, and so the filmmaker can recoup some or all of their production budget. Film distributors go to film festivals to look for new films they can acquire.

Film festivals can help by launching their own distribution. Raindance pioneered so-called Date-Day screenings in 2004 with the now defunct Internet provider Tiscali. Other festivals like Sundance, Tribeca and SWSX have since followed suit.

A film festival with its loyal band of independent film lovers is in the obvious position to start their own distribution companies championing the new, bold and innovative films they discover in their festival’s programme.

4. It’s about innovation

“If you can’t beat ’em join ’em” goes the old adage. If movies are now being accessed through the Internet, it’s time film festivals recognise films (now called content) for the Internet. Web fests have sprung up all over since 2011 and Raindance unveil the second edition this autumn’s Raindance Web Fest — championing new narrative work for the Internet and finishing off with the inaugural British Independent Series Awards on Sunday, September 28th.

What’s been interesting to note while our Web Fest has grown and matured is how a whole new audience has been coming to the cinema to watch the screenings on a truly large screen, and to mingle with colleagues and fans.

5. It’s about social media

There is no point in skirting the issue: A film festival without a clear social media strategy will open to acres and acres of empty seats and red faces when visiting filmmakers show up for their poorly attended screenings.

As festivals and social media giants go, I hugely admire the social media strategies of SWSX in Texas and the brilliant social media campaigns of its northern neighbour: the Toronto International Film Festival.

Anyone struggling with social media, and that could mean a nascent filmmaker, would do themselves a great service by peeking in and lurking around these two great examples of ‘how-to’ social media.

6. It’s about feeling special

Imagine for a minute that you are a filmmaker with a film screening at a far-flung festival. You arrive to be greeted with total silence. Your screening comes and goes without a moment’s hoopla. This is likely the scenario at the larger film festivals where hundreds of films are screened. Unless you were lucky enough to get a huge star like a Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie in your film, your screen, your film and you yourself will be lost in the noise and clamour surrounding these huge films.

This is probably where smaller film festivals come in. It is at these smaller film festivals that the organisers and the audiences are thrilled to meet and greet a filmmaker and make them feel special.

7. Innovative funding techniques

When government grants and corporate funding dries up then arts organisations need to get creative about their funding requirements, or go broke. I could go on and on about funding choices and strategies, but that really is the subject of a whole other article. Suffice to say, crowd-funding is the obvious choice of many festivals, especially, I have heard, in Putin’s Russia where arts funding has been cut to nearly nothing. If you know of interesting alternative funding strategies please let me know!

Fade Out

Let’s never forget the difference between at the role of a film festival and the role of a filmmaker:
A filmmaker’s role is to produce an entertaining and thought engaging film. A film festival’s role is to deliver to the filmmaker a roomful of people ready to appreciate their hard work and to engage in conversation.

To be truly relevant a festival needs to find its voice and offer truly exceptional and entertaining films to their audience.

Have I missed anything out? Please comment on the boxes below. I love feedback.



Photo Credit David Martinez / BIFA 2018

Few people know more filmmakers and screenwriters than Elliot Grove. Elliot is the founder of Raindance Film Festival (1993) and the British Independent Film Awards (1998). He has produced over 700 hundred short films and five feature films: the multi-award-winning The Living and the Dead (2006), Deadly Virtues (2013), AMBER (2017), Love is Thicker Than Water (2018) and the SWSX Grand Jury Prize winner Alice (2019). He teaches screenwriting and producing in the UK, Europe, Asia and America.

Raindance BREXiT trailer 2019

Elliot has written three books which have become industry standards: Raindance Writers’ Lab: Write + Sell the Hot Screenplay, now in its second edition, Raindance Producers’ Lab: Lo-To-No Budget Filmmaking and Beginning Filmmaking: 100 Easy Steps from Script to Screen (Professional Media Practice).

In 2009 he was awarded a PhD for services to film education.

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