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Film Festivals Pt 1: The Truths Behind Film Festivals

Film Festival surveyThis is the first of three articles about Film Festivals. In part 2 I will publish a survey I have conducted with film festival directors around the world, showing the data on their point of view. Part 3 will give a voice to the human stories of the festival directors by sharing stories and advice for filmmakers. This article focuses on the data behind film festivals around the world.

At the bottom of this article I have gone into detail on the methodology I used to uncover these results.  I also list numerous ways in which I regard this study to be lacking, meaning that numbers should be assumed to be around 90%-95% accurate.  The short answer is that I found 9,706 unique festivals which have run at least once the past 15 years, with data from twelve different sources. The main results are:

  • There are around 3,000 film festivals currently active (i.e. ran in the past two years)
  • 9,706 film festivals have run at least once in the last 15 years
  • 75% of all film festivals were created in the last ten years
  • 2009 was the peak year for new festivals
  • 2012 had the lowest number of new festivals launched for 14 years
  • 39% of film festivals only ever run once
  • 71% of film festivals screen short films and 52% screen feature films
  • Half of all film festivals run for less than 7 days
  • North America hosts 70% of the world’s film festivals
  • October is the busiest month, with five times as many festivals as December

How Many Film Festivals Are There?

I’ve collected data on almost 10,000 film festivals throughout the world, but many of these festivals have either closed or are taking a time-out from running events.  I would say that to be fairly regarded as ‘active’, a festival will need to have run events in the past two years.  By this standard, there are 2,954 active films festivals.

An American Business

While it can be debated whether or not film is a ‘quintessentially American’ art-form, it is certainly true that film is an American business as nearly three quarters of all film festivals are based in North America.

Screen Today, Gone Tomorrow

The data shows that film festivals are often run once, and then never again.  A third of film festivals only lasted a single year, with under a quarter making it past six years old.

Boom Time for New Festivals

Half of all the film festivals I could find were created since 2007, with the peak in 2009.  Since then there have been far fewer new festivals launched.  2012 was the worst year for new festivals since 1999.

Time of Year

The uptick in film festivals in October might be due to a focus on horror festivals around Halloween. Sadly I was not able to find enough data about festival genres to test this theory.

Film Festival Events

I wasn’t surprised to learn that nearly 4 out of every 5 film festivals screen short films, but I wasn’t expecting the result that only half have any form of competition.  It’s actually nice to see that the image of filmmakers entering festival purely to win prizes is not backed up by the data.

Short and Sweet

There was a huge spread in the number of days film festivals held events.  Part of the reason for the large number of festivals claiming to run “over 30 days” might be due to year-long celebrations and ‘always on-going’ festivals.

Methodology

I used a number of data sources for this research including publicly available information on sites like Withoutabox (by far and away the largest credible collection of film festivals online), Short Film Depot, Festhome, Reelport, Festival Focus, Short Film Central, BestInFest, FilmFestivals.com, Wikipedia, IMDb, the British Council and good ‘ol Google.

The data used to calculate the ‘Months of the Year’ came from a smaller sample of just over 1,500 festivals which I could personally verify. This is because the original data showed a disproportionate number of ‘December’ opening nights which did not seem credible. It seemed much more likely that the list was polluted by the quirks of some of my data sources, such as requiring year-round festivals to put a specific date which led many people to put the 31st December. I also suspect that some sites use that date as a default, further skewing the results.

Assessing the Exact Number of Film Festivals

I have been unable to provide a completely accurate and definitive figure on the total number of active film festivals in the world today. My data combines a number of data sources (see ‘Methodology’ for the list) and no one place was perfect.  Below are the claims made by various sites.  I found them to be reasonably accurate, although all had a certain amount of duplication and erroneous data.

  • WithoutaboxWithoutabox say they have “more than 5,000 festivals” although they don’t qualify this by saying how active these festivals are. The number of festivals you can apply to via Withoutabox is either 850 or 900, depending on which page of their site you read.  I ask them for clarification but they have not got back to me in the time it’s taken me to do this survey.
  • FilmFestivals.com use different figures on their site, including 4,000, 5,000 and 6,000 festivals
  • Festival Focus list 2,303 festivals
  • BestInFest list 1,832 festivals
  • British Council list 1,582 festivals
  • Yahoo list 957 festivals
  • Wikipedia list 437 festivals

Limitations

I believe this to be a very comprehensive study by the standards of the world of filmmaking, but doubt I will be receiving any honorary doctorates in Asymptotic Statistical Analysis because of it. There are a number of areas I would have liked to have had more, or cleaner, data. For example…

  • I’m sure I missed some festivals and that others could not be counted (being false, not true film festivals, etc). That said, I don’t feel that the margin for error would be high, so the overall trends should be fairly reliable.
  • There is no way of verifying if a festival actually took place, so it’s conceivable that some of my ‘first year’ festivals didn’t actually happen.
  • I speak English and so will naturally have a bias away from festivals which only provide information in a non-English language.
  • My data gathering was largely online, thereby ignoring festivals whose main communication is via offline communities (such as schools, churches and local groups).
  • I am assuming that the information presented to the public is factually accurate. There have been a few times where I have manually excluded data that is demonstrably false (festivals claiming to have been going for almost 100 years despite film only being 125 old).
  • It’s possible some festivals may have been duplicated, although I have cross-referenced names, contact details and websites. It’s conceivable that a festival changed its name and principle points of contact, in which case it would be counted as two festivals here.

Resources and Further Reading

Coming Soon

Parts 2 and 3 of this series on film festivals will be published in the next week or so.  To stay updated follow me on Twitter @StephenFollows.

44 Responses to Film Festivals Pt 1: The Truths Behind Film Festivals

  1. As a prrfessional researcher (day job), that was a really interesting read and I look forward very much to the next two parts. As I will have a feature film (Rough Cut) ready to submit to festivals at the end of next year, the more I can learn about them the better – I’ve had both good and bad experiences when my films have been included in festivals over the last 10 years, though mostly, I’n glad to say, they have been good experiences.

    • Thanks for the support – good to know it’s passes muster with a professional! I think most festival experiences are what you make of them. If you put your all into meeting new people and taking full advantage of the situation then you’re likely to have fun and achieve a lot.

      I’m going through the next few posts now and it looks like there’s some interesting stuff to come!

  2. It is interesting how the Arizona International Film Festival-
    Coming up on our 23rd edition
    17 days (started out 3 days, then 10 days then 20 days for our 20th and now 17 days)
    in April (the first year was in October)
    with Shorts, Features, and Competition (added Competition due to Filmmaker’s Requests)
    stack up against the other Film Festivals in the world.

    Cool article.
    I appreciate all the hard work and long hours it took to put this together.
    Mia Schnaible
    Arizona International Film Festival

  3. Farhan says:

    Thanks for the article, in a world filled with festivals this is a useful resource. Some years ago I sent my short ‘Be Me’ into festivals, it was really productive. This year round I’m not sure that the festivals hold the same sway. I think I might be better off publishing straight on youTube/Vimeo, I’d get more exposure.

  4. Cameron Geiser says:

    Very interesting! As an extremely new up and coming filmmaker my eventual success or failure would probably depend on film festivals so I’m always trying to learn more about them. Definitely looking forward to the other 2 parts!

  5. Great ! Really useful research : I think of film festivals as the beating heart of the filmmaking world in an environment that is increasingly dominated (and compromised) by the dictates of commercial television. Looking forward to the next two installments :)

  6. MARK says:

    OK Assuming your data is well conceived etc etc. Is there anything meaningful to be derived from this?

    Parts 2 and 3?

    • Good question. Short answer is – I don’t know. I didn’t do this to make or prove a point, just for the intellectual curiosity. I think this kind of data should be available to everyone but how they use it is up to them. I certainly don’t think it should be used in a scientific sense (the data is not rigorous enough for that) but anecdotally I think it’s interesting.

  7. Daniel Cormack says:

    Hey Stephen,

    Thanks for this – I’m sure it will prove very useful.

    Do you have raw data in a spread sheet somewhere? Even just a list of the festivals and a link (if there is one) would be useful for someone planning festival submissions.

    I guess other interesting areas to look at would be how many festivals charge fees and at what level.

    Daniel

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  9. Abid Khan says:

    Thanks for the research, it’s good to know but seems rather Grim. Anyone these days can start a festival and with the market over saturated it still boils down to the top 30-50 that really matter. These are the festivals that attract the most important people or have the highest attendance ratings. Plus to win an award from one of these festivals (especially top 20) actually means something – who in the industry would care if you won best film at a small festival in a small town in Alabama? It’s good for the ego but nothing else plus I tire from seeing wreaths from festivals that I have never heard from. Although saying that you never know who might attend one of these small festivals and you or your gem of a film..

  10. Patrick Nash says:

    Great work, Stephen, I look forward with anticipation to the next two parts.

  11. Bike Smut says:

    The number of festivals is staggering. This list confirms what I suspected. Plus December is always the pits for our festival as well.

  12. Bike Smut says:

    if i were to request some more info it would be the type of filmfestival. Many fall into a category (or a few). And it would be really excellent to see how many of a similar type there are.

    eg I think there are more erotic film festivals than bike film festivals, but im curious either way!

    thanks again!

  13. Mol says:

    I think the BFI suggest only about 15 film festivals are of any real value.

    here’s a list of the ones worth entering films to. The rest will not probably help you really sell your movie…

    Sundance (17-27 jan) USA
    Rottedam (23 Jan – 3rd Feb) Netherlands
    Berlin (7th Feb – 17th) Germany
    South by Southwest (8-17th March) USA
    Hong Kong International Festival (17th March – 2 nd April) China
    Tribecca Film Festival (17th 28 April) USA
    Cannes International Film Festival (15 -26 May) France
    Annecy Animation Fstival (10th – 1th June) France
    Karrlovy Vary (28th June – 6 July) Czech Republiic
    Locarno (7-17th August) Switzerland
    Venice (La Biennale) 28th august – 7th Sept) Italy
    Tulluride Film Festival (29th August 2 September) USA
    Toronto (5 to 15th September) Canada
    San Sebastian (20-28th Sept) Spain
    Fantastic Fest (19th – 26 Sept) USA
    Sitges International Festival (3-13th Oct) Spain
    Pusan International Film Festival (3-10th Oct) S.Korea
    Tokyo International Film Festival (19-27 th Oct) Japan
    Rome Film Festival (26 th Oct – 3 Nov) Italy

    mol

    • Daniel Cormack says:

      The BFI say these are the only festivals that matter?! If that’s true, I’d love to see where they say it.

      I thought at first your list was a copy and paste job, but if it is, it’s been compiled by someone who can’t spell very well which rather undermines its accuracy.

      First up, why do SXSW, Hong Kong, Pusan, Rome and Tokyo feature on this list at all?

      Second:

      i) Annecy [sic] is an animation only festival

      ii) Toronto only screens Canadian shorts

      iii) Tokyo only screen features

      I could go on…

      If you’re looking at selling a feature film there are only really three markets that are heavily trafficked by buyers, albeit you may get a sale in a local territory off the back of festival screening in that country.

      • Mol says:

        Sorry about the spelling. Did it quick and dirty as very busy right now. The BFI lists the festivals under their funding area. They will help fund film makers to attent festivals where their films are accepted.

        The list I drew up as being for film makers from all countries not just UK producers.

        I put it here as help for others so I didn’t really expect such a negative and insulting reply. Spelling errors and typos on the internet are what they are: fast work but the listconveys the right idea… that is: most festivals are a waste of time and just money making events for those hosting them.
        mol

        • Mol

          Thanks for your thoughts. It’s great to have your thoughts (here and the emails we’ve exchanged) and input.

          Stephen

        • Daniel Cormack says:

          I disagreed with you and I think you’re drawing the wrong inference about the festivals and what the BFI is trying to do.

          It could be that there simply aren’t the resources to open the scheme out to all the festivals that ‘matter’.

          If you have to be selective it could well be that the BFI are prioritizing markets in which UK filmmakers traditionally DON’T sell their films, leaving the low hanging fruit for the producers to do themselves.

          In short, the sloppy spelling was indicative of sloppy thinking.

          I don’t want to give you the impression I am being negative, but equally I don’t want people to be misled by the hasty and quite probably wrong conclusions you have drawn. If I sounded rude, it’s because your post sounded arrogant and to make such sweeping statements in such an authoritative tone deserves to be questioned.

          Also, you haven’t distinguished between festivals and markets. This is a list to support people who have got accepted to screen at the festivals. Granted, this might also give them an extra kick in the market and possibly help make a local or regional sale, but let’s face it: the one-stop-shop for these sales is Cannes (Marche du Film), the American Film Market and the European Film Market at the Belinale.

          • Mol says:

            You appear to be very personal and quite rude with your assumptions about me. Sloppy thinking, etc. I have done a study on film festivals, and film distributors world-wide. Most festivals are excuses to make money for the organisers. Why do you suppose there are so many? The BFI took over from The British Film Council and their aims are quite different. The only reason for putting films into the 3000 odd festivals is to lose money for a tiny bit of vanity. Acceptance and showing of a film in most of them will not produce and distribution.

            The model for film distribution has changed entirely. Festivals for small Indie film makers in no longer required. Better to screen it on the web, via streaming. Also, it is as good today to invite would be buyers of films to watch an online screener.

            Festivals, dvds, distribution of hard copy films… these are all slowly ending in favour of youtube, vimeo, netflix, illovefilm, amazon etc.

            I suggest you take a lesson in politeness. You may spell well and produce no typos but your social skills seem sadly lacking.

            mol

          • Mol, Daniel,

            You’ve both made some welcomed contributions to this article but I don’t want the conversation to lose its focus of film festivals so I’m going to ask that you both leave it here.

            I have no doubt that you will both have plenty more to say but unless its exclusively about film festivals I don’t feel it would be constructive.

            I will remove any messages that are just personal to help keep the discussion on track. You both have my email address so please address any concerns to me directly and keep this page for film festival conversation.

            Thanks :)

            Stephen

  14. Daniel Cormack says:

    MoI, yes it was a useful contribution. The link to the BFI’s list of eligible festivals is here:

    http://bfi.org.uk/sites/bfi.org.uk/files/downloads/bfi-film-export-fund-guidelines-for-applicants-2013-07.pdf

    (It’s on page 7).

    On the subject of festivals, I will be interested to see Stephen’s results in part 2 and I expect it will show that most festivals are not set up to rip off filmmakers.

    Yes, sales and the bottom line are important – probably the most important thing (although how many micro-budget features are there out there which have launched talent on to greater things with the help of festivals but have made little money in themselves?)

    Look at the London Film Festival. It’s not the greatest sales arena, but it is used by many distributors as a launch for a UK theatrical release, presumably because they think this “vanity” will help the film make money.

    Festivals also play a role in building relationships and audiences and for getting feedback. And provided that a festival is a legitimate, competitive festival what’s wrong with enjoying the kudos of winning an award or even just being selected to screen in a highly sought after event? It all helps.

    I hate scam festivals as much as you do, but really it’s about evaluating each potential festival entry on a variety of criteria of which potential sales is only one aspect.

  15. Marian says:

    This is fascinating, and must have been a huge task, so many thanks! I wonder whether the figures around longevity and geography would be different for niche festivals like queer or women’s film festivals. If anyone wants to have a go, there’s Mel Pritchard’s Big Queer Film Festival List here, or my Wellywood Woman women’s film fest list. Or horror, which must have some comprehensive lists about.

    • Marian, thanks and your raise a good point. I’d love to have had genre details on the festivals, as well as data on size, acceptance rates, prize values, support for Filmmakers, etc. but to get the largest sample I needed to be more targeted in what data I sought. I think you’re right that the results would have been fascinating.

      • Laure Kirby says:

        Thanks for this data. What is the use of it? I see many uses depending on the viewer. Potential sponsors can understand the market (I get asked these questions by sponsors all the time). FIlmmakers can see where the festival industry is going. Distributors will know where the overall festival market is going (contracting, expanding). We time our conference in December since most festivals are on hiatus and can download and regroup for the next year with new ideas, technology, etc. I believe festivals will continue to exist because the virtual world is just that, virtual. It neither cannibalizes or creates the festival experience but is adjunct and should co-exist.

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  17. Billious says:

    Apples and Oranges is the moral here.

    If a film maker wants ‘people’ to see their work then you have to get their bums in and onto seats and if it is for free then you and the organisers will go hungry and the audience will have no ‘ownership’ of the experience – but you will feel all warm and glowing knowing that someone has seen your precious effort. This is why newspapers charge a cover price and venues charge a cover charge, both low enough to impart some possession of the expected experience. These I would call ‘community markets’.

    If a film maker wants sales, then it is a very different ‘market’ one is seeking to that of self satisfaction. The best festivals are obviously the higher profile ones where people with a responsibility to buy for their station / network / distribution company etc will be there and they cannot go home with an empty order book. An excellent example of this at work is MIPTV – “MIPTV is the spring TV market that gathers the entire ecosystem of TV & onlinecontent to make deals, to be inspired and to forge new partnerships.”. These I would call ‘commercial markets’.

    So keep them oranges away from them apples and be sure of what it is you want… you may well get it.

    Best from Billious appearing on a sidewalk or footpath near you soon… just step over the mess.

  18. Bea Bonobo says:

    Excellent piece of work. Very USEFUL. You saved me weeks of toil. Thanks!

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  22. Dave says:

    Thanks for these nice statistics.
    As a film director and festival manager I will gain more insights.

    Check here, if you really included the 200+ smaller festivals as well. Those are sometimes hard to find online (because their founders are from the pre-internet age).
    Smaller Short Film Festivals

    And also you might want to include the 70+ festivals of the KINO Movement, where the films are made and screened during the event itself to the most enthusiastic audiences (who took part in the productions themselves): Kino Kabarets

    Have a look at Italy again, where many events take place!
    Also check here for a very recent international list for the Spanish-speaking world: clickforfestivals

    Some commentators try to sell their films. I understand. It is human and valid to have such a profit oriented mind-set. But I make films, because I have to improve my work as an artist and tell stories. This engine helps me to create more and better pieces. Money does not.

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