The economics of film festivals

Economics of film festivalsLast week I published the results of my study of almost 10,000 film festivals.  I found that around 3,000 festivals were active (i.e had run an event in the last 2 years),  most were in North America and 75% of them were created in the last ten years. That was a quantitative study based on publicly available information, but for the full picture I felt I needed to do a qualitative investigation to hear film festival directors’ points of view.

I contacted 5,000 film festival directors from my original list, asking them to fill in a quick anonymous survey about their experiences.  523 festival directors completed my survey, which was a higher number than I was expecting.  This reflected a wider trend I’ve discovered, which is that the film festival world is made up of passionate and helpful people.  Obviously, unhelpful people exist (and by their very nature are quieter), but the overall engagement rate of 10% and the 100+ supportive emails I received suggest that, like filmmaking, it’s more about passion than hard-nosed business.

I will be posting another article next week with comments from festival directors, so today I’m going to concentrate on the numbers.  I found…

  • 45% of festivals use Withoutabox to accept entries
  • 65% of festivals charge for submissions
  • Under 15% of film festivals’ income comes from submission fees
  • 14% of festivals regard their funding situation as “great” or better
  • Average submission fee is $27 for short films and $40 for feature films
  • 51% of festivals give discounts to students
  •  77% of festivals allow your film to be online publicly when submitting
  • The festivals rated Withoutabox 4.2 out of 10 for value for money

Film Festivals? Money making rackets, right?

It’s my guess that most filmmakers who have spent time entering their film(s) into numerous festivals will at some point come to the conclusion that film festivals are money-making machines, gouging filmmakers for profit. But this isn’t supported by the numbers. A third of all festivals would describe their funding situation as “bad” or “awful”.

So where does their funding come from? The short answer to the economics of film festivals is… from many different places. 69% of festivals receive at least three forms of funding and only 14% receive all of their money from a single income stream.

The majority of film festivals do charge for submissions (an average of $27 for short films and $40 for feature films), but this isn’t their main source of income. Filmmaker submission fees make up less than 15% of the total income of film festivals.

Of course, as in any other industry, there will be some charlatans and cowboys (check out this exposé of the Swansea Bay Film Festival to see one of the worst) but most appear to be living the same existence as the majority of filmmakers – struggling to get by and dedicated to the art they love.

How To Submit Your Film

The big player on the festival submission scene is Amazon-owned Withoutabox, which is the largest single platform to facilitate film festival entries. However, only 45% of film festivals use Withoutabox and it is only the third most popular method for accepting film submissions from filmmakers.

It seems that festivals tend to stick to just a few methods, with less than one in five festivals accepting entries via three or more methods. 18% of festivals only accept entries via their website and 15% of festivals exclusively use Withoutabox (i.e. no other way of submitting your film). Other submission sites included Up To Fest, Click For Festivals and Film Festival Life.

WithoutaWorry or WithoutaClue?

One of the most common emails I got from festival directors was along the lines of “I can’t wait to see what everyone else says about Withoutabox”.  Filmmakers and festivals experience different sides of Withoutabox, and it could be argued that both use WAB out of necessity, rather than desire.  Other people have written about this before and there is even a Facebook page.

Overall, film festivals gave Withoutabox a poor report card. They gave it 4.5 out of 10 for “ease of use” and 4.6 for “customer service”. Interestingly, the highest score was 4.9 out of 10 overall.

Economics of film festivals - Deuce BigalowBut the lowest score was for how festivals rated Withoutabox’s “value for money for festivals” at just 4.2 out of 10. To put that in perspective, on IMDb the film Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo has a higher rating from audiences (4.6/10) than Withoutabox has from film festival directors in terms of its value for money (4.2/10).

Can You Have Your Film Online?

Earlier this year ‘Short of the Week‘ did a spot test and found that two thirds of major film festivals allow you to already have your film online when submitting. My survey supports their finding, although I found the number to be higher, at 77%. I put this increase down to SotW targeting just the “major festivals” whereas my survey had a wider dataset, including smaller festivals which are more likely to be relaxed about online exclusivity.

Student Discounts

Almost exactly half (50.7%) of festivals provide discounted entry fees for student filmmakers.

A related fact from a previous blog post is that in the last year the number of film students in the UK has risen by 209%.


As in my last post, I feel the need to point out that I am a film producer, not a statistician. Therefore, this survey cannot be said to have the same intellectual rigour as one would expect from the ONS. The most obvious limitations are:

  • This is a self-selecting sample of festivals who chose to reply.
  • Compared to my main dataset, this group will certainly be suffering from survivorship bias (i.e. no dead or failed festivals will have replied because, well, them’s dead).
  • There is no way of knowing for certain how representative this sample is of the overall film festival scene. I was actually pleasantly surprised by how similar the geographical demographics of this survey were to my overall film festival data. I did not ask any personal details but can deduce the country from the IP address (which shows, for example, that participants of this survey were 74% from North America, not far off the reality that 70% of all festivals are in North America).
  • People lie.

Coming Soon – beyond the economics of film festivals

My next post is the final of three on film festivals, and will give voice to the comments of the film festival directors. I ended the questionnaire asking if there were any truths about film festivals that they felt filmmakers should know about. They did not disappoint! You can keep up with my blog by following me on Twitter @StephenFollows.