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August 25, 2013

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 (although sadly the 11,000 likes are most likely purchased fake views rather than signs of a real community – see the comments of this post for details).

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.

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27 Responses

  1. Geraldine Ahrens August 25, 2013 at 6:45 pm #

    Thanks for the invite on the survey. It’s interesting to see what other people are doing.
    The fee based entries are understandable, but 25 and 40 dollars to enter several festivals, only to be turned down, is too steep for many people. That is why we decided to keep ours free. Of course we have no advertising budget, but we manage to get people to come around.
    We also do not rent a hall or conference room. The place we use has an outdoor screen and sound system, plus it is a bar/pizza/bed and breakfast, and they don’t charge us, as people eat and drink when they get there.
    We’re hoping that by next year we’ll have festival weekend, with other types of artists included in the mix.


  2. Eric Norcross August 25, 2013 at 6:54 pm #

    ” like filmmaking, it’s more about passion than hard-nosed business.” <- This sentence defines my experience when screening at many film festivals. Often festival directors are passionate about what they do, regardless of how savvy they are in operating on the business side.

    I wonder what sort of proof you have to back up your claim that the 11,000 followers of the movement against WithoutABox are "purchased". Can you explain in further detail how you came to this conclusion?

    • Stephen Follows August 25, 2013 at 7:09 pm #

      I completely agree with your thoughts.

      Re: FB page, certainly. I could be wrong, and if I am I will be happy to remove the mention and publish an apology. However, my evidence is thus…

      Go onto their Facebook page and click on ‘Like’s You can see the growth of ‘likes’ over time.

      • For the first month they had no likes (fairly normal for when people are preparing a page before launch)
      • By 14 Aug they had 809 likes. This is good growth but possible organically if they have an active community.
      • However, in the next week they boom to 11,980 likes – a growth of over 13 times in a few days.
      • But after that the growth tails off considerably, to gain just 500 more a week later.

      I don’t feel that this growth patten is indicative of a real community.

      There are no community posts or mentions of it around the web. That kind of boom is theoretically possible but (a) would create more ‘noise’ online of the real people talking about it and (b) would not have tailed off so much.

      Also, most of their likes come from Istanbul, despite the vast majority of festivals being in North American and Western Europe. We would expect for a community of this size to better reflect the film festival world.

      By chance, Istanbul is one of the hotspots for fake Facebook likes (see

      So, in short…

      1. Uncredible artificial boom
      2. Lack of community ‘chatter’
      3. Unlikely demographics
      4. Likes originate in fake like hotspot
      • Daniel France August 29, 2013 at 6:39 pm #

        Hi Stephen,

        Great article! However, I reviewed the links to the “Festivals against WAB” and I think that some of your information is misinterpreted.

        If you look at the graph, on the link you provided, it shows what “People are talking about” from July 27th to August 27th. The week of 8/8 thru 8/14, 809 people were “talking about this”, not 809 likes. And then during the week of 8/9 thru 8/15, 11,930 people were “talking about this”… again, not likes.

        When you refer to Istanbul, I’m assuming that you are talking about the “most popular city” which, according to Facebook is the city where the most people are talking about you, not where your likes are originating from.

        As far as community posts, there was a post as recent as August 25th.

        As a Facebook page owner, I’m not even able to see where my likes originate, or who they even are for that matter. Unless you have some sort of super powered analytics program (which you dont, unless you do, and then I want it since that is my profession) you wouldn’t be able to see any of the information that you mentioned.

        You can use this information any way you’d like but I thought you should know how to correctly interpret that graph.

        • Stephen Follows August 29, 2013 at 9:07 pm #

          Hi Daniel.

          I appreciate your interpretation (and happy to allow it to be publicly shared here) but I stand by my previous post.


          • Daniel France August 29, 2013 at 9:17 pm #

            Hi Stephen,

            I’m confused. How can you stand behind incorrect information? We aren’t debating philosophical differences, I pointed out that you clearly made a mistake.

          • Stephen Follows August 29, 2013 at 9:32 pm #

            I disagree with your interpretation and I remain convinced that the Likes are highly inflated. In my day job I work with digital marketing people at a high level and I showed it to some senior experts who all concurred. It’s an open and shut case of artificial manipulation rather than natural support. The lack of chatter on and around the page further compounds this.

            I don’t wish to be drawn into an online debate without additional evidence being provided as we all have better things to do. I feel I have been generous in allowing a counter-voice in what is agreed by all the experts I spoke to as an obvious point.

            If you wish to see your likes as a FB admin the go to[yourFBpagename]?sk=page_insights&section=navPeople

            I want this discussion section to be focused on film festivals and not interpretation of the same public information. I will leave up your reading of the facts and let the audience decide. Unless there is new, as yet unpublished, evidence I think the conversation is best left here.


    • Chris Jones August 26, 2013 at 10:53 am #

      I agree with Stephen, I have been surprised by some facebook and Twitter accounts recently getting HUGE followers in a rather strange way. I can’t prove anything, but their trends appear completely robitic and not at all organic. I also get five mails a day offering to sell me 5,000 followers for X dollars. How does that work then?

  3. Adam Tinnion August 27, 2013 at 9:31 am #

    The web address provided is only 1 of 4 Festivals I am part of. We unofficially call ourselves Film Festival International for ease as it’s difficult writing the 4 names down on every form.

    I did not fill in the form, apologies, I must have missed it. I am only replying as I’m shocked at 1 particular stat – Only 15% of Festivals income comes from submissions. All of our Festivals are 100% funded by submissions. We do not have any sponsorship or government funding. And off the back of that we have run and continue to run 4 International Festivals in London, Tenerife, St Tropez and Madrid. Due to this we need WAB. without them we do not gain enough entries from our website alone as they have the database to market to.

    I’d be interested to hear thoughts and opinions on this as we are always open to other options however if we drop WAB, we are almost guaranteeing to lose 1 or 2 of our events

    • Stephen Follows August 27, 2013 at 10:00 am #

      Adam, thanks for your thoughts.

      I noticed a slight correlation between with the percentage of income coming from submission fees and the age of the festivals. As in, the older the festival the more diversified their income. However, this was slight and correlation is not causation so I didn’t make it a headline stat. This could be because established festivals do better on grant applications, because older festivals have learned more about the nuance of funding, or because of something else entirely.

      The feeling I got from festival director en mass wasn’t that WAB should be closed, but that there should be more competition in the marketplace. However, the stats show that it’s not necessarily a hugely lucrative market. I wonder if what’s happened is that after Amazon bought WAB they realised that it’s not much of a money-maker and has little room for growth. In response they cut all site development and hiked up the fees. That’s just my guess but it would certainly explain the current situation.

      • Adam Tinnion August 27, 2013 at 10:09 am #

        To be honest that sounds about right. I can see why Amazon wanted to operate in this market after buying OMDB and having on demand services like Amazon Live. One of the biggest selling points we have is we actively seek out film distributers to attend our events and their largest markets are the online ones – so Amazon’s presence makes sense to me.

        Unfortunately the website they provide is awful! And your point makes perfect sense also.

        Our oldest Festival is 9 this year so we are not exactly new. The London one is actually in it’s 6th year however it’s the first time in London (we hosted it locally in our home town before but airport access is bad so we spoke with WAB and have moved it).

        We have made the decision to re-brand as Film Festival International and jazz up each of the online presences for each event. the next stage is to find sponsorship which we are closer to doing but it’s a hard process.

  4. Tom Reynolds August 29, 2013 at 6:12 pm #

    If you want to know why Amazon bought Withoutabox, it’s simple. Check out this egregious clause in their terms of service where filmmakers allow Withoutabox to reproduce and sublicense their work in perpetuity with no royalties!!!!

    “You grant us a nonexclusive, royalty-free, worldwide, perpetual, irrevocable, and fully sublicensable license right to use, copy, reproduce, transmit, modify, adapt, publish, translate, create derivative works from, distribute, and display any information, data, Work, or any other information associated with your Work (collectively the “Submitted Materials”) you submit to us via the Services in any media or format.”

    Consider the meaning of these words, “royalty-free”, “perpetual”, “irrevocable” combined with “right to use, copy, reproduce, transmit, adapt, publish, translate…in any media.” In my translation, this is an agreement giving Withoutabox permission to steal and sell your intellectual Property rights. I have never seen anything like this before Withoutabox. It is a total contradiction to what festivals and indie film competitions are all about. From what I can tell, it is outright theft; made even worse by the almost gleeful way Withoutabox pretends it is perfectly acceptable.

  5. Ernest Eich September 4, 2013 at 4:50 am #

    I concur that WAB is actually in the way of the growth of new film fests. We tried to get ours going this year and since we aren’t operational, I did’t fill out a questionnaire. WAB kinda tanked our enthusiasm, since they don’t tell you about the large setup fees until you have taken days to fill in the forms and set your info, snag a large portion of your submission fees, etc.

    I honestly didn’t know that Amazon had taken over WAB until I read your report. If I had known this info earlier, as Fest Director I would have steered us in a different direction until our 10th year or so…

    The percentage taken by WAB for the service (based on submission fees) is pretty high, but to also have to drop $500 just to get started, not knowing if you will get enough submissions to offset that was too much for a fledgling festival to bite off. Then, you pay more to promote, pay more to be featured, etc… and if you want to have a multi-day, quality venue you gotta pay for that, pay for permits, pay for biz license, buy shirts for your volunteers, have some other shwag to sell, etc.

    We are retooling for a spring date rather than fall date, in part from info that you gathered. So, thanks Steven for doing this service to the film fest community. We will be taking submissions direct from the website/snail mail for hardcopies and charging a lower submission fee in this new version of our planning.

    • Terry Scerbak September 15, 2013 at 8:34 am #

      $500 doesn’t seem that bad for a new festival that charges submission fees to get set up on WAB when you consider that the fee WAB charges to a festival such as ours that wants to use their service to accept submissions but doesn’t charge a submission fee is $2,000. Needless to say, we’re one of the fests that don’t use WAB.

      • jenny September 17, 2015 at 10:48 pm #

        They also take 18% of submission fees right off the top. When you add that up that’s theft.

  6. Guy Armitage November 11, 2014 at 4:17 pm #

    Hi Stephen, have you undertaken to do this study once again in 2014? Lots is changing online and I wondered how this data would change in this day of age

    • Stephen Follows November 11, 2014 at 4:35 pm #

      Good idea. No, I haven’t, largely because it took quite a while and I’m looking at new topics. It’s on my ‘wish list’ if and when I get more time or some funding.

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