The Film Festival Goes Underground

Movie Theater Film Festival

By Blake Barnett

| Video Production, Video Tips


The Film Festival Goes Underground

By Doug Morris


According to How Stuff Works: “Film festivals are events staged by universities, private organizations, local governments, arts associations and/or film societies. They provide an opportunity for unknown filmmakers to get their movies in front of a real live audience and to have their films reviewed by professional critics. Filmmakers whose movies get accepted into a festival also get valuable press attention and exposure to prospective agents and buyers, not to mention sometimes-sizeable cash awards if they win.”  


You can also think of film festivals as the farmers’ markets of the movie business: Farmers take their time and resources to grow and harvest food items of value – anything from strawberries to rhubarb to honey – in hopes that food shoppers will purchase their produce in the marketplace.  

Likewise, filmmakers make the best use of their time and treasure to produce something of value too – such as a feature-length documentary, a comedy short or an animated TV series – and offer it up for sale to film distributors in their marketplace, the worldwide film festival circuit. 

“The most prestigious film festivals in the world, known as the ‘Big Three’, are CannesVenice, and Berlin. The ‘Big Five’ also include Toronto and Sundance, which tend to present unreleased films or films that have only been shown domestically prior to its selection. The Toronto International Film Festival is North America’s most popular festival in terms of attendance. The Venice Film Festival is the oldest film festival in the world.”

– Wikipedia


As a late addition to the long-standing Venice Biennale Art Exhibition, the 1932 Venice Film Festival was the world’s first and continues to be one of the world’s most popular and fastest growing film-fests anywhere.

Known in Italian as the Esposizione d’Arte Cinematografica (Exhibition of Cinematographic Arts,) the Venice Film Festival has provided filmmakers the opportunity to compete at the highest artistic level through a series of juried competitions for most of its 88 year history.

There were no awards given following the Venetian festival’s first year, however in 1934 the Mussolini Cup (Coppo Mussolini) was established and became the top award bestowed by the Venice Film Festival for almost a decade until it was abandoned in 1943: The date of which coincides with the ousting and subsequent summary execution of Benito Mussolini, Italy’s infamous Fascist Dictator at the hands of Italian partisans. 

Today, the award for the best film screened in competition at the Venice Film Festival is the Golden Lion (Leone d’Oro.) A few noteworthy winners of the Golden Lion include: 

The latest Golden Lion winner, Nomadland premiered at the Venice Film Festival on September 11, 2020, and in an unprecedented collaboration between film festivals in this COVID-19 year, also screened at the Toronto International Film Festival on the same day where the film won the People’s Choice Award: This made Nomadland the first film ever to win the top prize in both Venice and Toronto. 


Nomadland also screened at numerous international film festivals in 2020 including: ChicagoGhentHamburgHamptonsHelsinki, LondonLumièreMiddleburgMill Valley, MontclairNew YorkReykjavikSan DiegoSan Sebastian, TellurideZurichTaipei and Saint Petersburg.

In February 2019 Searchlight Pictures acquired the distribution rights. The Film at Lincoln Center will hold virtual screenings of the film for one week beginning December 4, 2020, with a theatrical release in the United States scheduled for February 19, 2021. It was previously scheduled to begin its theatrical release on December 4. 2020


Obviously with COVID-19 negatively affecting our ability to attend screenings, film festivals have been forced to drastically, often frantically, scramble to put their exhibitions together for secure, virtual screenings for limited online audiences. We’ll talk more on that later but consider for a moment the worldwide impact of the pandemic on the future of the filmmaking industry as a whole. 

Many cautious studio heads and filmmakers are opting to shelve a number of their big, tentpole movie releases and launch them sometime next year in hopes the distribution of vaccines will bring audiences back into theaters. Time will tell if they’ve made the right choice.

Other studios such as Disney chose to release its live-action feature Mulan on schedule but only for Disney+ subscribers: Note that those same subscribers must pay a premium fee on top of the subscription price to screen Mulan. The jury is still out on which will prove to be the wiser strategy.


For those with access to Netflix, Amazon and other streaming platforms, 2020 now offers (or will soon offer) a number of Oscar hopefuls – such as David Fincher’s Mank, Ron Howard’s Hillbilly Elegy and Paul Greengrass’ News of the World – who have all jumped the gun to make their films available for streaming this year. Here’s a rundown on a few of the films you can or will be able to watch online soon: 


Thanks to the efforts of a good many filmmakers, festival producers and consultants, film festivals will very likely survive and be with us long after this pandemic has run its course: They’ve simply had to go underground for the time being so don’t count them out. Without film festivals there is no marketplace for independent films and the human condition demands we have access to The Liveliest Art, perhaps more today than at any time in human existence. 

If not for film festivals some very talented filmmakers and their work would remain forever in obscurity. It’s the exposure a film gets from entering various festivals that determines which opportunities become available for wider distribution in theaters or for streaming. Film festivals must survive, and prosper if possible, in this COVID-19 age for all our sakes.


Film festivals come and go so if you ask how many film festivals there is in the world you’ll get widely different answers. For instance, film researcher Stephen Follows has been collecting data on almost 10,000 film festivals throughout the world but he concludes that many festivals have closed or are taking a “time-out” from running their events. 

“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.”

  • Stephen Follows

Follows’ research revealed there were only 2,954 active film festivals in 2013.


FilmFreeway.Com, which we will discuss more about later, serves the film industry as a go-between networking festival promoters and filmmakers together in support of film festivals. In their total however, FilmFreeway.Com also facilitates photo exhibits, music performances and “other creative contests” not strictly limited to filmmaking so please take their 9,856 numbers with a grain of salt. 


Even without the benefit of an exact number – the range and variety of film festivals available to screen a filmmaker’s work for film distributors is mind-boggling. A word of warning is in order: If a filmmaker chooses to enter the wrong festival they will very likely be wasting their time and money and set themselves up for disappointment. 


Since the most prestigious festivals can get thousands of entries for only a couple of hundred screening slots, the odds of being rejected by Cannes, Sundance, and Toronto become increasingly exponential. It’s far wiser to choose a number of smaller, niche festivals that might fit your film better and use those festivals as stepping-stones toward the big-name festivals as you grow your audience, brand and reputation. If you aren’t already, learn to be patient!

This is where time spent researching film festivals will come in handy. Which type of festival might welcome your entry? Here are just a few random selections to illustrate the wide variety of festivals available for filmmakers to showcase their work. As you can see, even in this tiny sample there is a wide variety to choose from.


Bentonville, Arkansas

For six years running the Bentonville, Arkansas based festival has offered screenings, panels and events which feature women and people of color. This past year, over 80% of the festivals films were directed by women, 65% were directed by people of color, and 45% were helmed by LGBTQ directors. Co-founded by actress Geena Davis, whose work with the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, made her a natural fit to co-produce this festival.


Los Angeles, California

For its 23rd year, the festival is planning a virtual event with over 200 titles streamed live, alongside virtual red carpets, trivia nights, Q&As, panels, and more. The festival spoofs its own handle from the number of festivals that use the term “dance” in their titles: Slamdance, Digidance, Nodance, TromaDance to name a few. For a chuckle, check out the cease and desist letter from Orion Pictures legal department over the festival title’s “potential for confusion” with one of the studio’s earlier pictures, Dances With Wolves.  


San Diego, California

Established in 2015, the GI Film Festival San Diego aims to reveal the struggles, triumphs, and experiences of service members and veterans through compelling and authentic storytelling. Documentaries, shorts, narratives, and family-friendly films are presented, highlighting stories of heroism, resilience, and honor. The festival includes the Local Film Showcase, which features San Diego’s filmmakers, events, people, or places.  After postponing this year’s event in favor of a May 2021 date, the festival will once again focus on military/veteran-made films.


Lyon, France

The Lumière Film Festival is an annual film festival held each October in Lyon Metropolis, France since 2009. The festival is named in honor of the Lumière Brothers, who invented the Cinematography in Lyon in 1895, and is organized by the Institut Lumière. You remember Lumière don’t you? The brothers created the iconic silent film animation of a moon rocket stuck in the eye socket of the Man in the Moon. Ouch!


Inspired by Jane Fonda’s 2011 TED Talk on aging, the THIRD ACTion Film Festival’s focus is to celebrate aging and the accomplishments of older adults to help speed along an age-positive culture shift and empower everyone to envision their best third act.

The research you start now will determine how and where you launch your film. To help make things a bit easier, check out this extensive list from Chris Lindahl of IndieWire for a fuller range of options.


“For film festivals and markets, all is chaos. Some say the show will go on, or at least some of the show; others are pivoting to a virtual experience, or postponing, or wait-and-seeing, or canceling altogether. Some are open only to industry members, while others offer free and paid programming for the general public. Some are restricted only to residents of specific countries. And all is subject to change.

It’s a lot to track, and we’ll keep doing just that in the weeks and months ahead. Here’s a list of film festivals and markets that have offered some indication about their plans; those not on the list are not necessarily canceled. Many continue to accept submissions, but are mum on how they plan to move forward. The list will be updated as event organizers release information on their plans.”

– Chris Lindahl, IndieWire

With such a variety, choosing which festivals to enter is, in and of itself, a huge challenge for an artist to overcome. Fortunately, there are resources available for both financing and distribution and management for filmmakers to utilize.


In order to determine your film’s audience, production budget, fundraising strategy, festival and marketing strategies, it’s helpful to set out some clear objectives. 

Ask yourself what outcomes you envision? Are you looking to sell your film to the highest bidder? Or is your goal for the film to get as many people as possible to watch it? These are two distinctly different strategies for promoting a film and you need to choose before you start shelling out entry fees to different film festivals. Resources for strategizing are out there which we will discuss later.


The first thing a filmmaker needs to do is to establish who might be interested in their film. Try to understand the mindset of your viewers. Your insights into who will be drawn to your film may become very helpful in selecting which festivals you decide to enter. 


Given how complicated the festival world is, it’s helpful to both filmmaker and the festival to have a single place to aggregate everyone on one site. According to many filmmakers and festival promoters, Film Freeway is just such a place.


Film Freeway is a one-stop shop for submitting your film to festivals. Here’s a list of what the service touts as some of its key benefits for filmmakers:

  • FilmFreeway is always 100% free for filmmakers, writers, and submitters
  • Your work is only accessible to festivals that you submit to and can never be downloaded or shared without your permission.
  • You always retain 100% of all rights to your intellectual property.
  • Upload as many videos as you like in full HD, absolutely free. Your FilmFreeway account comes with unlimited storage.
  • Receive real-time submission status updates directly from the festivals you’ve entered.


In addition to supporting filmmakers, over 9,000 film festivals and contests, including 168 Academy Award / BAFTA Award accredited festivals, use FilmFreeway to connect with over one million filmmakers worldwide. FilmFreeway’s pitch to festival managers and promoters is how simple it is to list your festival and begin receiving entries right away. You can also view projects, manage judging and communicate with entrants, all in one place. 

Additionally, festivals promoters can track submissions, monitor financials and stay organized with real-time dashboard analytics and reports. They can also automate entrant notifications as well as create custom judging forms as well as selection and rejection messages. Film Freeway communicates with entrants from anywhere in the world.


Another resource serving both communities is The Festival Key, a consulting business created by Sandra Lipski who serves to promote both filmmakers and film festivals alike. Lipski’s background as an international film actress, festival promoter and filmmaker uniquely qualifies her to advise just about anybody involved in the entry into, and management of film festivals.

Whether you’re launching a film festival from scratch or need help navigating the new COVID-19 world, The Festival Key can help festival managers strategize their festivals, define their niche, develop audiences, create business plans, market their festivals, secure sponsorships as well as develop workshops, master classes and pitch forums.

If you’re a filmmaker facing tough decisions about which festivals might be right for your film, The Festival Key can help there, too. It begins with an analysis of your film and any materials you already have for promoting your feature, short or documentary: Even a student film. 

Understand that Lipski will advise on the following depending on where your film is in terms of completion. 

  • YOUR FILM IS FINISHED (picture locked) and you have all your materials ready: Poster, screenshots, synopsis, director’s bio etc. What’s needed in this case will be to evaluate and create the best film festival strategy possible for your film.
  • YOUR FILM IS IN POST-PRODUCTION – You need guidance to create the best materials to represent your film and create a festival strategy to reach your desired festival goal. 
  • YOUR FILM IS IN PRE-PRODUCTION – Where will I find my audience? What are my best marketing strategies? The Festival Key is there to guide you through the entire process from post-production to your first Film Festival premier. 


Traditionally, industry-wide trade policies have prevented film festivals from screening their films online. Distributors demand exclusivity so the more people who have access to watch a particular film the more such access may discourage investments in that film. 

Now that it has become widely accepted by most festivals that audiences may not be able to gather to screen their offerings, online presentation appears to be with us for some time. This does inspire some confidence that the festivals that are able to survive the pandemic will be able to exhibit to a wider audience since more people will have access to the films screened.


Seed&Spark is a crowdfunding resource for filmmakers to help get their projects produced and distributed. To further support the filmmaking community, Seed&Spark has recently drafted a pledge for festivals and distributors that address such topics as online eligibility, time-windowing, ticket capping and geoblocking.


This is a means of controlling access to screen films to a specific geographical area. It’s common to geoblock on a country level.  But some platforms are able to go down to the state or even city level. 

Obviously those festivals that choose to geoblock should be researched to determine whether your film can be viewed from any location or might be limited to viewers in say, Calgary or Italy or South America. Geoblocking could make a difference since it can affect the audience who can screen your film. 

Read more about the Film Festival Survival Pledge Seed&Spark is promoting now below.


By signing the Film Festival Survival Pledge, film festivals and distributors support the independent film community affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, by pledging to:

ONLINE ELIGIBILITY: Temporarily revise policies prohibiting screening of films that were once available online to now make any films that screen online in an official ticketed festival capacity screening and competition-eligible.

PREMIERE STATUS: Uphold the intended film premiere status for a festival, in the event that festival moves their program online. 

GEOBLOCKING WAIVER: If a film screens online for a preceding, non-geographically competing festival in an official ticketed festival capacity (when granular geoblocking technology, smaller than at the country level, is unavailable), temporarily waive policies requiring geographically-based premiere.

PRODUCTION TIMELINE: When accepting submissions for the 2020-2021 festival cycle, temporarily waive policies limiting screening and competition eligibility of films produced within a specific timeframe to include films that were eligible in the previous festival cycle.

COMMITMENT TIMELINE: Uphold these commitments for the duration of 2020.  For festivals occurring in 2021, the Production Timeline clause will stand up to the date of your festival in order to protect 2020 films.

DISTRIBUTOR CLAUSE:  A distributor can further strengthen this pledge by committing to recognize that by screening online in a fixed-term, pay-wall enforced, official festival capacity (that is geoblocked to a particular area), a film is not earning revenue or being sold to consumers in a traditional VOD market and, therefore, remains viable for future sales opportunities.

Seed&Spark had taken festival pros and cons to another level in a recent blog entry. Before you choose a festival it’ll behoove you to learn a bit more detail about which festivals filmmakers should consider entering. As you now realize, there’s a lot to consider when it comes to choosing a festival.



But in spite of COVID-19’s effect on the film festival universe, new startup festivals continue to appear every year. Recently, Ben Andrews, a Seattle-based filmmaker threw his hat in the ring to create the Seattle Film Summit. We’ll conclude with what Andrews has to say about his experience and some of the challenges he and his team had to overcome establishing his festival facing a worldwide pandemic. 


“So I think the biggest thing that has hurt us this year was those two or three months of holding onto the hope that maybe we can still do the Seattle Film Summit in person and still do it in the model that we’re familiar with. That was our number one problem this year. Yes, I think that took valuable time from us. 

Our platform was basically a Private Streaming Provider so it’s just like Netflix with Video-On-Demand (VOD.) On the first day the Library starts at Zero. As each day goes by the Library expands: Eventually everything that was recorded is put up on the platform. 

We had 22 days of content but it’s not every day. Monday, Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays however we wanted to avoid zoom fatigue. We didn’t want to have two days of 10 hours in a row, where people are just in front of their PCs all the time. 

What we decided was to spread out the 22 days to make it more educational and really infuse the Networking Views Showcases so it’s more interactive and people can get bite-sized chunks as well as tune in and out. 

Our other big thing was, even if you miss something within those 22 days, you will get to watch it if you purchase your ticket, you’ll get access to all the content for 60 days.  

Every other creative organization in the world right now is being forced to evolve and innovate. And so taking advantage of that opportunity and reaching out to all these film festivals and asking, why don’t we collaborate? Or what’s going on with you? I can tell you what’s going on with us. We can learn from each other. 

This is the time to do it. I mean, speaking to your audience and whoever’s listening: Filmmakers, like now’s the time to innovate. Now’s the time to take whatever art form you’ve learned and realize that it’s the wild, wild West, again. You just have to be fearless and move the ball forward.” 

If you’re still reading you’re definitely serious about film festivals. More power to you if you have aspirations that only a film festival can realize. But whether your picture is big or small, funny or sad, fact or fiction, short or long, there is a film festival out there that wants to see it. Remember that your perseverance will pay off in time. It’s the only proven method that can make dreams come true!

“The Cannes Film Festival is about big-budget films but also remarkable films made in different political regimes by filmmakers with little resources.”

– Kristen Scott Thomas

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