The number of film festivals has grown worldwide over the years. There are the major ones such as Cannes and Sundance, and there are lesser known regional film festivals, some of them in specific genres. Now, some big Internet streaming platforms are offering top dollar for video-on-demand distribution rights. And it’s causing a bit of a crimp to local festival organizers.
On opening night here at the Alabama Theater, hundreds of people streamed in for Birmingham’s annual Sidewalk Film Festival. Not every sought-after film will show. For months leading up to this night, festival programmers quietly negotiated with film distributors. But with companies like Netflix and Amazon jumping into indie films, getting the rights to screen a film can be hard. Rachel Morgan, programmer at Sidewalk Film Fest, says when she approached one company with online distribution rights about screening a film, she couldn’t get a straight answer.
“Well first I was told that there was interest,” she said, “and then all of a sudden I was told no.”
Sometimes, she can’t even get someone on the phone. Morgan says screening at regional festivals isn’t a priority for a lot of the big video-on-demand distributors.
“A lot of distributors are thinking exactly that. ‘What does it matter to me, if you’re gonna pay us $200 to screen this film or even $1,000. We can put it on VOD and have this massive audience,'”she said.
Melodie Sisk is a producer whose films have screened at Sidewalk and many other festivals and landed distribution deals.
“Of course everyone wants and needs distribution,” she said. But Sisk said the audience connection at festivals is important too. Still, she said, there have been festivals where one of her films couldn’t screen at all. The distributor, she said, became a wall. “So we lost huge portions of the country that would’ve been excited about our film,” Sisk said.
Erik Childress, producer and programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, said festival programmers and distributors kind of want the same thing. “It’s that fine line between having exclusivity and getting the most out of a film that you possibly can, particularly on the financial side,” he said.
Most agree that a film needs both: festivals are like free advertising. And that generates buzz for when the film does make its online debut.