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Viewpoint: festivals – do distributors care?

As the founder and managing director of boutique factual distributor Scorpion TV, David Cornwall has plenty of experience attending documentary festivals. With IDFA beginning in Amsterdam this week, he outlines the plus and minus points of such events to television programme sales.

David CornwallAs more and more festivals are popping up all over the world, it can be difficult for a filmmaker to really know which festival to enter and whether they will be helpful or not, especially since the culture of film festivals is becoming increasingly popular. It is made even more difficult by the amount of small and niche festivals that are starting where it is difficult to know what they will be like, who will be there and what kind of assistance they will provide.

In my experience, whilst some festivals have market events where it is possible to meet buyers and network, not all of them do and many smaller ones are not intended to have commercial aims. As a distributor, although I may attend some festivals, the main events of the year for me are the big markets like MIPCOM and MIPTV. I would always say that going to a festival is never a wasted journey, as you are always likely to meet someone interesting, but I feel the majority of business is still done at the major markets, and therefore they take priority over attending lots of festivals.

I sometimes find it can be useful to use festivals to find films that I would like to acquire, so while I may not attend many of them I will look at festival programmes to discover new films I find of interest. On the other hand, it can often be the case that films entered into festivals are less commercial and too niche for an international television market, especially as festivals become more specific and less mainstream.

Participating in the festival scene may not always be beneficial from a sales or financial point of view, but there can be significant soft benefits to be gained. Producers have told me that they help in developing prominence in the industry, building up an audience worldwide and helping the film gain momentum. They can also be useful to receive reviews as critics may attend, which helps the film reach a wider audience who may not have come across it otherwise. This recognition of quality enables filmmakers to stand out and some distributors may use this strategy to help get their films recognized and known to buyers.

Visibility within the industry can help build the reputation of a film – and also the filmmaker – which can assist in making it easier for their next film to be made. For me, being selected for a festival shows a certain level of quality because they curate the content from thousands of entries every year, and therefore selection can help sales in that way.

In addition, international awards bring interest to a film and raise its profile and although I do not think it is necessary for a film to participate in a lot of festivals for it to do well in sales, I have found that there are some networks that reserve programme slots solely for award-winning films.

Doing press before markets can be extremely useful as it helps your films to stand out at a time when buyers are being inundated with content. From my experience, focusing on certain films and pinpointing key buyers can be very effective, and from feedback I have received, this kind of advertising has led to direct interest.

Keeping up a visible presence is important throughout the year to keep up the momentum of the film and this is another way that festivals can be useful for films as they are a form of advertising, pushing the film out into the world and allowing a lot of people to become aware of it.

There are positives to be gained from festival runs, but the success of the film selling commercially do not hinge on them. They can be extremely useful in terms of press, promotion and visibility within the industry and are an integral part for filmmakers in order to make them stand out, but for distributors the markets are for the most part more important and where the vast majority of our business is done.