The Life Cycle of a Film Festival

I belong to a Film Festivals Organizers group, and somebody brought up an interesting question the other day: what is the average life of a film festival? How many find lasting success?

Of course, this question is impossible to answer. However, apparently in 2013 some guy tried as much as possible to do a comprehensive study. By now this information is dated and even he admits it’s impossible to be accurate, but he sure extrapolated and analyzed a lot of data, and it’s interesting to look at.

The majority of film festivals are run once, and then never again (two-thirds according to this data set). Around the three-year mark there’s another sharp drop. One person in the group remembered reading recently that only 15 percent of festivals make it to a third year (our latest milestone).

These data are complicated even more by the age of the virtual festival. Some people think running a virtual festival is much easier–in my experience, in some respects it’s easier, and in some respects much harder, than it was to run a projector onto a screen at a venue. It’s actually a lot more work to pull together technically, but it also relieves the stressful pressure of waiting in a room with empty seats and praying an audience will show up.

And then, people commented, it’s much easier to run “fake festivals” these days. Some virtual festivals are merely award mills that take your money, view your film (hopefully), and give you some kind of laurel to put on it. In the age of online festivals sometimes it’s hard to tell who’s running a “real” festival with an audience, or to even define what a “real” festival is.

Bottom line, this was an interesting conversation about the state of film festivals and I have to say, statistically, I think we’re doing great! Every year we have grown the audience and experienced more engagement and I think that is exactly what you want. Film festivals can be a lot of work without always providing a big payoff (or even providing a net loss) so it’s not surprising many people don’t want to continue.

I have always taken as my role model Ernest Whiteman and the First Nations Film & Video Festival here in Chicago, which has run for several years and would run anywhere from historic theaters to university lecture halls to libraries to the arts centers or the American Indian Center, wherever it could find an audience—and would run regardless of whether the audience was there, or there were just some board members there watching the films hoping an audience would show up eventually. Some years it was big, some it was small, but the show must always go on because the theme is so important and Native American filmmakers need an outlet and need their voice heard. I feel similarly about the mental health community and hope to keep their voices heard for a long time.

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