Online Film Contests: Friend or Foe?

Hannah Eaves September 14, 2010

This past June international filmmaker collective Shooting People posted a poll related to short films titled "To upload, or not?" The poll was in response to its recently announced sponsorship of and deeper involvement with popular video upload site Vimeo's festival and awards events, which will be held in New York City on October 8 and 9. Over several years of scattered festival conversations with Ingrid Kopp, who runs Shooting People in the United States, the "upload or not" question has slowly morphed into the Question that Will Not Die. And being at the end of the voting stage of a film contest I’m helping manage, the ViewChange Online Film Contest, while being friends with many independent filmmakers, it’s a question I’ve been seriously contemplating over the past six months.

In the Shooting People poll, community members were asked to respond to a series of statements, including, “I have uploaded my work in the past,” and, “I think it’s more important to build a large online community by uploading my work than to keep it eligible for festival consideration.” The poll and its subsequent responses from film festival notables including London Film Festival producer Helen DeWitt, focused on the primary argument against posting your film online (including in film contests): namely that it takes your film out of contention for selection by major international film festivals such as Berlin, Venice and Cannes, and thus also the Oscars. Many of these festivals require premiere status, or at the very least that your film not be freely available elsewhere. The Sundance Film Festival is a very notable and public exception, where some of the films that screen are even discovered online.

The advantages that come with a real-world film festival slot are obvious: exposure, networking, free beer and the potential for future funding of feature projects, to name a few. But for many filmmakers, getting a festival slot is simply not going to happen. These filmmakers will pay entrance fee after entrance fee and never make it in, or perhaps only make it into smaller festivals where the irreplaceable thrill of moving a live audience to tears or sparking a debate might not make up for a lost opportunity online. Or, they might find that the kinds of festivals they’re most interested in will not exclude their film simply because it’s been online. It may be that the short is a lead up to a feature documentary, which they would then treat very differently with Academy gold in mind.

Filmmaker Barry Jenkins, who was commissioned by Bloomingdales to participate in an online film contest along with other independent filmmakers, finds that right after they ask him about his award-winning feature film Medicine for Melancholy, Hollywood execs ask him about his Bloomingdales short. Being in a high profile online film contest didn’t stop it from being screened at Asian American film festivals in San Francisco, New York and Montreal. He might not win an Academy Award for it, but it might get him through the doors that will help him earn one in the future.

The next biggest reason to question participating in an online film contest is that you may be giving up exclusive ownership of your work. Many film contests are a platform for a nonprofit or commercial entity to acquire a large body of video content in exchange for prize or commission money. Others require rights for winners only. That’s the reality of the exchange. It’s likely that they’ll be able to reuse your work on TV and on commercial online platforms like Hulu without needing your permission. In many cases however this will be nonexclusive, so it won’t stop you from being able to make those deals yourself and get paid for them. The bottom line is every contest is different, and a decision about whether or not to enter should be based on how valuable the outcome might be for you, and what the individual rules might mean for your film. Always read the fine print, some might be “bad," some “good." Also research past contests by the same host.

Which is where we start getting to the advantages. To start with, you may win a lot of money for a short film! Which we all know is not a lucrative format. In the case of ViewChange, the top winner will receive $20,000 in cold hard cash. Individual category winners get $5,000. In the case of the annual user generated Doritos Super Bowl ad, the 2009 poster-child team of amateur brothers took away $1 million and the reputation of having outperformed some of the biggest agencies in the industry. Doritos’ accolades only increased with this year’s user generated ads.

It is in the interest of the film contest to actively promote itself and, by extension, your work. There was a period in New York when I couldn’t get into the back of a cab without seeing an ad for the Bloomingdales campaign where Jenkins’ film was featured. Likewise, we’ve always expended energy and money on promoting our contests through ads, articles in the mainstream press and events. Last week we opened voting with a post from Melinda Gates, which was re-tweeted by Bill Gates and Nick Kristof. In the coming weeks we’re organizing events in London and New York. But, as in the case of rights, no two film contests are the same, so research is essential.

Film contests are often interested in niche content that may not be appropriate for a film festival anyway. Contests for ads are the most obvious. But in the case of ViewChange, we were seeking short films about progress in reaching the UN Millennium Development Goals. There was no rule prohibiting submitting pre-existing or re-edited work, which is why a short crafted from Garbage Dreams was submitted and accepted. Our worry was that we wouldn’t be able to reach filmmakers on the ground in the developing world, or if we were able to reach them, that they wouldn’t have the technology to upload their films. But in the final weeks we were happy to get submissions from many diverse countries including Rwanda, Malawi and Belize. We received three entries from Rwandan filmmaker Uwayezu Olivier, whose short submission Death Ended, about Rwanda’s community health insurance program, for instance, might be unlikely to screen at Berlin or Venice. But it’s a very interesting story that we wouldn’t have heard otherwise, and now Olivier, who was a George Washington University International Emerging Filmmakers Fellow, has a chance at both greater exposure and winning some prize money that will help his future filmmaking efforts in Kigali, where he lives.

When money isn’t the sole object, getting before influential judges (just like at a film festival) might be. ViewChange’s judging panel line-up looks like this: filmmakers Wim Wenders, Gael García Bernal, and Danny Glover, award-winning novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie,  Grammy winner Angélique Kidjo, philanthropist filmmaker Charles Annenberg Weingarten (Director and VP of the Annenberg Foundation) and Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee Daniel K. Inouye. If you have a film career in mind, or if you’d like your issue in front of one of the country’s most powerful senators, this is a unique opportunity. It may seem like a long stretch, but we have had several success stories emerge from past contests. Previously we worked with organization One Nation to promote understanding of the Muslim community in the U.S. through several contests, and category winner Qasim Basir’s film impressed Danny Glover so much that he agreed to act in Basir’s feature film Mooz-lum. Another winner, Lena Khan, was featured in a USA Today article and went on to direct a music video for the artist whose work she featured in the short. Many winners were featured in a New York Times article about the contests, as well as in other press. All this adds up to a legitimization of work that once would have been ghettoized for appearing online first. Many of the filmmakers were just starting out, and many of their films were unlikely to make it into a major international film festival.

One last opportunity that can’t be underestimated is the potential to galvanize your community around your film contest entry. Just posting your film online and telling people about it might get your friends excited, but it’s unlikely to provoke the same response as letting people know that there is a set cause and a time limit. We’ve had an overwhelming response from filmmakers who have sent e-blasts, posted, tweeted and made themselves general social networking masters in order to get votes in for their films.

Maureen Gosling, director of Blossoms of Fire and longtime Les Blank collaborator (for whom she edited and worked sound for Burden of Dreams), has done a remarkable job reaching out to her community to bring attention to her new project, co-directed with Maxine Downs, Bamako Chic: Women Cloth Dyers of Mali. She’s currently in production on the film, and may be able to leverage the attention and potentially prize money into the feature production. Considering her long history as a successful filmmaker, the film contest may help support a film that will go on to have a life of its own, thanks in many ways to Gosling’s own efforts and skill.

Rules vary from contest to contest, and in some cases the winners are decided purely by votes (and often not entirely fair voting policies; be wary of any contest that allows people to vote without logging in, and as many times a day as they like, as they may be easily rigged.) In our case, the top two vote-getters in each category are automatically made finalists, but that is the extent of community voting. But the amount of supportive comments that have been left by friends of filmmakers is heartwarming, and a testament to the ability of a contest to deeply engage followers around a film. You never know, as in Gosling’s case, this might be a short version of a longer documentary you’re trying to produce, and you might be able to leverage the consolidated support and love into a Kickstarter or IndieGoGo fundraising campaign. So even if you’re not a winner, you might not have given away your film rights for nothing; you might have garnered attention, press, legitimacy, and leveraged the opportunity into fundraising.

As a contest host, this also means we’ve seen substantial web traffic from countries we traditionally haven’t reached including Ethiopia, Kenya and Vietnam.

Of course, there is always a chance that putting your film up online will get you nowhere—no prize money, no acclaim, no community, no press, just lost rights. But much of that is in your own hands. As in any context, whether it’s getting into a “legit” film festival or getting funding, it needs to be good. In our case, of 136 entries, six will take home some prize money. The odds of winning are better than even getting into most film festivals. We had no quality requirements, just that the films were about progress toward meeting one of the MDGs. So a filmmaker with a great film entering in a category with less competition really stands out.

And so we are back to the question: Online Film Contests: Friend or Foe? Shooting People’s conclusion was unusually civilized for such a debate; it depends on the film. Each film will have a different life, a different plan. The best a filmmaker can do is make an honest assessment of their work, and take a risk on a strategy. Thankfully, there are now more paths to pick from than ever.

Hannah Eaves is Director of New Media at Link TV.

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