Film Festivals and Filmmaker Sustainability Survey Report

By Barbara Twist

Dear Producer and Film Festival Alliance partnered on this first-of-its-kind survey to assess how film festivals contributed to filmmaker sustainability in 2020, particularly in regard to financial compensation. The goal of this survey was to establish a baseline during a pivotal year for our industry and collect data that will allow festivals to quantify their financial impact on filmmakers, compare to other organizations, and identify national trends and patterns in the industry. 

About the Survey

We deployed the survey in May 2021 and reached out to festivals of all sizes and genres. We had more than 200 respondents begin the survey, with 38 percent of respondents (75 total) completing most applicable questions. We collected information about what festivals looked like in 2020 (length, location, types of screening, etc.), demographics of paid staff and number of volunteers, and perhaps most importantly, financial information related to operating budgets, revenue, and filmmaker support.

The survey responses are reported here, with some context and data interpretation where helpful.

Key Insights 

  • Nearly 80% of respondents said they held some kind of festival in 2020, with more than half of the festivals reporting an operating budget under $100K, 28% with operating budgets between $100K-$500K, and 17% with budgets over $500K. 
  • More than 80% of festivals held virtual cinema screenings and nearly 25% used drive-in screenings.
  • Festival length averaged 10 days, but the top 10 box office earners ran a little longer – 13 days on average.
  • Overall, respondents reported they hosted more than 900 days of film festivals in 2020. That’s nearly 2.5 festivals happening each day during 2020.
  • Festivals reported nearly $3 million in box office receipts in 2020. However, when divided by the number of respondents (68 festivals), we see an average of $41,000 in box office revenue per festival.
  • Only 17% of respondents reported sharing revenue with filmmakers and distributors, for a total of $138,943 paid out. 
  • Over two-thirds of respondents reported paying screening fees to filmmakers and distributors, for a total of $390,305. The average screening fee for a feature film was $210 on the low end, and $517 on the high end.
  • Less than half of respondents reported paying stipends to filmmakers for their work on panels, Q&As and other appearances. Festivals with budgets over $1mil paid out a total of $2,850 in stipends, while festivals with budgets under $500K paid out a total of $87,471 in stipends.
  • Nearly half of respondents reported providing cash awards, with total awards given out being equivalent to about 20% of the reported box office. 
  • Festival perks were based on a festival’s typical in-person year, with many using 2019 as their data reference. Only 76% of festivals reported giving feature filmmakers in their festivals an all-access badge, and only 72% of shorts filmmakers. 
  • Respondents reported on the diversity of their festival staff, with a clear lack of representation across the board. Lack of representation persists in festival leadership, even as respondents reported women as being fairly represented in leadership roles.
  • Curation and programming staff reflected wider diversity and representation in general, however people with disabilities and military veterans were extremely underrepresented, if visible at all in the responses.

What Can Festivals Learn From This Report?

It is critical, especially as we face continuing consolidation in the studio/streamer world, that we find a sustainable path forward for both festivals and filmmakers. 

Here are some ideas of how festivals can use this data to implement strategies for improving transparency, tracking their impact on filmmakers, and contributing to a more equitable film industry.

  1. Establish standards and best practices around filmmaker compensation. This could look like a recommended rate sheet like the Producer Rate Sheet from Dear Producer. It could be in-depth financial case studies by festivals currently paying filmmakers, which break down precisely how they accommodate compensation in their budget, giving non-compliant festivals a clear path forward in amending their own budgets. Having clear best practices could even lead to increased funding for festivals from arts agencies and national foundations to pay artists for their time and work. When we come together as a community around a specific issue, it becomes easier to advocate on a national level.
  1. Adopt a universal system for festival box office reporting. This comes with great challenges, as every festival has a variety of passes, badges, and tickets for sale; yet the impetus remains – festivals are generating millions in box office revenue and introducing thousands of audience members to films. Increased transparency of box office grosses is good for everyone; this data can be valuable to the filmmakers, to distributors, and to exhibitors in better understanding current audience desires, the impact of a particular film, and important financial information for future film projects. In particular, festivals can use this information to advocate more strongly for their position and impact in the film industry at a national level, and on local levels to demonstrate the economic impact on artists and our regions.
  1. Increase the awareness of the impact festivals have on the industry’s ecosystem. Too often, festivals are seen as an offshoot of exhibition – a less important stop before the “real” theatrical or streaming release. Festivals exist in a strange space where they are celebrated for their discovery of filmmakers and their curatorial accomplishments, yet their financial impact is not counted. However, it is only with the participation of festivals sharing their financial data that the financial impact can be determined.
  1. Acknowledge that “exposure” does not pay the bills. Festivals already rely on a significant amount of volunteer labor for operations and programming, with our report showing a nearly 6.75-to-1 ratio of volunteers to paid staff. We also know, partly from the good work of the anonymous Instagram accounts @feststafferstories and @offthefestcircuit, that paid staff are often underpaid and overworked, with tokens of appreciation like pizza parties (often arranged by the staff themselves) seen as appropriate recompense for overtime hours. It’s no surprise then, that festivals might approach filmmaker pay in a similar way, using language like “exposure” and “networking opportunities” in lieu of screening fees or stipends. We cannot ignore the coupled connection between labor and compensation. Recognize the time, labor, and money that went into creating the films you are screening. If we value a film artistically, then we must value the film monetarily. Pay people in cash, not in exposure.

This data establishes a baseline during a pivotal year for the industry. It allows festivals to quantify their financial impact on filmmakers and see how they compare to other organizations. It can help organizations identify national trends and patterns in the industry, laying the groundwork for meaningful change. 

While this report offers meaningful insight and possible strategies for filmmaker compensation, we do acknowledge the very real budget constraints facing festivals. Systemic change takes thoughtful consideration and data-informed leadership, which may look like a single decision-maker, or an entire festival board. If this is work that your organization isn’t already doing, it can feel hard. The initial reaction might be “where can I possibly squeeze out another dime?” Realistically, a shift towards filmmaker compensation being the standard isn’t done by cutting expenses; it’s accomplished through raising revenue. Capturing this kind of financial information is critical to making the case to arts agencies, foundations, sponsors, and donors – this is about arming festivals with data that helps illuminate the economic impact you have on your communities. 

Additionally, we hope this report empowers filmmakers to request screening fees and stipends, while also gaining a greater understanding of the financial complexities facing festivals. Ideally, we are continuing the conversation and building pathways for positive growth in film and filmmaking. 

Festivals are brilliant spaces in which we celebrate the beauty of cinema with a welcoming and inclusive audience. I have wholehearted faith that we can figure out how to make our spaces truly inclusive by financially compensating people for their work.

We again want to acknowledge the stories shared on the anonymous Instagram accounts @feststafferstories and @offthefestcircuit and the connection between their advocacy for living wages and sustainable hours for festival workers and the movement towards paying filmmakers for their work. As filmmakers advocate for their sustainability, they must also advocate for festival workers who have contributed to their success. 

Lastly, Dear Producer and Film Festival Alliance would like to thank all of the festivals who participated in this survey. Your transparency demonstrates your undeniable commitment to the film community.