The Seed&Spark Blog

10 Questions Every Filmmaker Should Ask When a Festival Opts to go Online

May 19, 2020

• Clay Pruitt

We are well into the new era (which really is better described as the Wild West) of the independent film festival. In reaction to the COVID-19 outbreak, many film festivals are exploring moving their programming online this year. If you are a filmmaker who was prepared to take your new work on the festival circuit, you may have already heard from festival organizers asking if you’d like to participate in an online version of their festival.


It’s no secret that Seed&Spark is a strong advocate for filmmakers to allow their films to appear in online festivals. The pivot to online festivals this year is important for a few reasons: 1) it will prevent an overload of films that are “holding out”, which will ultimately result in 2020 films and 2021 films competing for the same programming slots; 2) it helps prevent a mass extinction of many small and medium sized festivals (more on this later); 3) it will allows you, the filmmaker, to keep your creative career moving and instead of resigning to a perpetual state of “wait and see;” and 4) it allows you a vital opportunity for audience building that you can take with you throughout the rest of your career. That being said, each filmmaker has to determine what is the right decision for their film. Here are some questions you should ask when evaluating each opportunity:


1. What is your ultimate goal with this film?

If you’ve ever taken a Seed&Spark workshop (get on it if you haven’t!), you know that we’re big advocates for understanding the goal of your film before you even write the thing. Defining that goal will help you understand how to develop your project, who your audience is, how much it costs, how to fundraise for it, how to shoot it, what your festival strategy is, what your marketing strategy is, and what your distribution pathways are to get it to your intended audience. (**Breathe** )

That being said, many people get to the festival release of their projects without clarifying their goals. Do yourself a favor and work this out right now. If your intention is to sell the film to the highest bidding distributor, that will dictate which festivals you allow to screen your film online, if any. If your intention is to get as many eyeballs on the film as possible, that’s a totally different path. So grab that bottle of Syrah (or White Claw or scotch or Perrier...I don’t know your life), schedule a Zoom call with your production team, and hash it out.  And if you already have a clear goal, use this time to assess your team’s position on the following questions.


2. Has the festival taken the pledge?

A quick recap: after March’s SXSW cancellation, the team at Seed&Spark saw the potential industry-wide impact  and spearheaded an effort to clear the runway for film festivals to go online. The first step in this was the creation of the 2020 Film Festival Survival Pledge. With more than 225 pledged organizations and more signing every day, this is the first place a filmmaker should check to see if a festival is in their court. Festivals and organizations who've taken the pledge are committed to waiving long-standing policies that otherwise would make ineligible films that were previously available online, revoke premiere status for the same reason, and make ineligible films that were completed outside a pre-set production timeline should the filmmakers opt to hold their film’s release for a post-pandemic world (ha!). The pledge preserves your ability to still have a festival tour — going online with one festival and getting in front of that festival’s audience shouldn't preclude you from going to a festival in a different part of the country. FilmFreeway has even created a curated page of pledged festivals to make it easier for filmmakers to identify where to submit.


3. What technology is the festival employing? (Geoblocking? Ticket capping? Time windowing? DRM security?)

Offering online content has many technological implications. Most technical functionality is specifically chosen by the festival or by the platform they’ve chosen to present their programming. If you are concerned that a distributor may not consider acquiring your film due to overexposure, you should consider where you stand on a few technical points:

  • Geoblocking: This is the ability to control access to a film within a specific geographical area (and/or excluding a specific geographical area). Some festivals don’t offer this at all. Some festivals have the ability to do this for the festival as a whole. Some are able to do it on a per film basis. Consider how targeted they are able to geoblock. It’s common to geoblock on a country level.  But some platforms are able go down to the state or even city level.
  • Ticket capping: As you might assume, this is the ability to control the number of people who are able to see a film. It’s another way to assuage a possible buyer’s concern of over-exposure.
  • Time windowing: This allows a festival to adhere to a more traditional festival schedule by offering titles at specific times throughout the run of the festival —yet another way to make nice with distributors. Many festivals aren’t opting for this and, frankly, we really can’t fault them for that. We’ve already been trained as a VOD audience to get something when we demand it — that’s why it’s called Video-On-Demand. But with a pandemic and stay-at-home order in the mix, audiences can’t schedule the babysitter to see the 7 p.m. screening, but they do have time to watch it at 2 p.m. during baby’s nap time. Just some food for thought.
  • Digital rights management (DRM): This is an industry standard, systematic approach to copyright protection for your films. The purpose of DRM is to prevent unauthorized redistribution of digital media and restrict the ways consumers can copy content they've purchased. In other words, it piracy protection for the film you’ve spent your blood, sweat, tears and other people’s money to make.


4. Are they providing transparent audience data?

Y’all, it’s 2020. And while none of us could have predicted that 2020 would be the year of a world-changing pandemic, we definitely should know by now that data is power and, as independent filmmakers, it’s something we should demand from everything we do. Do not be fooled: anyone playing anything on the internet has data about how many people watched it, who watched it, how long they watched it and how to contact them for follow up.  Remember Francis McDormand’s famous inclusion rider moment at the Oscars? You have the right to ask for a data transparency rider for your work.


5. What is being done on the marketing front?

All festivals are in the practice of marketing their festivals and the films playing in their festivals (hopefully). But marketing for an online festival should look different from marketing for an in-person festival. Make sure you get a sense of how they are planning to drive traffic to your film in a virtual setting. Only you can answer what a satisfactory answer will be, but it’s important for you to ask those questions if for no other reason than gathering some insight into what has worked and not worked as your film moves from festival to festival.

It is also imperative that you recognize your responsibility as a filmmaker here. Aside from the festival’s marketing efforts, how can you help? What digital assets (followers, accounts) does your team have to bring to the table so you can act as partners to the festival? If we each succeed, we all succeed.


6. Are they putting films behind a paywall or offering views for free?

There are some festivals that really need the revenue from ticket sales, and then there are some that simply want to keep their audiences engaged this year. While it certainly won't make money, offering content for free will get more views. It’s just human nature.  Ultimately this comes down to what your goal is: are you looking for as many people as possible to see it? Are you concerned that a “free-for-all” will cannibalize your audience for the next online festival? Your goal will tell you what the right answer is for you, for this festival.


7. Is there an opportunity for a virtual Q&A?

Arguably, one of the best experiences a filmmaker can have is the direct interaction with their audience during a Q&A. Sure, a Zoom/Crowdcast/StreamYard/GoogleHangout conversation is not the same as an in-person experience, but....#Thats2020. Simply put, it’s the best we can get right now. If a festival is not offering this experience (which is pretty low effort, all things considered), what makes their online experience any different than one of the many streaming platforms that are already out there? 


8. Are they providing anything to benefit filmmakers’ careers?

If you’ve ever been fortunate enough to attend a festival as an official selection filmmaker, you know that there’s typically more opportunities and perks for you than what a public ticket-buyer receives. Many festivals pride themselves on offering filmmaker-only events such as workshops, networking events, mentorship matchmaking, etc. It’s important to ask what a festival is offering to help in advancing your career.


9. Can you get it in writing?

Once you’ve gone through all of the aforementioned questions (and, undoubtedly, many more) and you’ve decided to move forward, get it all in writing. You’ve done all of this work to make this film, so make sure you protect yourself and your project (and team!) with agreements. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, or need some legal advice, check out California Lawyers for the Arts and Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts.


10. Is there a future for independent film without film festivals?

Self-serving questions aside, we all need to consider what the future of independent film will look like if we experience a mass extinction of many small, regional, or identity-based film festivals. For many festivals, close to 75% of annual operating revenue comes from the flagship festival to which you submitted your film. These organizations not only have employees to look out for, but they provide essential spaces for storytelling in communities that need it. As an independent filmmaker, you absolutely have to do what is right for your film and your career.  But please don’t fail to recognize that your participation during these difficult times may mean the survival of a vital and valuable festival.



Clay Pruitt

Clay Pruitt (he/him) is the Head of Acquisitions & Programming for Seed&Spark.  He’s worked with many film organizations and festivals including the Sundance Institute, WME, Palm Springs International Film Society, Film Independent, and Outfest.  His producing credits include the documentary United Skateswhich won the Audience Award at Tribeca 2018 and can be seen on HBO, and the Dekkoo original series I'm Fine.



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