Few fests currently pay rental fees to suppliers

HOLLYWOOD — Film festivals have multiplied at an alarming rate in the last few years. With over 600 festivals worldwide, a production company or distributor might have to hire a full-time person just to coordinate fest entries.

In fact, some companies have done this, and to cover their costs, they’re asking fests to pay service fees of up to $1,000 and more.

Fest programmers and film sales agents are engaged in an increasingly touchy dance, deciding which fests need to pay fees and which are high-profile enough to get a free ride.

“It’s not evenly applied,” says Rachel Rosen, programming director of the Los Angeles Film Festival.

So far, only a few fests, such as the New Zealand Film Festival, pay a built-in rental fee, which film suppliers feel would solve the problem. And at least one distrib, Cowboy Pictures, built festival liaisons into its business plan when it started as Cowboy Booking five years ago.

Cowboy co-founder John Vanco says, “It’s great that festivals have stepped up to fill the place of neighborhood theaters. They’re filling an important need for film culture, but the fests have to bear the responsibility to filmmakers and distributors. They need to have budgets that allow for all those costs — right now very few fests will volunteer a rental. This little bit of income can matter to a filmmaker.”

Film festivals and year-round nonprofits such as L.A.’s American Cinematheque have become an alternative booking circuit for smaller films, and supplying films to these outfits can be labor-intensive.

Overseas sales companies were among the first to insist on fees, while distribs are asking highest fees from rapidly proliferating gay and lesbian festivals.

“It’s not unreasonable for people to seek value for their films,” says Shannon Kelly, outgoing programming director of L.A.’s popular gay and lesbian Outfest. “Some companies were formed to support women or minority filmmakers and they find it necessary to request fees. It provides a way for filmmakers who are doing important work to have an income — you try to respect that and help them keep alive.”

Kelly says fests should plan ahead so the fees won’t throw off the budget.

“Smaller festivals must be prepared to demonstrate what they can offer to a film,” says Kelly, such as good access to local press or organizations. “Those who are in a good growth position can negotiate the fees — it will make a difference to how many kind of films they program.”

Cowboy, which also distributes firstrun and classic films, acts as a booking agent for fests, but filling this seemingly important need hasn’t become a major source of income, says Vanco.

“If I’m handling a film, I might get $1,000,” he says. “If a first-time filmmaker has to deal with this, he ends up in the red because of shipping fees and everything else.

“For sales agents it’s too labor-intensive and complicated — our idea was to have enough films in one place to have an economy of scale. It’s found money for the sales agent. If a film didn’t play in Spain at all until it was shown at a festival, then that becomes its exploitation in Spain. It’s a new revenue stream.

“I wish the next step were festivals acknowledging their responsibility and building it into their budgets,” he concludes.

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