To the fledgling filmmaker, any kind of award from a jury of their peers or an enthusiastic audience matters a great deal.
Being presented with a festival award gives a sense of validation that the work is worthy of praise, worthy of the time spent making it. But in the marketplace, do such awards transcend beyond personal accomplishment? Does an award winning film have a better chance of fetching higher distribution advances, a significant release and audience attention that will pay off in either getting the filmmaker to her next project or recouping her investors’ money?
In looking at award winners from a variety of American festivals in 2012, the answer is difficult to ascertain. At Sundance 2012, winners in both the jury and audience categories for documentary and features went on to many other honors and significance releases. Both The House I Live In and The Invisible War were shortlisted for documentary Oscars, War received a nomination. But in box office, War didn’t crack $100K despite multiple prestigious awards. Beasts of the Southern Wild and The Surrogate (renamed The Sessions) also had significant releases, Beasts nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, and both grossed respectable box office. While SXSW 2012 jury winners Gimme the Loot and Beware of Mr. Baker both received distribution, neither could be considered “hits” by looking at their box office grosses. Same for could be said for Tribeca 2012 winners War Witch (nominated for a foreign film Oscar) and The World Before Her (nominated for a Canadian Screen Award). Both received largely TV distribution, both Canadian and likely benefited from government funding (less pressure to make money, but pressure to see significant distribution), and likely both have little audience awareness. Winning an award at Tribeca doesn’t seem to have had an impact on the market success of the films.
What is the worth in having a festival award winning film? Jeffrey Winter, my colleague at The Film Collaborative, handles festival distribution for many award winning films. “I think it’s fair to say that if the Festival matters (i.e. people take that festival seriously), then Awards from that Festival matter. It’s pretty similar to press quotes…..nobody cares about a glowing review from a press outlet they’ve never heard of. But if a respected journalist at a respected publication gives you a great review, of course it matters.”
“We’ve [TFC] worked on a lot of seemingly ‘small’ films, like Contracorriente by Javier Fuentes, Valley of Saints by Musa Sayeed, A River Changes Course, and The Invisible War that jumped up significantly in prestige and profile when they won big awards at the Sundance Film Festival. But oddly, as much as they changed the general perception of the films, I don’t think they really changed the acquisitions picture for any of these particular films. Maybe the prices went up for those that received offers, but I don’t think it radically changed the number of buyers interested in the titles.”
“There are three major ways that festival awards matter. First of all, an award distinguishes a film from the glut of available titles at any given festival. Meaning, if you are the kind of person (industry buyer, press, or consumer) who is paying attention to a particular festival, then of course one easy way to determine what to see is by starting with the winners. I think this is particularly true for other film festival programmers, who face the daunting task of pouring through thousands of available titles and submissions to their festival. Why NOT start by considering the ones that are winning awards? It’s just good triage technique.
Secondly, discerning film consumers looking to discover new films to watch pay attention to the films that are winning the awards. I think the right festival awards have tremendous marketing value…but only for the discerning consumer. While that is not the majority of consumers, there ARE a lot of cinephiles out there and they are the first audience any independent filmmaker wants to reach.
Finally, let’s not downplay the fact that a lot of festival awards come with MONEY! There are some staggeringly large Festival awards out there…Dubai, Heartland etc. When a film starts to rack up a few awards, it can certainly get into the five figures of revenue…..and in this market that’s certainly nothing to sneeze at!”
In looking at the theatrical exhibition side, Ira Deutchman, Managing Partner of Emerging Pictures, sees festival participation as beneficial for low budget films in particular. “The most reliable audience for any film that doesn’t have a major studio marketing budget is the art film audience, which is entirely dependent on reviews and word of mouth to get their attention. Film festivals offer a way to gather awards and quotes that elevate the profile and perceived quality of a film for that audience and therefore do make a difference. “
“While the most prestigious festivals, such as Cannes, Sundance, Toronto, etc offer the biggest potential bang because they are covered by larger press outlets, a film can build up a head of steam coming out of a number of smaller festivals as well. A collection of laurels can look impressive even if they don’t include the big ones. Also, don’t overlook the niche festival like Gay fests or Jewish fests, as they have their own cachet with their intended audiences.”
Those festival and award laurels once looked very impressive on the VHS and DVD cover when perusing video store shelves, but when so many independent films are starting their release in the digital space, key art and laurels are reduced down to thumbnail size images and 100 word descriptions. “Sadly, the dominance of digital distribution in today’s independent market has made film festival awards a lot less important as a marketing tool than they used to be,” said Winter. “Seeing all the laurels on the box made you pick it up and rent or buy it for that reason. Now consumers are going to have to see the laurels in an email newsletter or banner ad or website home page when actually looking for the film. That’s a lot less immediate and impactful than it used to be.”
Regarding what an acquisitions executive sees in festival awards, particularly from regional, niche or lower profile festivals, Arianna Bocco, SVP Acquisitions and Production at IFC Films commented, “I think it’s very specific to the film whether or not awards from regional or low profile festivals make a difference. For instance, if the film is an indie comedy and it wins the Aspen Comedy Festival, then that’s very helpful to use in marketing materials. At IFC, we try to use the awards judiciously in marketing our films. It’s the film that has to work and none of those awards are ultimately going to make or break it.”
For me the answer lies in the status of the festival. An award is only as good as the reputation of that festival within the target audience of the film. If the film is meant to appeal to a wider independent audience, then only awards from the most prestigious festivals will hold weight. If the film is mainly for a niche audience, then awards from prestige festivals within that niche will be beneficial. Awards from low profile fests are mainly impressive to the film’s creator and could be a source of revenue for the film if the award involves a cash prize. Using laurels from every little festival to adorn a website home page or Facebook cover photo will not likely pay off in the market. As Bocco said, be judicious in the use of awards in the marketing of a film because ultimately the film has to stand on its own with an audience. MM
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