Film and video competitions: a warning for independent filmmakers

The purpose of this post is to warn independent filmmakers – particularly the newbies – about the true nature of many film and video competitions, in the hope that you will be in a stronger position to make the best decision for yourself and avoid costly mistakes. In the final analysis, it should not be interpreted as a wholesale rejection of competitions, but there are a couple of things you should be aware of before you give away the short films or videos that you worked so hard to make.

Film and video competitions have nothing to lose and make considerable gains

Film and video competitions are a guaranteed success for the organizers, but the chances of success for an individual filmmaker are very slim indeed. Filmmakers are nothing more than cannon fodder for these guys. You see, most competitions require you to sign a non-exclusive license agreement that allows them to use your film or video in perpetuity, and all you get in return is the promise that maybe you might win something, if the judges are so inclined.

For example, there was a video competition once that invited submissions of spec TV commercials, with a list of topics to choose from. This forced the filmmakers to make a commercial specifically for this competition. The prize was a camcorder, and the organizers had the right to use everyone’s submissions in perpetuity.

Think about it: these guys acquired the rights to thousands of videos, and all they had to do was buy a camcorder and give it to whomever they fancied. Literally thousands of ready-made videos, complete with comprehensive rights clearances, all for the cost of a measly camcorder. Who was the sucker, in this case?

If you want an amazing video at a low cost, simply launch a video competition, promise the winner a camcorder and watch the entries roll in. Pick the one you want and give the camcorder to whomever made your favorite video – and in any case you can use all the videos, because you made them sign an agreement to that effect. This is how they think – do not cooperate with their game, fellow filmmakers!

The best film or video rarely wins; indeed, if you make something that looks truly professional, you are almost guaranteed not to win. I see this in every film and video competition I observe and it displeases me very much. Last year I followed a major online short film competition – many of you can easily guess which one I am referring to – and there was one short film that really stood out: it was nothing short of brilliant, and its maker was clearly someone you can trust with a script and film crew. The user ratings were high but it did not win, presumably because it was deemed to be “intimidatingly good.”

Conclusion

If there is a short film or video that you are making anyway, and you don’t mind giving these guys the non-exclusive right to use it until the end of time, you probably have little to lose by submitting your work to a competition. But if you are going to spend money on a project made specifically for a competition, I would encourage you to give careful consideration to the points I made in this post and think twice about giving your hard work away for free to folks who simply do not care about you.

Caution, my fellow filmmakers; there are many people out there – some of them with a very high profile – who have no qualms about exploiting your talent and hard work, and they do not care about your dreams and wellbeing in the least. In the independent filmmaking world you really must keep your wits about you.

I hope this helps; good luck!

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11 thoughts on “Film and video competitions: a warning for independent filmmakers

  1. Jane Frost says:

    Your insights have given me a greater understanding about the cliff I have just jumped off of…filmmaking.

    So few share as generously as you do and it is very much appreciated.

    My future films and my pocketbook thank you.

  2. Thanks for the post, Ed. I produced a short film that is in the TriMedia Film Festival this September so I appreciate the article. Have a great day.

  3. Cinema Pete says:

    This was a very interesting topic and commentary, Ed on film submission. It would be beneficial to extend the discussion on what the alternatives are for wanna-be’s and what is a better approach. Thanks for sharing your insight.

    • Kareem — Best wishes for the festival! Remember that film festivals are quite similar to film and video competitions in the sense that filmmakers are just cannon fodder to them, but at least they do not have the right to use the film in perpetuity.

      Cinema Pete — You raise an interesting point and I will consider the issue. I might post about it in future. One thing is certain — making a film or video specifically for a competition in the hope of winning it is not a viable career strategy. The folks who run these competitions have their own unspoken agenda and their decisions are arbitrary. I firmly believe that filmmakers need a good reality check once in a while 🙂

  4. srikanth raju says:

    Hi Ed.
    The info was very helpful and I actually used to feel the same. What you said was exactly my view as well. Glad to see you posting it here so that its useful for others. I appreciate that. I would appreciate if you can help me with focus usage. When two people in a frame are talking, the one who is talking is shown very clearly while the back ground and other person are blurred, actually THIS IS NOTHING BUT USING MANUAL FOCUS. Could you help me how to use it easily to get that kind of shot.

    • Hi Srikanth,

      It depends on what camera you are using; specifically, it depends on the size of its CCD.

      If you are using a camera with a large CCD, like the RED camera, the depth of field will be reasonably shallow under most circumstances. As always, the depth of field will depend on 1) focal length, 2) camera-subject distance, and 3) aperture.

      Conversely, if you are using a camera with a small CCD (most camcorders fall in this category), the only way to achieve true 35mm-style depth of field is with a 35mm lens adapter like the Letus Extreme, which has excellent reviews.

      In any case, for a given camera you do have some control over the depth of field; the basic principles of shooting video with a shallow depth of field are always worth bearing in mind.

      I hope this helps!

      Best wishes,

      Ed

  5. can you pls tell me what lens should be used for different shots like say sappose ultra prime set 16mm is used for perticular shot, 50mm for some shot etc… like for close up, long and mid what lenses are advised… some tip on it pls

  6. Ciao,

    I am a newbie and I am delighted with your weekly email, thank you very much!
    Your article is ahead light years, but I think there are many filmmakers out there who need to experience that TRAUMA :)) To understand.

    The quicker you hit that, the sooner you realize that your art belongs to you!

    http://vimeo.com/28716434

  7. ALEJANDRO KERDISEIDA says:

    What are your thoughts regarding specifically the reknown Sundance Festival?

    I know you rather not write specific names but I guess that festival is something you maybe shouldn’t get around due to its importance in triggering careers

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