When a festival continually emails you to say that your non-existent film has been accepted for screening and awards, you might raise an eyebrow or two.
We get a lot of opportunist junk mail here at The Reprobate – not scams as such, but definitely what is clearly untargeted crap offering us paid posts on subjects that we have no interest in – more often than not, not even telling us what this paid post will be about, so confident are they that enough sites out there that have received this blanket junk mail will publish any old random crap in exchange for money (or the promise of money, because I’m not confident that actual payment would be forthcoming in many of these cases). We also get lots of offers with help in managing our SEO or improving our Instagram (which, given that we’ve barely touched it for a year, wouldn’t be that hard), lots of offers we can’t refuse from people we can’t trust… you know the sort of thing.
One of the regular mailings – and certainly one the most annoying – are the invites from the Scarab Short Film Festival that is ‘based’ – and I say that with some reservations – in Dubai. I have reservations because although the event claims to be open to public attendance, all the evidence seems to suggest that it is an online event only. But we’ll come back to that. The emails from ‘Charlotte’ at the festival tell me that, hurray, my short film has met all the criteria for fast-track entry in their event (whatever that might be) and can claim at least one of the many, many categories of awards on offer. Not just be submitted for the award but actually guaranteed a win. This is impressive indeed, given that I haven’t actually made a film.
The email informs me that the Scarab Short Film Festival is an internationally regarded independent short film festival that was established to bring independent global cinema to the world stage. Jolly good. “We’re not afraid to take creative risks and nurture fresh talent, something rarely seen in this age of austerity and conformity”, they say. Well, quite. Nothing says ‘creative risk-taking’ like guaranteeing entry and awards to films that don’t exist.
But supposing I did have a new short film that I wanted to get out there with the now-meaningless award laurel leaves on my promo poster? Well, this sounds just the thing – a festival that apparently cares so little about quality or content that it will guarantee acceptance of anything, even unmade films. What do I need to do to enter? Well, let’s follow the link to Film Freeway, the apparently undiscerning clearing house for film festivals around the world, where I find that I can pick one of the endless categories (including Best LGBTQ+ Short – in Dubai?) for around $40 a time or just enter everything for the bargain price of $80. You might, I suppose, see that as a bargain, given that very few people will bother to look up just what the Scarab Film Festival is and whether its awards mean anything.
A visit to the festival website provides little information about where the physical event takes place in Dubai or how to watch the films online – given that this seems to be a monthly event, you’d think that such information would be readily available. Nor is there any information about previous winners – no list of entries or what they won, no details of where to see these films. For all I know, there really is a glittering monthly event in Dubai and online screenings that I just couldn’t find any reference to on the website. But when they send out blanket invites to non-filmmakers (this is not the only website to receive these emails) with guaranteed entry and assurance of prizes, it at least suggests a festival that is more interested in taking entry fees than assessing quality. It doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence that this is an event worth giving money to.
There is a big problem these days with film festivals that exist only to take cash from filmmakers desperate for validation – they charge money for entry, only exist online (or perhaps have some physical presence at a hotel where attendees – mostly, if not entirely the filmmakers and their friends and families – have to pay for everything), tell entrants that they have won an award and then ask for more money for the trophy. They not only rip off these filmmakers – they also make life a lot harder for smaller and newly launched legitimate events, because they erode trust.
But the real victims of these festivals – be they dodgy scams or simply shoddily put together – are the filmmakers who pay entry fees and get nothing of worth in return. I hear a lot about filmmakers somehow being compliant in this, as if they are deliberately buying fake awards and laurel leaves that no one reads the fine print on and so look great on your poster – and maybe that’s true in some cases. But they are more likely to be victims. It is asking a bit much to expect filmmakers to research every event, especially when the only information available is often the event’s own fancy-pants website. People want to get their film seen and due diligence might not be all it could be – or the scam, if it is a scam, might be very sophisticated or the event might be a start-up that is promising the world and which small, indie filmmakers – the sort who will be instinctively supportive of such events – want to be part of. Making a movie does not make you an expert in festival quality and the temptation will be to enter everything you can afford to. Let’s not blame filmmakers too much here, because that allows the real culprits off the hook.
Maybe there really is something to be gained for some filmmakers, given that most people will just see those laurel leaves and not then investigate the legitimacy of the event. But for most, this will just prove to be a costly waste of time and money – and these will generally be filmmakers who probably can’t afford to waste either of those things on false promises and dubious accolades.
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