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‘Fake festivals’: innocently stupid or evil scam?

While researching the podcast series On the fifth row…, our editors came across an interesting phenomenon: film festivals that don't really (or really don't) seem to exist. In three episodes, which unravel almost like a true crime series, presenter Cesar Majorana tries to find out precisely how that works. On the fifth row… is a collaboration between VPRO Cinema and Eye Filmmuseum and can be listened to on all platforms.

By Sarah Famke Oortgijsen01 November 2022

Presentor Cesar Majorana

It is standard practice in the world of film festivals: as a (novice) maker, you submit your film to various festivals in the hope of being selected or even nominated. Sometimes you pay a fee for your submission. That in itself is not very surprising: paying a (small) amount for your submission raises a threshold and ensures that the programmers of the film festivals in question can be paid for the hundreds of hours they put in to view all those submissions. Of all those entries, films are selected (meaning they will be screened during the film festival) and nominated (meaning they will be screened 'in competition' during the film festival and compete for a prize). A winner will be drawn from the nominations for each category. So far, so good.

Films are submitted – not always, but very often – via the FilmFreeway platform. If you look at the site, there is a very long list of renowned film festivals that use the FilmFreeway service. A service that makes the entire process of submitting (and possibly paying) easy for both filmmakers and festivals. Which unfortunately also makes it simple to scam filmmakers. It is relatively easy to create a page as a 'festival': List your festival free on one simple page. Start receiving entries in minutes, the site boasts. And therein lies an opportunity for scammers. And a problem for uninformed filmmakers.

Have you ever heard of the Amsterdam International Film Festival? WSXA? The Europe Film Festival? Probably not. Of course, because no film lover or journalist has ever been there. And that while the latter awards prizes in no less than forty categories – twice a month! If you want to submit your film for a chance to win a prize, you pay an amount per category. Imagine the profit for these organizers.

Editors Jelle and Anna and presenter Cesar with their nomination

Because if we submit our podcast for Amsterdam International Film Festival, we are immediately nominated, without having been listened to at all. (You can hear in the podcast how we know that for sure.) We get a jpg file with it, which we can print ourselves.

It turns out that Europe Film Festival actually takes place once a year. Not in the place that the photos on the website lead you to believe, but in a tiny rental room in Amsterdam, where the podcast team turns out to be the only visitors, the films are shown from a laptop with an old projector with VGA cable and the two nominated Italian filmmakers in gala costumes contrast heartbreakingly with the overall look & feel of this pitiful day.

But if a festival actually takes place, no matter how clumsily organised, are we dealing with a pure scam or a clumsy organization that means no harm? Do makers themselves also contribute by 'buying' nominations and prizes? Maybe, but in the podcast, when Cesar finally gets to speak to an "employee", you hear that the intentions of the organization are not necessarily crystal clear, no matter how much they would like us to believe otherwise. And that – in addition to a self-perpetuating system of meaningless nominations and crap prizes – filmmakers are also actually being scammed, is also a fact. For example, Cesar speaks with a festival director who saw her entire identity stolen, resulting in hundreds of victims. They paid via a fake account on FilmFreeway for submitting their film, while the real festival does not charge any money for it and also does not work via that platform.

Curious about this shadowy world of nonsense festivals? In three episodes, Cesar takes you on a deep dive into these obscure festivals. He manages to actually visit one, he meets a celebrity there who you would expect to be the very last person to attend and eventually manages to arrange an interview with an organizer.

Listen to On the fifth row... (in Dutch)