Beware of scam 'film festivals' and dubious competitions.

By , posted 4 October 2009

It seems that every man and his dog wants to run a film festival these days, which is fantastic in many ways, not least because it provides an even greater number of outlets for filmmakers to get their work in front of an audience. Sadly the multitude of scammers and ethics-lite opportunists who prowl the Internet also seem to have their dirty fingers in the film festival scene as well.

A timely reminder came this week when the "Alaska International Film Festival" was brought to our attention (not to be confused with the ANCHORAGE International Film Festival, a long-standing legitimate event). Visit the site - www.alaskafilmfestival.com (not hyperlinked so as not to give undue Google link mojo to this site) - and on the surface you see a clean, professional looking site for what sounds like a prestigious event and is fact described as such by the site content. But before you dive into the submissions area, it's worth noting a few red flags...

Firstly, the site content reads like this event has been around for years, and indeed, the About Us page says as much. But on closer examination, there is nothing to indicate any previous years' activities, nor can you find any mention of it in Google. Indeed, when we contacted the 'festival' to ask for a list of last year's winners, the respondent told us that this was in fact their inaugural year, despite the About Us page saying, "Each year, awards are presented to independent filmmakers from around the globe..."

But that's not the only tell-tale sign. Astute site visitors, and let's face it, most of us only skim-read web pages half the time, will notice that the submission page mentions that the festival holds no public screenings and that 'prize-winners' will be notified by email. No public screenings? The whole point of a film festival is to screen films for the public. If this is purely a film competition, why go to the trouble of even calling it a festival, talking about its pedigree, or providing travel advice for visiting Alaska?

Other things which don't wash:

  • The site's domain is registered to an Alaskan address, which is fine, but the telephone number associated with that address has a Kentucky prefix.
  • Extra long 'call for entries' time. This festival takes place... well, it doesn't actually say. However, the festival is currently accepting submissions, around a year in advance of the winners being announced on 15 July 2010. Most film festivals only open their calls for entry a few months ahead, so why the extra long lead time? Sure, festivals like Sundance open their submissions six months ahead, but they also have many thousand entries to wade through.
  • The site uses a very similar graphic design to that of the Anchorage International Film Festival. Could that be deliberate?
  • High fees. By itself not an indicator of a scam, but obscure festivals which charge high submission fees should be viewed with healthy scepticism.
  • Lack of sponsors. Again, not in itself an indication of a scam site, as many festivals are not lucky enough to have sponsors, but given that the site describes the festival as, "Alaska's leading independent film competition" you would think that even some local sponsors would be onboard.
  • Travel content is lifted directly from travelalaska.com. Indeed, grab a sentence, do a Google search and find identical content on that 87 other sites in Google's index. Plagiarism isn't itself indication of a scam, but again, given the site's insistence that the 'festival' is Alaska's premiere independent film event, you'd think they could at least write their own travel advice.
  • Total lack of transparency in its awards process. There is no mention of the judging criteria for prizes or who the judges are. This, combined with a vague statement on the site, "Awards will be announced publicly... by Internet and international press release", presents a glaring lack of transparency and accountability for the competition.
  • Lack of any mention of screening venues. Oh, but wait... this 'festival' doesn't screen films!

    Is the Alaska International Film Festival a scam?

    All of these factors combined lead us to form the opinion that the Alaska International Film Festival site is most likely designed to mislead filmmakers into submitting their films for an opaque and unaccountable competition (which may or may not actually provide awards) primarily to make money via submission fees. Thus you could classify it as a 'scam'. Either way, we'd recommend thinking twice before submitting to this event.

    Sadly, this is not the only instance of filmmakers being taken for a ride over festival submissions, so the moral of the story is to do your due diligence before handing over your cash. Perhaps most worrying is that the Alaska International Film Festival is using Withoutabox.com to manage its submissions. Given that a large number of filmmakers now rely on that service for festival submissions, we would have hoped that Withoutabox would have a more active policy to validate the genuineness of events using its systems. We've contacted Withoutabox to ask why, but had no response.

    Update 10-Oct-2009 - surprise surprise, the copy on the About Us page has been changed slightly after this article was published in an attempt to address some of the criticisms in this post.

    Update 23-Nov-2009: Steve Aufrecht, an unofficial blogger for the real Anchorage International Film Festival, has put together a post with some additional information, including photos of the mail centre "suite" the Alaska International Film Festival'is using to take submissions from filmmakers. View the blog post.

    Update 10-Dec-2009: Be wary of the 'California Film Awards', attached to the 'La Jolla Film Festival' (lajollafilmfestival.com). This site shows all the hallmarks of being from the same operators.

    Update 17-Mar-2010: This article has been tweaked to help clarify that the content represents an opinion based on evidence available at the time of writing.

Reader Comments

Franz Wolf, 28-Mar-2014
As a German author and scriptwriter I am trying to find a contact person to a movie company since 13 years! Without success. At first I wrote novels which German editions denied reading – that’s normal. A prophet has no honor in his own country. Especially in Germany. Then my third novel, a thriller, was transformed from me into a script. The same procedure, no film production company in my country did even cast a few on it. Movie production companies in the USA who denied also reading it gave me the advice to enter script – or screenplay competitions. So I did. I let my script translate into English – because I am not the great English talker as you may see – that costs me a fortune, and then sent it to several screenplay competitions. But these competitions are smelling. One has published the winners before the contest has finished, the other - California Film Award - sends mails with the evidence that my script was amongst the finalists and now its urgent that I should order the trophies (150.- $ a piece plus postage – "how many I wish to order?") The result was, none of the 12 finalists were amongst the winners… and so on. To organize competitions only to get the fee from the competitors is dishonest. As I've said before, it smells.
Eric, 17-Sep-2011
Hey, thanks for posting this. I was just looking at the Alaska Film Festival site this morning and coincidentally stumbled across your article not even an hour later! I volunteered with a certain film magazine a few years back that was starting a film festival in Portland, Maine. The people in charge of watching the movie submissions were also the editors of the magazine - double tasking not a good idea. They'd watch the films half-ass, not really paying attention. Less than five minutes in they'd eject and give it a "grade". Horrible people.
withoutaclue, 22-Aug-2011
withoutabox takes up to 68% of our entry fee at our festival! If you want to be on the good side of a festival, enter through their online form on the festival's website. Scam festivals also don't have a clue about quality — take a look at the type of films a festival took first. If a festival has a few good films plus dumpy home videos, an abundance of local films and especially propaganda films, you'll know it's a festival you do not want to be associated with.
Without a box without a dime , 29-Jun-2011
Withoutabox or(Amazon)Does not give a shit. Amazon keeps allowing scam fests to take filmmakers money. They all make money. Beware what comes around goes aroun and lots of it. Someday Jeff will fall hard just wait Bezo. Filmakers don't waste your money. Withoutabox Stinks.
Alice , 9-Jun-2011
I just wanted to warn filmmakers of Los Angeles Art House Film Festival. http://laartfilmfest.com/Home.html They are a scamfest using withoutabox to rip off filmmakers. Their website is the biggest alarm bell with no contact names, numbers or address. They also copyright images and use the oscar award image on their site, which has absolutely nothing to do with their festival. Please do your research before entering festivals and contact withoutabox asking for a refund if you have entered this fest.
Tyrone D Murphy, 2-Apr-2011
Hi all, I am making a documentary on Scam Festivals, I am interested in information and stories about festivals that are scamming young filmmakers. Recently we have come across a company that runs 4 festivals. The owner and director of the festivals recently nominated himself for 6 of the top awards for his own film. Guess what? He won all 6 nominations! This is totally unacceptable as many hundreds of filmmakers paid fees to have their film considered for awards only to be chucked in the bin and not even looked at. This is fraud; there is no other word for it This is the kind of festival that needs to be shut down as a matter of some urgency and the file sent to the Police. We need detailed information about scam festivals in all countries. We also need legit festivals to come forward and comment and give interviews and also support this documentary. Someone needs to take these festivals on and shut them down Contact or e mail ASAP on details below Tyrone www.cmefilms.co.uk info@cmefilms.co.uk Tel +44 (0) 77799 77769

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