Sitting on the doc of the day.

Just to pre-empt some of the responses that I expect to this blog, I’d like to confirm that I am bitter, immature, have a serious case of sour grapes and am currently throwing my toys out of the pram. I will not defend myself against any such assertions. I do, however, think that sometimes bitterness and immature responses can be justified and that once in a while, one must throw their toys out of the pram to draw attention to an issue that might well be selfish but also has wider implications.

As regular readers will know, I made a film. A music documentary. If you want to know about the film itself, you can go HERE

A potted history of the film would read like this:

I decided to make a documentary. I made it completely independently with no funding. Two of my best friends – Ben and Hank – helped me. It took a couple of years but eventually we finished the film. We put the project on a crowdfunding site called to raise the money to have the film professionally mixed and graded. We raised over $30k from complete strangers. When we finally, recently, screened the finished film to a cinema of industry types we got reviews like THIS and THIS and, to our amazement, a bunch of interest from BBC 6MUSIC which resulted in Radcliffe & Maconie inviting members of radiohead on their show to talk specifically about my film. Then Adam Buxton of 6Music legends Adam & Joe watched the film and dedicated a whole chunk of their show to discussing the film and the themes of it (both radio clips can be heard on the film’s website above)

So, an independent film with a bit of buzz behind it.

The traditional route-to-market for independent films is through film festivals. There are literally thousands of these worldwide now and, the basic gist of them is that film-makers and film industry types flock to any given city for a few days where the festival screens the best (and often worst) of the current new films looking for distribution and the delegates get to mingle, socialise and talk business. Film festivals are wonderful things. A huge variety, almost a lucky dip, of films. At the end of most festivals, there’s an awards ceremony and the ‘best’ ones are crowned as such and given a bunch of publicity and ‘heat’ within the industry. It gives a pathway for independently made films to make it out into the world and the awards give the films a commercial legitimacy that rewards distributors who pick them up. It’s a good system.

Well, it was a good system.

Film festivals have become highly commercial ventures in their own right now. Back in the day, the only truly glamorous one was Cannes. Now, every festival tries to be as high-profile as possible, with as many stars and ‘BIG’ films as it can feature and that comes at a price. The people who pay that price are the true independent film-makers.

This week, I experienced my first taste of (what i consider to be) this injustice.

Let’s swirl and tumble back in time all the way to February. My film was freshly finished. Hot off the press. It’s important to select which film festival you premiere your film at – a premiere is a big deal for a festival, some (notably Edinburgh, the UK’s most prestigious festival) won’t accept films that aren’t premieres. We opted for the Sheffield DOCFest – in doing so, nixing any chance of an Edinburgh screening. Sheffield is the biggest documentary-based film festival in the UK. It attracts the biggest names in docs (this year – Morgan Spurlock, Nick Broomfield, Molly Dineen, Albert Maysels and Barbera Koppel to name but a few) and is the biggest gathering of documentary industry types in the UK. We reasoned that this was the only place we should launch. Sales agents, distributors and broadcasters would all be in the one place and our film would hopefully get a screening slot with a bit of celebration around it.

We paid our submission fee and sent the DVDs up to Sheffield. I couldn’t imagine not getting a screening. As far as I know, the only two significant UK music documentaries ready for release this year are my film and Upside Down – the story of Creation Records. DOCFest have a whole Music docs section, so I guess I assumed we were a shoo-in.

This confidence was furthered about a month ago when a chap called Charlie Phillips from DOCFest sent me an email. He explained that Sheffield docfest were creating some kind of presence on where they would recommend projects for funding and would we like to be a part of it? I pointed out that we only had 2 weeks left on our campaign and we had already at that point exceeded our target of $30k. He didn’t mind, and I figured the extra publicity couldn’t hurt so said yes.

We took this as a good sign. Also, they started using the tagline ‘sex & docs & rock n roll’. That seemed promising.

Then, last week, we got an email rejection. I spent the best part of a day in shock. I just… couldn’t.. understand… it. Neither could Ben, Hank, or anyone else around the film. Since the 6Music coverage and the early reviews (not to mention a 9.2 rating on imdb) we had just got the confidence that this isn’t just a film we love, it’s a pretty damn good little flick. It’s finished to a high standard and well received, so it couldn’t have been rejected on a quality basis. It features bands like Radiohead, Supergrass and Foals, so it couldn’t have been rejected on a commercial basis. It was a huge crowdfunding success, so it couldn’t have been rejected on a technical or ideological basis. The more we thought about it, the more we realised that it just must have been a mistake. Hank took control and started calling/emailing the organisers to get some kind of answer. The main answer he got was that they have a no-feedback policy.

Meanwhile, Ben poked about online and found THIS and THIS and a press release dated April 6th which states:


They then list 5 projects which have been named ‘crowdfunding fellows’ – mine being the first one discussed.

The first thing that surprised me about this were that firstly they weren’t keen to actually ‘actively promote throughout the international documentary community’ one of their hallowed ‘fellows’ by… well… screening it. The second was when I saw the ‘TOTAL FUNDS RAISED’ section of their indiegogo page. To my eyes, they are laying claim to have raised – or been instrumental in raising – over $64k. Over $32k of that figure was money that we had raised independently before they even emailed us.

I think that’s pretty cheeky. I would let it slide if they were actually supporting us by screening the film but they aren’t.

Hank had been dealing with the situation admirably – he told Charlie politely that we felt we had been used by them and tried to get some kind of response from Hussain Currimbhoy -the festival’s Film Programmer. We were still sure this must be a mistake.

Today, we received the following email from Hussain:

Hi Hank,

As per the terms and conditions of entry we do not offer feedback or have any obligation to justify our selections to entrants. We get close to 2000 films each year and its just not possible to do this.

But since you are insisting I must advise that I will respond to you after the festival about this. All I can say for now is that the film was previewed by our panel, and it was not recommended for the programme. I then viewed it myself and felt that while its good, like many other independent films we get, it does not have the international appeal we look for in all our films. Furthermore, we have a lot of music films in the programme. But I did not feel your film had the emotional pace or impact many of our other music films deliver.

As I say I will be in touch after doc/fest as its a very busy time for us now. I would really appreciate it if you stop emailing me and calling me. I hope this is clear.

Best wishes,

Wow. So, it wasn’t a mistake. Our film just wasn’t up to scratch.

I went on to their website to see this year’s successful list of music documentaries. You can see it here:


I was shocked for a few reasons. Firstly, in that whole list, excluding the 6 minute short, there are only TWO films from the UK. The first of these – the film about Queen has NO online presence at all. Go ahead and google it. That struck me as odd, so I looked up the director. Matt O’Casey – a solid director of TV docs. It would seem that this is not an indie film looking for distribution but a doc produced by, most likely, the BBC or channel 4 – both of whom are major corporate sponsors of the festival.

The second UK film is a doc called Sound it Out. This film has not only already premiered at SXSW festival but is already available on DVD in the UK. It has been released. I bought a copy two weeks ago on Record Shop Day. I thought it was OK but not particularly illuminating, unique or engaging. I don’t want to pick on this film as I have no beef with it at all but the other thing that should be considered is that it is also an indiegogo project but Docfest didn’t select it as a fellow. Also, just going by the figures, our film raised almost ten times as much money and had almost ten times as many donors – which is a pretty fair equation for public demand to see it, I would have thought.

The other music docs are from around the world and have all either had previous screenings at big festivals or were already sold to big distributors.

In other words, they all came either on approval from other festivals or from Docfest’s sponsors. Most incredibly, one of the music docs they are screening is the Justin Bieber film Never Say Never. This has not only already been released commercially but has made THIRTY MILLION DOLLARS. So nice of docfest to support it.

I don’t know about the rest of the festival, but I’d wager that not one single music documentary at this year’s docfest came through the submissions programme. There is no transparency in their process and they do not enter into feedback.

I don’t think I made a film below the quality threshold for this festival. I question the intuition of Hussain Currimbhoy (who is a shadowy figure both on their website and google – I’d love to know what qualified him for the position he holds) and I think Charlie Phillips is a straight-up duplicitous bastard.

The message they send out contradicts the ethos they espouse on their site:

Doc/Fest is very proud to support the development of emerging talent, providing educational and networking opportunities, outreach training schemes and a structured internship and volunteer programmes all year. The festival itself is a brilliant forum for new talent to meet established filmmakers and producers and buyers. If you work in the documentary film, factual TV or digital industries you can’t afford to miss Sheffield Doc/Fest.

Film festivals should be the conduit for the independent films and emerging talent to meet the industry. Many don’t function that way now. You only have to look at the list of sponsors HERE to see that Sheffield probably doesn’t operate honestly in that way. That kind of sponsorship has an agenda. Many of the films already have deals in place and the distributors use the festivals as a source of free and easy publicity.

I guess ultimately, I’m saying that it’s a rotten state of affairs when a truly independent British documentary, sincerely looking to find it’s route to market can’t even get a screening at the UK’s premier documentary film festival.

And, yes, there’s always the chance that I’ve just made a not-very-good film that didn’t warrant inclusion. You’ll just have to see it for yourself before you can develop an opinion on that.

So, here I sit, upset, dejected, bitter and with the taste of sour grapes in my mouth. The toys have all been thrown. As for the immaturity… well… I’ll just leave you with the email I sent to Hussain Currimbhoy this afternoon…

Dear Hussain,

I would tell you to stick your festival up your arse but I’m sure that’s currently far too full what with all the cocks of the broadcasters who back you rammed up there.

If you genuinely think that Sound It Out or the fucking Justin Bieber film has more ’emotional pace or impact’ than ACPG then you are at best an idiot and at worst an idiot with no fucking clue or integrity.

Actually, fuck it, stick your festival up your arse.

Yours sincerely,

Jon Spira.

Published in: on May 9, 2011 at 10:18 pm  Comments (3)  

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I hope you are making a follow up film entitled “Anyone can make a film” – or some similar snappy title.

    Seems like the fillum business works along the same lines as the music business – money breeds money – talent only flourishes if someone with money lets it.

  2. If it’s any consoloation, this is how it feels to be in a band.

  3. Life imitating art it appears in this case…

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