Many of the festivals created solely to line the pockets of the organizers are fairly easy to spot. They are generally online-only contests that put nothing of monetary value up as prizes and have very little (if any) operating expenses. Often they will have prestigious-sounding names with the word "Awards" in the title.
Others may have much higher submission fees and a pitch that suggests that they are a very prestigious awards competition. They are a bit more stingy with the free laurels and almost all entries are treated to an auto-generated rejection letter.
A growing trend among these festivals is to put their awards into separate submission categories. This essentially forces the film-maker into paying multiple fees to basically nominate themselves for more than one award.
Some of these festivals might offer impressive trophies to their winners for an additional fee. (We've seen some charge well over $100 for them!) Of course there are also the additional shipping and handling charges too.
If you're a trophy-hunter, these fests might be exactly what you are looking for. However, it should be pointed out that you can have your very own trophy made at a local engraver shop for a lot less than what these festivals will charge you for it.
Quite a few of these shady online festivals sweeten the pot (and demand higher submission fees) by offering attractive prizes that you would have no way of confirming. They may promise that the winners will be shown to studio executives or "industry professionals" for consideration, giving film-makers the impression that they have close relationships with some of the top dogs in Hollywood. However, they'll never name these "industry professionals".
The catch here is that there will not be a solid appointment date for this phone consultation. Those industry professionals will always be busy on some project whenever you contact the festival about arranging for it, assuming that the festival responds at all.
(As of this writing one of our editors has been waiting over a year for such a prize to be fulfilled and has been contacted by other "winners" who have been waiting even longer.)
Another trick we've seen are monthly online festivals that list themselves as live events. They will claim that select films from the winners will be screened at their big live festival at the end of the year.
While some of these festivals are actually legitimate, the shady ones can be difficult to spot unless you happen to be looking to submit on the last month and see that the event date is the exact same day as the selection notification date. Most online-only fests will use the same date for both, but a "live" festival will only do this if they don't want anyone showing up!
Before you start black-listing every online festival in existence, there are some notable exceptions to consider.
Most screenwriting competitions operate online simply out of practicality. Unless they are holding live table reads, writer workshops, or an extravagant awards ceremony, these competitions often just consist of a website and a jury.
Reading scripts is time-consuming and requires knowledge of the craft, so many writing contests will require submission fees to compensate the judges. It is not uncommon for those fees to be very high for later deadlines in order to encourage early submissions.
Another type of online festival that may be worth considering are those that offer services, feedback, scholarships, or even just cash prizes. These are sometimes hosted by organizations or production companies looking for scripts or shorts that can be produced into larger projects and they are usually not shy about stating their intentions straight up in their listings.
As a rule of thumb, give a festival two weeks after the notification date to deliver on the goods unless they give you a solid date for when to expect your prize. After that, contact the festival about the problem and see how they respond.
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