How free screenings have revitalised the Cartagena Film Festival and could inspire struggling festivals.

The first thing that jumped out at me as I perused the schedule for the Cartagena Film Festival (FICCI) was the phrase “all screenings are free” – not something you see often beyond a neighbourhood pub’s offerings.

But Cartagena’s festival is world class – at 53, it is the oldest film festival in Latin America. The programme included festival gems such as No, A Hijacking and Beasts of the Southern Wild, world premieres of a slew of new Colombian films, and features and documentaries in international competitions. There were hundreds of global industry experts in attendance, as well as luminaries including Harvey Keitel, Paul Schrader and Peter Webber.

Monika Wagenberg, the dynamic festival director who has further ramped up Cartagena’s international reputation since she joined in late 2010, explained to me the impetus of the decision to move the festival from paid to free. She had been a consultant to the festival in 2009 when she brought in a Brazilian filmmaker to present his documentary – only to find only three people in the audience. To make matters worse, those three were the festival jurors; the poor guy didn’t even get to do a Q&A.

The festival board assumed that audiences in Cartagena weren’t keen on documentaries. Wagenberg offered them an experiment – in 2011, she showed a free documentary at 2pm every day in a large cinema that sat 1,500 people. Crowds came out in droves.

“The docs were packed, it was proof to the board that there’s not a lack of interest but lack of financial capability,” she told me this week during my visit to the 2013 festival.

Now it’s not just docs that are free, it’s the whole programme (excluding opening and closing nights). Responding to audience demand after 2012’s overflow crowds, the 2013 festival had 60% more projections (290) and also more films screenings. There were still queues around the cinemas. 90% of these films won’t be distributed in Colombian cinemas anyway, so there are no balking distributors who see their anticipated theatrical profits slipping away with free screenings.

It’s not a perfect solution – the queues can be unwieldy and those shut out are disappointed. The festival still sells accreditations for priority entry, and the cost of running screenings for unpaid audiences means more reliance on sponsorships. But for this one festival, the free model definitely seems to be working and creating a vibrant event.

Filmmakers would rather have a packed free audience than a half-empty paying one (they aren’t profiting anyway, another aspect of film festival financials that is being debated over at Indiewire currently, that’s a whole other can of worms).

I remember being at the Montreal World Film Festival a decade ago, at a screening of a well reviewed film, where the audience consisted of myself, the director and one paying member of the public. Surely that’s not the point of a festival. If that many tickets are unsold, neither the filmmaker nor the public is being served. Imagine if the festival had just offered those unsold tickets for free to locals and packed the place? Even with a last-minute rush line?

It’s certainly not a model that would work for the majority of festivals – and if a festival is packing in audiences at premium ticket prices then amen to that. But in tough economic times going free, or partly free, might be the kind of radical move that could save some struggling festivals if they can offset ticket sales with more sponsorship. Or certainly in cities and towns where ‘festival films’ don’t yet have an audience, and an emerging festival is trying to get off the ground, going free could be just the ticket.