Scam Film Fest: Annual Program Without Frontiers
At first glance, the website seems believable. Poorly constructed, perhaps, but it seems to represent a benevolent program that gives awards to worthy filmmakers.
I’m speaking of the site for the Annual Program Without Frontiers. I’ve come to the conclusion that this “program” is nothing but a front. Under the guise of numerous fake film festivals, the APWF asks for entry fees (at twenty dollars a pop) but no screenings, judging, or awarding ever takes place. (I’ve revised my take on the awards. See the updates below.)
Let’s go back to the beginning. Some months ago, my friend Dave was browsing through FilmFestivals.com, a resource he has used often over the years. He came upon an entry for the Chicago Short Film Festival, associated with APWF. He followed the links, filled out the online form, and paid his money via credit card. He then mailed off his short film and hoped for the best.
Later on, Dave wanted to find out the results of the competition. Unfortunately, there weren’t any recent results on the website — in fact, we first had trouble finding the site at all. (I’ll get to the domain name confusion in a minute.) Eventually, he tried writing the APWF by email.
He received an unusual form letter in response. It purported that his short film…
…has been preselected
for the Chicago Short Film Festival.
The definitive Official Selection and Awards
will be published after December 20, 2006.
We do not need that you send a new copy.
The Jury will display the films for evaluation,
in the approved digital format.
There will be no public screenings, the results will be announced by
Internet and distributed by International Press Media.
For promotion purposes, we would be thankful if you send us to
email@example.com, with the title of the film as subject,
a digital still of the film (jpg or gif) and a brief phrase
(no more than a pair of lines) about the film.
Please do not send heavy pictures, little files are better for Internet
Chicago Short Film Festival
Okay, not the best written letter, but not too bad. And there are plenty of “virtual” fests out there, so it’s somewhat believable. So what’s the problem?
Their email didn’t work. Why would they ask for JPGs & info with a bum email address?
So Dave asked me to do some digging. The more I found out, the worse it looked. I found a whole series of abandoned domain names and email addresses associated with program figurehead Carlos Martinez. There’s no whois record for festivalinfo.us, but you can see another related search result here:
One of the things I’ve learned managing websites is that spammers are notorious for gobbling up domain names with the US, INFO, and BIZ suffixes. Add to that the issue of Carlos hopping domains and emails often, and you’ve got some big red flags.
So where’s the main APWF website now? Check out this ridiculous website address:
If you reduce the address to mamut.com, you’ll see that Mamut is a business site out of Norway. A bit unusual for a film group supposedly run out of Beverly Hills, don’t you think? The red flags are flying.
Now Dave’s no fool. He’s entered dozens of festivals a year for the last several years. I can see why he might not have noticed a problem when he entered the fest. With a name like Chicago Short Film Festival, it sounded like a good thing, right? I took another look at the APWF site and found a surprising amount of vague information.
There’s no mention of who will be judging, what the prizes are, or any actual dates for festivals and awards. The only “official” name on the site is Carlos Martinez. The website has pictures of people receiving awards, but I suspect these bullets of news and film info are swiped from other festival websites.
Calls placed to the APWF phone number resulted in fax noises and disconnects.
Annual Programs Without Frontiers solicits for the following festivals. They all have similar, generic names. As far as I can tell, none of these festivals exist:
Chicago Short Film Festival
San Francisco Short Film Festival
New York Short Film Festival
Short Film Festival of Los Angeles
Documentary & Fiction Festival of Hollywood
Golden Gate Fiction & Documentary Festival
Philadelphia Documentary & Fiction Festival
There is a mention of the Mar del Plata International Film Festival, the only established festival. Do they know APWF is using their name?
Armed with so many suspicions, I posted on a few message boards looking for answers. One helpful person (thanks, Richard) found an article from Variety blowing the whistle on this scheme from 2003, four years ago.
Inside Move: Faux fest circuit
Interpol tips tyros to Internet fraud
By DAVID ROONEY
Posted: Sun., Jul. 13, 2003, 6:00am PT
As if impoverished filmmakers struggling to get noticed didn’t have enough to contend with.
Interpol has issued a computer crime warning concerning a Web site billing itself as the Film Festivals Intl. Federation or Annual Program Without Frontiers.
The site — www.filmart.org — purports to represent a number of film fests both in the U.S. and abroad, including the New York Short Film Festival, Golden Gate Fiction & Documentary Festival, Honolulu Intl. Festival, Festival de Cine de Granada and Festival de Court Metrage de Lyon.
The fests all share generic names that are close to existing events, but under closer inspection, no concrete evidence can be found that these fests have ever taken place. (None of them appears on Variety’s annual film fest guide either.)
A check on fest Web site ww.filmfestivals.com lists each fest with no direct contact aside from the Santa Monica phone/fax number given on the filmart homepage. Several calls to this number elicited only a fax reply.
Filmmakers trying to access data on these alleged fests are invited to email the site, which reportedly generates a response instructing the would-be fest entrant to submit a copy of the film, together with a submission fee.
A Web investigation of filmart.org’s origins produces fuzzy results, tracing the page back to a Norwegian hosting service.
COPYRIGHT 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. (US)
Validation! Mr. Rooney of Variety and I found much of the same evidence, plus Interpol is wise to these shysters.
But that was 2003. How are they still scheming filmmakers?
Our next step was to write to filmfestivals.com. Surely they’d be interested to know that they’re (unknowingly?) helping to promote a scam such as this.
Here’s where it gets shady.
Up until now, I had been giving filmfestivals.com the benefit of the doubt, that they were listing the bogus fests without knowledge of any wrong-doing. I wanted to post on the FF message board, but it was no longer in service.
Guess what happened when Dave tried writing to the FF site? Some emails bounced, and some just went unanswered. He wrote politely, as a concerned filmmaker. Finally, one of his emails with the subject line “Scam festivals and their supportive sites” got the attention of webmaster Bruno Chatelin. Bruno sent a cryptic response, apparently wounded by Dave’s insinuation. He didn’t offer any information about APWF, however.
Email removed at Bruno Chatelin’s request
I should point out that Bruno is French. His apparent flip-flopping between defensiveness and gratitude (sarcasm?) could be the result of bad English.
At the same time, I had written a letter to Bruno myself. Here’s a truncated version, so you can see the polite, businesslike tone I used:
I have a film festival scam I’d like to report, but it seems the scam area on the filmfestivals.com site is missing.
It has come to my attention that the Annual Program Without Frontiers group and the associated festivals is not legitimate. From what I can tell, the “organization” takes entry fees and pretends to give out awards. The festivals they list on the (horribly designed) website are imaginary.
Emails to “Carlos Martinez” go unanswered and the listed phone number is inactive.
My next step is to alert Paypal and Verisign to prevent future payments to this fraudulent organization.
This should be a concern to you, because your site does promote them…
And now, the crowning glory. One of the most hilarious examples of ENGRISH I have ever seen. Bruno forwarded my email to Carlos, who got back to me posthaste:
Dear Mike Boas
I have received from Bruno Chatelin (filmfestivals.com) your e-mail with negative asseverations about the Annual Program Without Frontiers and its associated festivals.
We are small yet, with a correct procedure in a new way and many cinema lovers work pleasantly next to us. Our festivals are developed by Internet, with real films, evaluation and awards.
Some people do not easily understand a non-traditional way. We strongly believe in this effort without technical, economic, cultural and political frontiers.
Those people who are not in agreement with our rules and regulations, exposed clearly before the entrance form, simply do not choose to register themselves. If somebody change his mind, and prefer to leave a festival before publication of the results, we always refund the entry fee.
Our communications are very slow yet, we are working on this problem.
I usually respond e-mails within a week, sometimes when I am in a film production can be a greater delay. Our phone receives fax all the time and only receives calls when we can answer them.
I hope your opinion on us improves in the future. If you have suggestions to improve our services, please let me know.
I am now more convinced than ever that APWF is a scam. You don’t run a program for over four years and send out babel-fish letters like that, even if English isn’t your native language.
Dave’s response from Bruno is disheartening:
Email removed at Bruno Chatelin’s request
He essentially said he passed on Dave’s email and wiped his hands of the issue.
What does it mean that the person who runs a resource like filmfestivals.com DOESN’T CARE that he’s possibly promoting a scam? Could it be that the FF site is complicit?
It may sound paranoid, but there are some sketchy aspects to the filmfestivals.com site. Bad links and bad emails. The “report a scam” bulletin board has disappeared. In addition to APWF listings, there are also prominent listings for the New York International Independent Film and Video Festival, an event that has raised the ire of many a filmmaker. (See my run-down of the New York rip-off fest here ) According to Google searches, Bruno’s main claim to fame is as a viral marketer.
But I’m not prepared to point fingers at FF yet. I’m hoping to get some responses from fellow filmmakers on the subject. Has anyone had bad dealings with filmfestivals.com? Let me know!
So, what’s next? I plan to contact Paypal and Verisign to report the APWF fraud. I should also write the Mar del Plata International Film Festival, to see if they know about being featured on the APWF site. This has been an unusual journey, a mystery that unfolds day by day. I only hope that posting this online will help dissuade others from contributing funds to the Annual Program Without Frontiers.
UPDATE, February 22
After communicating with filmmaker “Momo” (see comments below), I now believe APWF does give out awards. Could this be the bare minimum to keep the authorites from smashing down the door? Signed “diplomas” are emailed to winners. Sometimes. Momo has yet to receive 2 of the 4 he was told to expect. See one of his diplomas here. (Names blacked out per his request.) Momo’s film info and picture were listed on pages at the mamut.com website.
This raises the question, what is the definition of a film festival? Can it be broad enough to include an anonymous organization with a misleading website that does not screen films for an audience? Can the term be attributed to a person who goes through festival names and domain addresses like toilet paper?
Maybe an award is nothing more than a piece of paper, but it should signify recognition by your peers. When you take away the screenings, the networking opportunities, distribution, and prizes… a virtual festival’s emailed diploma signifies little to me.
UPDATE, March 12 2007
I sent email inquiries to several members of Argentina’s Mar del Plata film festival, but did not receive any answers. Granted, there’s a language barrier, but I was hoping for some sort of response. They do have an English version of their website, after all.
Meanwhile, Dave was given a full refund of his entry fee, WHICH HE NEVER ASKED FOR. I guess Carlos assumed Dave was dissatisfied. And to think, all this started because Dave wrote to ask if and when the judging results for the Chicago Short Film Festival would be posted. If those questions were answered in the first place, we probably wouldn’t have done all this research into the APWF’s practices. By the way, the refund came from a new account, the 1st Int. Cinema Ferancho Cuc Amoca.
Update, April 9 2007
I’ve received another belligerent email from Bruno Chatelin, who asked that his name and emails be removed from this blog. (How belligerent? The word “excrement” was used.) Much as I hate to admit it, according to the rules of copyright, emails shouldn’t be reposted without permission. I could argue fair use, but I’ll err on the side of caution and take them out. I only included them in the first place so readers could interpret his words for themselves.
There’s no reason to remove Bruno’s name from this story, however. Especially since he’s never made any attempt to answer my questions. Does he approve of APWF’s practices? Does APWF pay for ad space and/or listings on filmfestivals.com? What am I supposed to think when he doesn’t comment?