Stolen Festivals. 3 Romanian Festivals whose Identities were Copied on FilmFreeway | The State of Cinema
We continue our series of investigations on the frauds in the film festival circuit – both Romanian and international – with a new investigation on how the popular submission platform FilmFreeway is abused by bad-faith actors: this time, we focus on the cases in which unauthorized individuals are copying the identities of extant festivals – that might even be renowned – that don’t use the platform’s services. Thus, by using the prestige of said festivals, as well as the ubiquitous presence of FilmFreeway amongst (newcomer) filmmakers and distributors, the fraudsters rake in considerable sums of money from ill-gained submission fees.
In our first article on the frauds in the festival system, we showed how FilmFreeway can be used to create a fake image of a festival that, in reality, is non-existent. But what happens if the festival does, indeed, exist, and maybe even is a traditional presence in its country of origin, that has its own submission platform or that works on the basis of individual curatorship… and its identity is stolen at one point through the usage of FilmFreeway, a platform legitimized by the many major festivals using it?
The present investigation was carried out over the past few weeks and reveals a worrying phenomenon: that of identity thefts perpetrated with the aims of fraudulently cashing in on submission fees by using the renown of said festivals. Up to now, we have identified three important Romanian film festivals whose identities were copied on FilmFreeway by unknown fraudsters over the past year and a half – the Astra documentary film festival, the BIEFF experimental film festival, and the Anonimul international film festival – thus defrauding filmmakers and distributors who were using the platform’s services in good faith. Not only did the film they submitted (nor their submission fees) never make their way to the festivals they were applying to, but the platform itself also had a lackluster way of communicating with the representatives of said festivals once they had discovered the frauds. These cases will be exposed in full in the following paragraphs, following individual interviews with the organizers of these three festivals, who also provided us with documents – screenshots and emails – that backed up their claims.
The moment in which the organizers of the Astra documentary festival realized that something was up was when one of their programmers reached out to a (Swiss) distributor to ask for the screener of a film, to which they were replied that the film had already been submitted to, says Csilla Kató, the artistic director of Astra. Checking whether the film had been received on their submission platform – available on the festival’s official webpage —, the festival workers discovered that the film was missing from their internal logs. After exchanging a few more emails with said distributors, the organizers found out that the film had been allegedly submitted to them via FilmFreeway – which made them realize that their identity had been stolen.
Unusual correspondences also tipped off the organizers of BIEFF (Bucharest International Experimental Film Festival) and Anonimul – as they received a slew of emails requesting fee waivers. While Anonimul doesn’t ask for submission fees, BIEFF doesn’t even have an open call for films save for its local competition, being a festival that works on the basis of individual curatorship. In the case of Astra, the fraud went undetected for around three months, between December 2021 and February 2022, and in that of BIEFF, for around two months, between October and November 2020.
The longest case, by far, was that of Anonimul, which seems to be, at least in part, the fault of misunderstandings and of a lackadaisical response on the part of FilmFreeway. Miruna Berescu, the festival’s director, estimates that the fake page was online for about 5-8 months, and their festival was in contact with the platform’s representatives between November 2020 and March 2021. Initially, she says, the organizers didn’t even know that they were dealing with a fraudulent page: “It took us many steps (small ones, as we later realized) to discover this fraud. (…) We opened the platform and checked what seemed to be a presentation page of our festival, which featured wrong dates for submission deadlines.” They immediately contacted FilmFreeway, pointing out that they would like to correct the wrong dates or to have the page entirely removed from the website. “That’s when the entire Odyssey began.”
The answer they received from FilmFreeway’s customer service, far from guessing that they might be dealing with a fraud, was to reproach them by saying that “we created the page ourselves, so we’re the ones who have access to it and can modify the information, so I should just log in and change things by myself,” Berescu recounts, contrasting FilmFreeway’s assertion that they have “the best customer service in the industry” (see below). She claims that the festival team unsuccessfully tried to access the fraudulent page for the next two months – trying to generate password recovery mails with the help of the customer support team, but the process was always getting stuck. In the end, the festival was told that the page would be removed, after a lengthy correspondence with FilmFreeway.
But their peace of mind didn’t last for long. “At the beginning of 2021, after we started to receive a new onslaught of fee waiver requests, we checked the platform once again, and then suddenly everything became clear – this was much more than a page with wrong information, it was an active account that cashed in on submission fees in our name,” Berescu says. “We managed to get a hold of the list of 5600 filmmakers/producers/distributors that had «submitted» their films to Anonimul. Some had done so without paying a fee, others had «taken the chance» to submit during the Early Bird period and, by the time we found out what was happening, the Regular submission period had already started.” From this point onward, Berescu tells us, their communication with the platform became lackluster. “Their answers (as we were in constant contact with the various assistants who were taking care of their sole support address) were proof to me that they either faced this problem countless other times or that they barely care if at all, to find out what is happening on their own platform.” The case of Anonimul shows us that the employees of FilmFreeway can be dismissive of those who ask for their help while proving that they might not be trained to identify possible frauds committed on their platform by themselves – nor to vigorously investigate their causes.
The methods employed in the identity thefts of Astra and BIEFF are somewhat similar to those used by phantom festivals. As noted in the previous installment of this series, the “FilmFreeway Gold” system is often used to make fraudulent festival pages seem legitimate from the outside, and also to generate publicity, but the matter of the fact is that FilmFreeway grants pages this status without thoroughly checking on their backgrounds, thus allowing it to become a preferential method for the fraudsters that abuse its services. Unsurprisingly, we discovered that the unauthorized clones of BIEFF and Astra also used this system. “The account of Astra Film on FilmFreeway was carefully crafted to seem authentic. It was tagged as a Gold Festival, which allows members with subscriptions to access certain benefits, such as discounts. Also, of the more than 10,000 festivals available on the platform, which can be sorted out through the use of filters, 4,900 are Gold-certificated,” says Csilla Kató. (We were unable to verify if the fraudulent page of Anonimul also used this system because it was not recorded by the Wayback Machine of the Internet Archive, the tool we used to check the pages of Astra and BIEFF. However, we found traces of the page on an aggregator website.)
Given the nature of this particular type of fraud, there are also some unique elements in their construction. First, and most importantly – in the economy of identity theft –, the usage of photos of the already-existing event and of its visual identity, meaning logos and other graphical elements, lifted from their official websites and social media pages (Facebook, Instagram). In contrast to frauds like Wallachia Film Festival that abscond their organizers, here, fraudsters make a point out of featuring team members – that is, stealing their identities as well, which happened both in the case of Astra and BIEFF (whose real-life correspondence address was also posted on the fake page). “They copied the names of the people in the festival’s team (including that of Adina Pintilie), and created fake e-mail addresses for them,” says Oana Furdea, the festival’s executive director. The list that they were using was out-of-date – the festival’s curatorial team had changed that year, while also featuring the name of a person unknown to the festival: that of a person named Kelley Chatman, who was featured as a “festival co-ordinator”.
Thus, another layer of external legitimacy is achieved – since these are all real people working for a real festival, which can be easily googled, the FilmFreeway page seems all the more official, even if said persons haven’t got the slightest idea that this page even exists. The case of Astra, in particular, is worrisome in this regard, since it featured a particular flourish: the festival’s name was slightly changed on the fraudulent page, into the “Sibiu International Film Festival”. “I assume: that they used this method in order to avoid being immediately detected when people searched for the festival,” says Csilla Kató. In their case, the fraudsters invented several additional categories on top of the festival’s traditional sections – for narrative and animation films, both short- and feature-length, international and Romanian, with differential taxation levels, using a slightly adapted shape of the festival’s actual call for submission. In the case of Anonimul, Miruna Berescu says that their visual identity was copied all the way up to their official color palette and fonts. “At first, when I thought that this was just an informative page, I said wow, one of my colleagues really must have worked a lot to make our page look this good,” she says.
From this point onward, the patently false information starts seeping in. First off, the submission deadlines did not correspond to the real ones. BIEFF’s fake account was created shortly after its 2020 edition – featuring a fictitious June 2021 slot as its dates. Astra’s fake page had a period of submission that was 4 months longer than in reality, and Anonimul’s page also had wrong dates, which also featured false submission categories: “[They] had an open call for feature films, which is totally false, because all of our features are individually selected by our lead programmer, Ludmila Cvikova.”
Astra’s organizers also draw attention to the alarming fact that their fake page was created also through the unauthorized usage of an email address belonging to Dumitru Budrală, the festival’s director. On the other hand, crucially, this eventually allowed them to access the account and its backdoor information – as they discovered that the fraud had actually cashed in on many more films than what the representatives of FilmFreeway had claimed they had (175 submissions worth $2245, versus FilmFreeway’s claims of just 22 films that garnered €460), along with two other vital pieces of information. First, the fraudsters had managed to withdraw a part of the money they had illicitly gained through FilmFreeway, into the American bank account of a firm registered in Nigeria. Second of all, they discovered that the filmmakers who had been defrauded were indeed reimbursed by the platform, but without the percentage pertaining to FilmFreeway’s administration fees and under the shape of credits on the platform. But even with its access to the fraud’s interior, Astra could not discover much more about the perpetrators of the fraud.
In all of the above cases, FilmFreeway eventually complied with the request of deleting the fake pages, even if the festivals themselves had changed their stance, as they wanted to further investigate what had happened. Astra was given the email address of the so-called “festival director” that had created the account – apparently, a Nigerian citizen –, but few other details emerged in the platform’s sparse replies, as Csilla Kató also says that some of the information they discovered inside the account was deleted. “They told us that they’re sorry and that they’ll mark the page as unlisted,” she tells us. “They gave us no reassurances whatsoever, they didn’t even give us the right numbers about the number of submitted films, nor about the money that was made out of them.”
“We didn’t manage to discover who created the fake account, but the fact that FilmFreeway doesn’t even have the intention of checking the identity of the people behind these accounts is precisely what makes these frauds possible,” says Csilla Kató. At the same time, she accuses the platform of being passive, says that this passivity “seems to be part of their business plan, which first of all aims at gathering contact details, and, obviously, financial gains: by gathering enough small sums of money from many users, counting on the fact that nobody’s going to sue them for $25, especially if they’re also reimbursed in such a way as to allow them to keep submitting their films to other festivals…” With bitter irony, she concludes that Astra’s organizers got an automated email from FilmFreeway a few weeks later, inviting them to reactivate “their” page.
Given the lack of guarantees offered by FilmFreeway to the festivals whose identities were stolen with regard to the prevention of possible future unauthorized usage of their identities, I wanted to ask them whether they considered creating accounts on the platform as a preemptive measure. BIEFF has, indeed, created an official account on the platform, but due to separate reasons: the festival is aiming to extend its scope. “We didn’t have a FilmFreeway account [until now] because we were not asking for any submission fees, and the international selection was the direct work of our artistic director and curatorial team,” Oana Furdea says. “Starting with this year’s edition, we consider that the festival is experienced and mature enough to sustain an open call towards the international industry.”
Astra, on the other hand, categorically refuses to ever use the platform’s services. “We have no intention whatsoever to create our own FilmFreeway account, especially since we’ve been running our own platform for the past 14 years, and which we are constantly improving,” says Csilla Kató. She sees the exposure of their case as an act of civic duty: “It is very important that people in the film industry, especially filmmakers and producers, find out about the existence of these kinds of frauds as quickly as possible. We hope that the legislation regarding online business will regulate this legal situation as soon as possible, to fully outlaw such practices.” She adds that the festival’s organizers have lodged a complaint with the Romanian Police’s Directorate for Combating Organized Crime, even though they have “slim hopes that they will be able to initiate a trial which would bring the perpetrators of the fraud in front of the law”.
For Anonimul, however, it was too late to even try to attempt legal action – by the time they considered the option, the platform had already erased everything, despite the festival’s reversal of its request. “After we told them that this is a fraud and that our identity was used to make money (and not a small amount of it, too), they completely deleted the page, and so we could no longer try to access it,” says Miruna Berescu. “And this is also why we couldn’t continue to investigate the case by filing a complaint at the police, for example. So everything that was there was lost, and all our chances to make a legal complaint were heavily complicated, if not outright impeded.” They couldn’t find out who was the perpetrator of the fraud, just that they had managed to extract 1,000 dollars worth of ill-gained money through two distinctive PayPal accounts.
They don’t intend to create their own FilmFreeway page, either. “In this case, my answer is a definitive no,” says Miruna Berescu, asserting that Anonimul always had a submission system that was free of cost, and so they never saw the need of using the platform. “What I do know is that we have periodically checked the platform to see whether Anonimul was again present on it – and will continue to do so.” She adds that she does, indeed, use the platform’s services as a film producer, but that she always looks for additional information on the festivals she’s aiming to submit her films before doing so, in order to be fully sure that she won’t be scammed herself.
It was quite difficult to independently track down filmmakers that were victims of these frauds – and it was even more difficult to convince them to speak to us on record. One of the filmmakers that we contacted, who submitted his film to the page that stole the identity of BIEFF, was not even aware that they sent his film to a fraudulent entry – he showed us the receipt for his submission fee, worth $23.40 – and couldn’t remember whether the platform notified them with regard to the page being deactivated or about his refund. Another filmmaker, speaking under the condition of anonymity, told us that “basically anyone can create a festival in order to make money, without delivering much in return – all they need is an email address and a logo” while conceding that he thinks it’s commendable that FilmFreeway does indeed reimburse filmmakers who may have been frauded.
Instead, we got a hold of Mirona Radu, a Romanian distributor agent who is also a festival organizer herself, who was one of those who submitted a documentary in her portfolio to the fake page of the Astra documentary festival – she had used the festival’s own platform in previous editions. She says that the slightly modified title of the festival made her slightly suspicious, at first. “I submitted the documentary to several film festivals in January,” she says, mentioning that she didn’t search for Astra in particular, but for documentary festivals that use FilmFreeway, in general, by using the platform’s sortation algorithm. “I think [Astra] was the last one that I saw on the list. I was surprised that its name contained the word «Sibiu», but the photos and the description seemed to be that of the festival that I knew all too well. The submission fee was $29.” Once the fraud was revealed, she remembers that she got back the fee under the shape of credits in her account balance, which can be reused for other submissions – but she hasn’t had the chance to use them yet, and hopes that they will work when she will need them. “I’m not necessarily worried about the money, that would be the third item on my list of concerns. The second would be actually getting my film where I want it to be. The most important is being concerned for what kind of people are working in this milieu.” In closing, Mirona Radu says that she’s still using the platform to submit films to festivals, but also to process submissions as an organizer. Even so, she says that she prefers “festivals that have their own platform because it reassures you that the film ends up in the right hands”.
We contacted FilmFreeway’s press office with an ample set of questions relating to these particular types of frauds, spanning from requests for hard data (such as the number of such frauds that the platform has identified over the years) to ones for clarifications regarding their internal policies (regarding their methods of checking whether someone is authorized to open a page in the name of a festival, of how they communicate with festivals whose identities were stolen, about their methods of preventing and deterring such frauds, whether they contact authorities in such cases, and so on.) We were given a vague answer that was applicable to frauds committed on FilmFreeway in general, signed “Andrew”, featuring links to the platform’s publishing requirements, their deactivation policy, and their policy on online festivals (which predates the pandemic), without providing any substantial clarifications of our punctual questions, while replete with superlative and vague (that is, unverifiable) appreciations of their activity. Amongst them: “we work very hard to provide the best submission platform in the world”, “FilmFreeway has a zero-tolerance policy for fraud or false information by festivals”, “in fact, we have a thorough vetting system in place to make sure all events listed on FilmFreeway are legitimate”, “with more users than any festival platform in the world (…)”, “we have actually designed sophisticated anti-fraud software to help identify suspicious activity on our system [which has] already helped us identify and remove several dozen (!) suspicious festivals”, “we’re proud to offer the best customer support in the industry”, along with assurances that any suspicious pages are immediately investigated and deleted.
The only concrete information that we were given was that newer or lesser-known festivals are required to provide the official ID of the person who is creating an account – however, that is not the case with the above festivals. (Another concrete piece of information was related to the refund policy – that however failed to mention how they are refunded, that is, under the shape of credits.) For all the self-congratulations that FilmFreeway offered in its statement to us, the fundamental question remains unanswered: how is it possible that the platform is being used in order to steal identities and cash in on thousands and thousands of dollars of defrauded submission fees, and how is it possible for these pages to function for entire months without being detected by the platform’s moderators?
The conclusions of this investigation are rather bleak – although it’s commendable that the defrauded filmmakers are reimbursed (but it’s much less commendable that the platform retains its service fee), FilmFreeway doesn’t seem very interested in being accountable to the owners of the festivals whose identities were stolen – neither towards the press that inquires about these cases, as their lack of a punctual reply to our questions proved. Not only does the platform not seem to care much about mitigating the damages to the public images of said festivals, but its policy – of simply deleting the fake pages without offering many details to the organizers – prevents them from attempting legal action (thus, consequently allowing the perpetrators to keep on escaping from the law). Simultaneously, FilmFreeway also doesn’t seem to properly train its customer service workers to identify these cases. And the lack of proper background checks on page creators – who can easily transfer their illicit gains to their bank accounts by using online banking services – is a grave issue that creates a ground that is fertile for the proliferation of frauds.
At the very least, FilmFreeway should have a much more rigorous verification process in the case of any already-existent festival that wants to create an account on its platform – for example, to set up face-to-face meetings with its representatives and to request more comprehensive documents than simple ID cards – in order to authorize them to make financial gains through its services. Of course, it would be a much more costly and painstaking process than their current one, but, if FilmFreeway will continue to not take any targeted measures and will keep on working in damage control mode, it will practically offer its blessing to future fraudsters. If we are to truly believe that the platform and its business model are acting in good faith, it’s time that we see a change in their policies.
(At the time of publishing, our requests for clarifications about FilmFreeway’s knowledge of this type of fraud are still unanswered.)
The series of investigations will continue in future episodes.