Festivals Run on People: What Are They Being Paid?

By FFA Admin posted 06-22-2022 00:00


The Film Festival Staffing, Workforce, & Compensation Survey, supported by Elevent and conducted by Sherwood B. Smith of Avenue ISR, looks at current salaries and wages across a range of roles within the festival landscape, current policies on organization culture, and offers insight into suggested best practices from festivals for hiring, retention, and workplace morale.

 The three objectives for the survey are:

  1. Learn from film festival leaders about their current approaches to using and compensating team members across a range of functions and roles.
  2. Determine current policies toward work from home, pandemic response, diversity/equity/inclusion and other current issues.
  3. Provide opportunities for film festival leaders to share best practices in hiring, retention and workplace morale.

 For FFA Members, you can access the recording of Woody’s presentation from Wednesday, June 22nd as well as dive in further to the data with an expanded presentation report, aggregated raw data, and an anecdotal report with suggested best practices from your festival colleagues. Please check the Member Resources page on our website or your email for a link to all of the above.

It is a common refrain that nonprofits pay low wages; the reasons range from ‘We put all the money into programs’ to ‘We’re cash-strapped.’ In our report, we find a mixed bag on wages – usually, the bigger the budget, the higher the wages, but not always. We also see certain roles command more secure employment (full-time, higher wages), while others less so (contractor + seasonal, lower wages) , without a clear connection as to why those roles are considered more, or less, important to the organization. We hope this expanded interpretation of the survey data offers questions and solutions you can take to your organization as you look towards improving and growing.

 tl;dr: People are the most valuable resource that your organization has. Don’t squander them.

We are small, mighty, and nimble
71% of festivals report their budgets are under $500,000. The median cash budgets for organizations are as follows:


Festivals report their income comes from a diversity of revenue. On average, organizations report no singular source generates more than 20% of their revenue. This balance can make for wonderful financial diversity, particularly in a pre/current recession period with high inflation like now. Overreliance on a particular revenue source can leave your organization financially vulnerable. Within some specific budget categories, organizations report sponsorship and admission revenue rising to the mid-20%. As you look ahead to 2023, consider where you might expand revenue generation in other categories to inflation-proof and recession-proof your sponsorship and admission dollars. 

Interestingly, organizations report, on average, 7% of their budget comes from submissions. This contradicts the oft-repeated idea that festivals make their money at the expense of filmmakers. While there is much progress to be made on filmmaker compensation, it is important to combat myths around festival sustainability. Of course, this number reflects the 108 organizations that participated in the survey, not the entire field. Yet there is an opportunity here to communicate with filmmakers about the quality of festivals they engage with and how these budgets may look different than other festivals whose interests may lay in profit generation over all else.

Overall, this is great news because it reflects our nimbleness. The diversity of revenue streams gives your organization multiple paths to address funding much of what is outlined below. There are ample opportunities to increase our budget and reallocate our existing budgets toward the most valuable resource of our organizations: our people.


Can you move up in your organization?

 A great aspect of film festivals is that you often find passionate people working at them, particularly in higher-level roles. This can allow a smaller organization to grow or accomplish something greater because of the combined passion of the staff. However, without appropriate professional development or succession planning, festivals can suffer from stagnation in leadership (often referred to as ‘Founder’s Syndrome), or a substantial wage gap between the Executive Director, whose board sets their salary and conducts their reviews whilst also approving the organization’s budget, and the lowest paid worker, who relies on their manager to advocate for them in the budget, while the manager also must advocate for themselves in the budget.

Reviewing the average Executive Director salary versus the lowest average salary for full-time roles, we see that in organizations under $999,999, the average Executive Director earns less than 2 times as much as the lowest paid full-time worker. For organizations with budgets greater than $1million, the Executive Director makes, on average, 3.5 times as much as the lowest paid full-time worker. For these organizations, it’s important to review salaries and consider whether the gap between the highest and lowest earners is justified, or if it might be based on another element, like proximity to budget or power dynamics.

36% of organizations offer no approach to wage transparency. How do workers at your organization advocate for themselves and their staff without a clear picture of the finances? Your organization’s 990 may not give a full picture, but it will list the top earner’s salary. We encourage all folks to review their organization’s 990. Not just for wage transparency, but because understanding your organization’s resources is vital to decision-making at all levels.

The majority of organizations report their raises are based on tenure, skills, and replaceability, yet only 6% of organizations offer a career development pathway for all employees. How likely is it that someone gets a raise based on skills if they’re not offered opportunities to increase their skills? Consider the bias that might be going into your raises if based on subjective, non-measurable goals. For organizations of $1mil or more, none offered defined career development pathways, yet 64% offered annual reviews. Annual reviews can be great, when paired with measurable goals. Without that, what is your organization gaining from those reviews? And what are your staff gaining from them?

 Interestingly, 25% of organizations with budgets from $500K-$999K offered career development pathways, and are the most likely to have wage transparency in their organizations.

 How many jobs does it take to make a living?

The average salary in the U.S. for an individual in 2022 is $53,924 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In reviewing the median salary for all director-level roles, a few roles stood out. This is how it stacks up:

  • The Executive Director median salary meets or exceeds the average U.S. salary at all budget levels.
  • The Operations Director median salary does not meet or exceed the average U.S. salary for organizations with budgets less than $499K
  • The Programming Director median salary does not meet or exceed the average U.S. salary for organizations with budgets less than $999K
  • The Marketing Director median salary does not meet or exceed the average U.S. salary for organizations with budgets less than $499K
  • The median salary for Box Office Director, Technical Director, Hospitality Director and Volunteer Director does not meet or exceed the average U.S. salary for organizations at any budget level.


If working for a film festival often requires people to earn less than the average U.S. salary, how does that impact their life? It may look like working multiple jobs, living in a lower-cost area, relying on a partner or relative to financially support them, or building up debt to financially sustain themselves. 

In reviewing the average full-time salaries for these roles and comparing them to the average salary using the FT, PT, seasonal and contractor rates combined, the results are stark, particularly for Box Office and Tech.

For organizations with budgets under $250,000, the below jobs require people to work at least two festivals a year to make the same average wage as their full-time salaried colleagues:

  • Operations Director: $48,000 full-time vs $24,000 FT/PT/Seasonal/Contractor avg
  • Box Office Director: $45,000 full-time vs $12,000 FT/PT/Seasonal/Contractor avg
  • Technical Director: $52,000 full-time vs $19,000 FT/PT/Seasonal/Contractor avg

 For organizations with budgets under $500,000:

  • Programming Directors see an $18,000 reduction when going from Full time to the average wage of FT/PT/Seasonal/Contractor combined, from $47,000 to $29,000. 
  • Box Office Directors would need to work about three festivals a year, while tech directors would need to work about five festivals a year, to equal the average full-time salary.


For organizations with budgets over $1 million:

  • Programming Directors see a $14,000 reduction going from the average full-time salary to an average salary encompassing FT/PT/Seasonal/Contractor wages. 
  • Executive Director, Operations Director, Development Director, and Artistic Director salaries remain the same. 
  • This suggests that the above four roles are predominantly, if not exclusively, hired in full-time capacities, while Programming Directors could be part time, seasonal, or contractors for an organization of this budget size.


Why does any of this matter? It matters because it means that many of these roles, like Programming Director, and particularly Box Office and Tech, offer unstable employment. It means that your organization could see higher turnover from year-to-year in your box office staff and technical staff because of financial uncertainty. This means you are spending more of your money on training and hiring new folks each year. Consider the implications on your festival program if your Programming Director and Programming staff are juggling multiple jobs to pay their bills. Consider whether increasing your spending on employee retention might go further for your budget and your organizational culture. 


Unstable employment is aggravated by the independent contractor model. Being an independent contractor can be a beneficial financial choice by an individual. Too often, it is used in an exploitative manner, which is reflected in the tightening of labor regulations in various states (i.e. California). Independent contractors are obligated to pay the employer AND the employee share of taxes. The federal rate is currently 15.3%, plus state + local tax where applicable. Independent contractors are usually excluded from benefits like health insurance and retirement. The average cost for health insurance for an individual in the U.S. is $7,739, and for families, $22,221. How is your organization structured? Who gets to be a full time worker? A part time worker? An independent contractor responsible for their own taxes, health insurance, computer, the list goes on…? 

  • Organizations report 78% of Executive Directors, 46% of Operations Directors and 39% of Programming Directors are full-time.
  • 100% of organizations with budgets over $500,000 reported hiring independent contractors.


Consider the tax burden on those folks when you’re budgeting their pay. For organizations where offering group health insurance is a challenge (Film Festival Alliance employees live in multiple states – no one wants to insure us as a group!), look at options like ICHRA, QSEHRA or even a taxable monthly stipend to offset the expense. Given that many independent contractors, seasonal workers, and part time folks must work at multiple jobs in a year, is there an opportunity to team up with other festivals in your state to offer health benefits? A joint retirement fund for your state? Is there a donor in your organization who wants to make an impact not just on your organization, but on the field as a whole? Start talking with your neighbor orgs and see what you can dream up together.


Is your organization unintentionally exploiting workers through the exempt/non-exempt loophole?


Film festivals take passionate people to run them. Passionate people are often willing to put in the hours and work it takes to get something done. The Herculean effort to put on a festival requires many passionate people, and it can feel great to do it! The impact on your audience, on your community, and the pride you take in the work you’ve done. All of that is wonderful and positive and should be celebrated.

 However, this can lead to what Dr. Aaron Kay calls ‘the Passion Tax.’ Those same passionate people can put in far more hours than they are compensated for, combined with below-market salaries, lack of benefits, and the inevitable burnout, festival flu, or crash.

 Organizations report the majority of director-level roles are exempt from being paid overtime. In recent years, the Department of Labor ruled that as long as an employee earned at least $35,568 annually, they could be exempt from overtime (with exceptions and conditions). Remember that the average U.S. salary is $53,490. The report also shows that Technical Director, Box Office Director, Artistic Director, and Programming Director are all more likely to be exempt from overtime than the Executive Director. Each of those roles tend to be heavy on the hours and expected labor. Think about all the DCPs coming in, the multiple screenings tended to, the endless customer service requests, and hundreds, if not thousands, of screening links to review. These tasks are critical to your festival, but they may be getting done by folks who are not only at risk of burning out, but also inadequately compensated for their positions.


Does your organization track hours for all employees, regardless of exempt/non-exempt status? It is incredibly important to understand how much time it actually takes to put your event on. Run the numbers yourself – how many hours of overtime did you put in during 2021? What would the organization have had to pay you if you were paid overtime rates for all of that work? Knowing that paying you the full rate of your time may be financially crippling, consider how else your organization could approach fair compensation. It could be as straightforward as allowing you to fill the open position in your department, or as complex as reimagining your festival to better accommodate the resources you do have access to.


Are you paying to do your job?
Most of us spent the last two years working from home during the pandemic. 84% of organizations report offering staff the opportunity to work from home. The report did not ask whether organizations are paying stipends to remote workers. In lieu of hard data here, ask these questions of your own organization:

  • Are you offering a home office monthly stipend?
  • Are you offering a one-time home office set up fee?
  • If you are paying a stipend, is it going to full time employees only? Consider that part time, seasonal and independent contractors are paying those same expenses.


The average cost for a P.C. in 2022 is $820. The average monthly internet cost in the U.S. is $68.38. The average monthly cell phone bill is $127.37. A computer, broadband internet, and a telephone are requirements for nearly every job in the festival world. Consider how much of your home internet and mobile phone usage is for work vs. personal.

 Further, consider who your employees are if they must have and maintain a computer, internet and telephone at their own expense. Who are you not hiring? Who is not applying for your open positions due to the expense of working for you? Who among your staff is struggling to cover those bills on top of low wages?


Words, limited action
Nearly half of organizations report not offering detailed procedures for reporting incidents of discrimination and/or bias within the organization. Yet 85% of organizations report they provide an environment for the free and open expression of ideas, opinions, and beliefs. How is that measurable if the means of reporting a discriminatory incident don’t exist?

Only 39% of organizations report that prospective candidates will see diversity among the people they meet in their first visit to your organization. Consider who makes up your executive staff and your full time staff. If your organization is diverse, consider which departments or employment status report the most diversity. Is the majority of your diversity among your part time, seasonal and independent contractors? Consider the implications of that, given that those positions often reflect unstable employment.

 Important to note that as budgets grow, more organizations report having detailed procedures in place and greater diversity. More resources often lead to more staff, departments and more formalized procedures over all. However, there is no reason these can’t be right-sized to your budget. It doesn’t take resources to make a diverse organization, it takes reflection.


We are dealing with limited funds, no bones about it. Nonprofits historically do a lot of work with limited budgets. We can take pride in the work we’ve accomplished under those conditions, but we do not need to accept or keep those conditions as we move forward.

 The festival community is a generous, supportive network. We can work better together in tackling many of these systemic issues, uplifting those of us making progress, and offering assistance to those of us struggling with the next steps.

Our recommended next step? Share this and our report with your staff and board. Then, host a conversation (or several). What comes up? What new paths emerge for your organization?

As always, we’re here for you.


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Gray Rodriguez (she/her)

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