By David Hudson
January 3, 2005 - 7:06 AM PST
Back in late 2001, I listened in on a conversation among a dozen or so of the directors of some - most, actually - of the world's top film festivals. A few months later, I fashioned a lot of what they had to say into an article, one of our first, back in the days when GreenCine was still very green indeed. In the past couple of weeks, as I've gathered the festival coverage we've run over the past year, most of it at our blog, GreenCine Daily, a question percolating in the back of my mind has been: How have things changed since those estimable festival directors had that chat in Berlin?
Festivals themselves haven't changed just a whole lot, I've decided. On the whole. There are a lot more of them now, but the procedures involved in putting them on and experiencing them are pretty much the same. But their role in a rapidly evolving system, the way we make and experience films, has changed. Not dramatically, mind you - yet. But something's afoot and the prime mover is digital technology. That seems obvious, almost boring even, but scratch the surface with me here a moment.
Besides all the other lovely and vital things festivals can do for local and visiting film-lovers, particularly in providing a sort of instant and frenetic sense of community, their essential function remains the same; they offer first looks at films and they offer films and their makers their first shots at finding their audiences. What's changed is what happens right after those initial introductions. To find a life after its festival premiere, a film still needs to find a distributor; but because the means of distribution are expanding, becoming more varied, films face a welcome wider range of opportunities for moving on beyond the festival circuit. Not that there's anything wrong with the festival circuit, of course; to put it another way, they've got a better chance of earning their keep, of putting some cash in their makers' pockets so those filmmakers can go on making more films.
Take the example of Napoleon Dynamite. When Fox Searchlight saw the film at Sundance, they were determined to nab it. They cornered director Jared Hess after the screening and all but demanded the rights to distribute it. Now, this is not a mainstream comedy here. No stars. It's hard, too, to get across what the film is actually about in classic "elevator pitch" form. If the film had had to earn its keep solely during its theatrical release, would Fox Searchlight have been as hot to have it? I seriously doubt it; far too risky. But Fox Searchlight knew that Napoleon Dynamite was the sort of film that could flop in theaters (it didn't, fortunately, but play along) but thrive on DVD. In part, yes, because the DVD is still an almost unfathomable success story - imagine, back in the days of VHS any arm of any large studio saying, "Go get that movie! Whatever the risks, we'll make it all back when it hits video!" - but far more, I would argue, because they knew the film would find its audience at some point along the long arc between Sundance and its DVD release date (which just happened to have fallen at the peak of the Christmas shopping season and, as it turned out, some stores literally couldn't keep enough copies in stock to satisfy customer demand).
Growing hand-in-hand with this format movie-lovers love are rivulets, streams and gushing rivers of communication among these same movie-lovers that allow niches to coalesce into far larger fan bases than would have been possible before the advent of online forums (such as the one devoted almost exclusively to the Criterion Collection), easy access to formerly more obscure film journals (such as Bright Lights, say) and, of course, a vast array of multifarious blogs, strange attractors emitting and absorbing the buzz emanating from various nodes of specific interests.
"Cultivate Internet critics," Piers Handling, director of the Toronto International Film Festival, told his fellow fest-makers. "They are young, they are hip, they are different, they have a very different sensibility. And they are trying to discover young talent, new talent... they are not as fixated on Julia Roberts." Back in 2001, he may have been thinking of sites like Harry Knowles's Ain't It Cool News, which is fine, but since then, smart festivals have come to realize that they can help the films they introduce find deeply interested and pro-actively enthusiastic audiences by welcoming, even fostering coverage in sites ranging wildly from Senses of Cinema to Twitch to indieWIRE and so on.
Word-of-mouth has become farther-reaching, faster and more effective now that it's word-of-keyboard, and that's not been lost on producers, distributors or many a filmmaker; Jonathan Caouette and Zach Braff may or may not have the same motivations to blog as anyone else, but their doing so certainly hasn't hurt prospects for Tarnation and Garden State. To an extent, what's taking shape is a merging, to put it in probably unnecessarily cold terms, of product and promotion - which will only become more pronounced when, with the inevitable rise of video-on-demand in all its various forms, it's all actually happening on the same screen.
Which leads to another aspect of festivals' increasing awareness and use of the online parallel universe. At their own sites, some, such as San Sebastian, offer clips, whenever possible, of the films on the program; others, like Berlin, offer live webcasts of the press conferences; and still others, most notably Sundance, offer full-blown online film festivals - in January, Sundance will be showcasing its fifth.
For now, though, let's glance back one last time at 2004. GreenCine Daily was the site of most of our festival coverage for fairly obvious reasons: immediacy, a sense of watching an event unfold almost live. But we've gathered it here not just out of some impulse to sort and archive but also because many of the films glanced first at festivals months ago are now out on DVD and in our catalogue. By updating those links (and others), we're giving you a shot at spicing up your queue.
So the year went something like this; click the name of the fest to see how we experienced it as it happened:
Sundance and Slamdance. Jonathan Marlow managed to take in films and parties under the umbrella of both the still-reigning king of American indie fests (which opened in an atmosphere slightly tinged by the then-recent release of Peter Biskind's angry book, Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance and the Rise of Independent Film, a tinge quickly forgotten when true-blue indie Primer took the top prize) and its rambunctious alternative festival.
Rotterdam. Flying straight out of Park City, Jonathan landed in Europe to gather first impressions of dozens of intriguing new films, though it was the Raśl Ruiz retrospective that may have proven to be the highlight.
The Berlinale. We were extraordinarily lucky this year in that, while I immersed myself in the Competition (eventually won by Fatih Akin's ferocious Head On), we had Cory Vielma seeing about twice as many films in the Berlinale's renowned parallel program, the International Forum.
SXSW. Hannah Eaves sums up Austin's spring event perfectly: "Imagine a relaxed combination of Sundance and Slamdance on a much smaller scale and with barbecue (and better weather)."
San Francisco. And by that, we mean the big one. So big we had a gaggle of GreenCiners covering it. Taking probably everyone by surprise, we had quite a bit of reaction to Jonathan Marlow's "Five-Point Plan" for rethinking America's oldest festival from the ground up.
Seattle. Running nearly a month, it's the annual early summer marathon of fests. Coverage by Hannah and Jonathan, who also profiled the new director, Helen Loveridge.
Frameline. As the San Francisco International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival took off, Joyce Guan took measure of the state of LGBT-related films in a longish piece that was more appropriate to run as an article here rather than as a blog entry at GC Daily.
The San Francisco Silent Film Festival. It's only a weekend in July, but the offerings are, as Jonathan says, "rare and remarkable."
Toronto. Rapidly solidifying its rep as the premiere North American festival. Writer and producer Shannon Gee sent in three lively dispatches from the fall season opener.
San Sebastian. Thumbs up from Juan Manuel Freire for Woody Allen's Melinda and Melinda, Song Il-gon's Spider Forest and many more.
Vancouver. Specifically, the innovative "Dragons and Tigers" program, the fest-within-a-fest of new films from Asia that Sean Axmaker clearly wouldn't miss for anything.
Mill Valley. Bookended reports from Hannah Eaves and Jonathan Marlow.
Thessaloniki. Thorough and engaging coverage from Kinoeye editor Andrew James Horton, focusing in particular on the forefront of the European scene.
Sitges. The year wraps with Europe's top sci-fi, fantasy and horror festival; Juan Manuel Freire had on fun wintertime week in Spain.
Besides next-to-live coverage, GreenCine Daily is also the spot to keep an eye on for other festival-related news, including coverage at other sites, of course, but also previews of upcoming events. In February, for example, Craig Phillips took a thorough look ahead at the SF Indie Fest (February 5 through 15), which launched its own blog this year as well. In March, Jonathan Marlow previewed the Traveling Film South Asia as it ran in San Francisco from the 12th through the 21st as well as the Fearless Tales Genre Fest at the city's lovely Victoria Theatre. And we've archived Juan Manuel Freire's coverage of San Sebastian and Sitges here, but for fleeting pointers of his, such as the one to Docupolis in October, you'll have to keep an eye the blog.
Another "extra" to point to at GC Daily: Before Hannah Eaves interviewed CineVegas programmer Trevor Groth in July, Jonathan Marlow was already looking ahead to attending the fest in early June, comparing "the new kid" to Sundance; and it fared pretty darn well, too.
All in all, in other words, don't wait until next year for the next archived batch. You can't hit every noteworthy festival yourself, but you can watch many of them play out in close to real time via our coverage here at the main site and at the blog.
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From Sundance to Sitges.
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lives and writes in Berlin.
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