"Successful festivals are like successful brands," Piers Handling, director of the Toronto International Film Festival, remarked last December. "Armani, Coke, BMW. Cannes equals glamour, Venice equals art cinema, Pusan equals Asian cinema, Locarno and Rotterdam are new cinema, Sundance is synonymous with American independent cinema and Toronto is seen as the gateway to North America." With the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF) underway this week, now is as good a time as any to ask what we mean by "successful" -- and what festivals are really for, anyway.
Handling was one of over a dozen top festival directors to gather in Berlin late last year to wine, dine and deal and then discuss their worries and ambitions on a public panel moderated by British film critic Derek Malcolm. Their host was the newly appointed director of the Berlin festival, the Berlinale, Dieter Kosslick. The morning quickly turned into both a mutual back-patting session and a wide open collective bitching free-for-all.
Turns out, these directors do have a lot to worry about. While their festivals may only last ten days or a few weeks, they work all year round to satisfy the different and often conflicting needs and wants of three interested parties: the industry, the press and the public.
Where They're Coming From
"Initially, because they started as cultural forms of expression, the industry really didn't know what to do with film festivals," Handling went on. After all, they weren't meant to be businesses. At first. In Europe, governments were often instrumental in a festival's beginnings -- for the sake of prestige, and occasionally, propaganda. The festival in Venice was launched by Mussolini in the 1930s. The French government served as a midwife to Cannes. In 1951, the Allies thought it'd be a good idea to get a festival going in the western sector of Berlin. The Wall was still over a decade away, but the competition between the two halves of the city was already heating up.
In the US and Canada, festivals were usually driven by a single passionate individual or a small group of like-minded film fanatics who were essentially pooling their resources to get movies up on the screen that they'd never have a chance of seeing any other way. Extended film societies, in a way. And for the industry, these people were freaks, their events, flukes.
"This changed over the decades when Fellini, Antonioni, Godard and Truffaut and others became highly recognized names in the early 60s because of film festival screenings," continued Handling. "The film industry began to pay attention. The value of having a film at a festival was suddenly very clear: media attention, the discovery of exciting films, a critical mass of attending delegates, the occasional controversy all resulted in mass of awareness of certain films."
Sounds rosy, but none of the directors addressed head on what has become an interlocking relationship between festivals and the industry. Particularly for independents seeking distribution, the festival circuit has become an integral part in the overall game plan, sometimes even to the extent that filmmakers count on finding a sugardaddy at a festival to finance the final stages of post-production -- that last sound mix, that color-corrected print blown up to 35mm. In Spike, Mike, Slackers and Dykes, John Pierson writes about seeing this sort of deal through on dozens of indies.
Pierson also inadvertently outlines a pecking order among festivals, one he's eagerly taken advantage of. More than once, he used SFIFF to generate the first inklings of buzz on which his pet film would then ride into Cannes -- where the buzz really mattered. There's an odd echo of the proximity of the two festivals on the calendar again this year, with Woody Allen's Hollywood Ending closing the SFIFF and opening Cannes. Not that it matters to Allen; he's got his distribution deal. But Cannes doesn't get the prestige of the world premiere.
So do festivals compete? You bet. "Some competition between international film festivals, fighting over world premieres is healthy and it keeps all of us sharp," said Rotterdam director Sandra Den Hamer, "but it should never be more important than the career or sometimes even the existence of a film or filmmaker in a certain territory, especially in the light of difficult distribution." To which Kosslick replied, "I didn't take your movie away!" Laughter all around, even as Kosslick added, "Piers took one away from me and I was really shocked."
Beyond Those Ten Days
There are 663 film festivals in the world -- on average, then, two open every day of the year -- so such shocks are hardly surprising. But if there's competition among the festivals, it pales next to the competition among the films. Movies these days "are cannibalizing each other," as Sundance director Geoff Gilmore put it. "And in fact, even the problem right now with American independent cinema or international film in the United States, for instance, is that you have as many as 20 films released on a single weekend. And we're really talking about an extremely difficult and competitive marketplace right now. Not one were we can say, 'Let's throw another 200 films into that pattern.'"
But festivals are also beginning to realize they can serve both film culture and commerce in this area as well. According to Den Hamer, for example, Rotterdam "has, we feel, the duty, but it also has the network, the publicity machine, to present the films to the broadest possible audience, not only during the festival, in the festival city, but also, if possible, in other cities throughout the year." So, Rotterdam has set up "our own label," Tiger Releases, which puts three to five films a year in art houses and releases more on video. The festival takes films out on its "World Cinema Tour" of 27 cities in the Netherlands and has put together a film course now taught in 15 Dutch universities. Perhaps most impressively, working with the Hubert Bals Fund, Rotterdam has provided financial support for development and post-production of over 300 films from Latin America, Asia, Africa and eastern Europe.
The Toronto festival has also been touring its films, sparked by distributors who, according to Handling, have said, "We are giving you these films for free, we're giving you 2,000, 3,000 free seats; what are you going to do with the films after the festivals?" The Toronto circuit has grown to 90 towns across Canada, most of them non-urban centers. And, Handling noted, "it's very, very interesting, because it's all volunteer driven... there is a real appetite and passion and interest... It's a small market, but this is a very interesting niche... of people who want to see films that are not mainstream, that are not studio films. They want to see something that's different." That circuit generated a million dollars in box office returns in 2001.
Then there's the Sundance Channel which reaches ten million homes in the US. "Most cable channels and pay networks are going to wait until a film has had a theatrical release before they'd be willing actually to put it on television," said Gilmore. "What we're trying to find are alternative ways of trying to put films into peoples homes that have not had any theatrical release at all."
Interestingly, the Internet, even "the digital revolution," came up now and then, but the festival directors didn't really have much to say about it other than that they have their eye on it. Oh, and that they try to keep their Web sites up-to-date. As a distribution channel, though, they probably said so little because no one, not even the Hollywood studios, really knows when, if or in what way that'll develop.
Stop the Presses! Please!
But the Net figures in the directors' minds in another way entirely: it's given rise to a whole new generation of critics. To back up, the directors' frustrations with the mainstream press are at an all-time high. Irene Bignardi, director of the festival in Locarno, was once a critic herself, writing for 25 years at La Repubblica. "One of the most powerful factors in the choices that we make every day as a film festival director is what is called in Italy 'La rassegna stampa'," she said, "which means the daily coverage of the newspapers and magazines. The printed proof that a festival exists and is followed, the printed centimeters that communicate to the world outside, by which I mean the world outside our crazy festival world."
And what the papers want, of course, is to sell papers. That means they want festivals to attract stars so they can interview them, all those other artsy films showing alongside the blockbuster opening the following month anyway be damned. Derek Malcolm added that editors "don't want experts, they don't want someone who has any knowledge of the cinema, they don't want you to go to some dreary old competition film from Taiwan. They want you to go and interview Brad Pitt because he's come there for a day, and you'll probably interview him for 20 minutes with 14 other people."
How can festivals avoid falling into the trap of becoming just another stop along way for the Hollywood press junket? "Cultivate Internet critics," insisted Handling. "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."
So What Are Festivals Good For?
But isn't the movie-going public fixated on Julia Roberts? Not as much as you'd think, most of the directors argued. Geoff Gilmore perhaps put it best: "I'm often times surprised at the amount of film knowledge and film culture that is common to the society in the last 20 years in the United States, even though we tend to kind of think about, oh, how bad Hollywood is, and how much it represses understanding of what film knowledge is."
If such appreciation really has been upped a notch, festivals can take at least some of the credit. Think of the Cannes palm fronds decorating ads for movies in the papers and on posters these days, even if they don't always announce awards from Cannes. They "give you a sense of the legitimization function festivals have" in the public mind that "we simply wouldn't have seen in the beginning of the decade." Think of how many indies show up in the list of Academy Awards nominations, thanks in no small part to Sundance. "The independent world," Gilmore added, "has effected the industry and not so much the other way around. And that's a good thing."
On the occasion of SFIFF 2002, then, we can leave the last word, shot through with pathos as it may be, to Derek Malcolm: "Having been a film critic for about 35 years, I don't think I've ever had better moments in the cinema than I've had at one or other of your festivals. So, I owe you an enormous lot. We all owe you an enormous lot. Without you, God help world cinema, is all I can say."