A Year of Festivals

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By David Hudson

From Sundance to Sitges.

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.

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