A recent article in IndieWire reports that Magnolia Films, which had recently acquired the film Jesus Camp, got in a bit of a spat with Michael Moore's Traverse City Film Festival for playing the film. As the editor of IndieWire points out, it's a bit hard to tell who is telling the truth, but the basic story is probably that:
1. Jesus Camp was submitted in some fashion to the festival. It may have been solicited, someone involved in some way with the film may have begged to be shown, or someone may have just thought that it wouldn't hurt to show the film at another festival for publicity. It was accepted and programmed and possibly began to sell-out all seats;
2. Jesus Camp was acquired by Magnolia for distribution, and at some point they asked Traverse City to not show they film. They claim this was because they didn't want a fair and balanced film to be pegged as a liberal piece of junk by being endorsed by Michael Moore. This wasn't their wording, but you get the drift.
3. The festival said tough luck and showed the film anyway.
Most of the story is pretty obvious here - could be a publicity stunt on the part of Magnolia; could be bad business on the part of the festival; was definitely a delight to residents who saw the film.
In the article, the writers ask many a festival programmer what they thought, and this is what's interesting - none of them could possibly speak the truth. Matt Dentler of SXSW was pretty open in saying they walk the line, and at the end of the day, try to keep everyone happy, but must acquiesce to the distributor's demands. Christian Gaines of AFI was quite right to point out that generally speaking, this doesn't happen to major festivals. In a comment, Jeff Abramson of GenArt, points out an example where he couldn't accomodate the distributor, but was able to get them to understand his festival's perspective and work with him.
None, however, could tell the bigger picture and still run their festivals. As a former festival person, I can tell you that this happens more than you would think. Usually, such requests are made solely because a film enters a festival, later gets picked up for distribution and then the distributor thinks that anyone who saw the film at that fest is a lost potential customer, so they'd better pull the film from the festival. Unless that fest screening is at a major festival, or can get them press in a major city. The filmmakers are usually left out of this decision, and often can't even sway the distributor - as its no longer their film.
This is maddening to the filmmakers, the festival and the audience (aren't these the three folks who should matter at all??) but two of the three have sucked up to the teet of the distributor so much that they can't break free. Say no, I'm enforcing my contract with the filmmaker (usually part of the application) and potentially forever lose the right to show that distributor's films. Try as a filmmaker to broker peace, and be thought of as the problematic filmmaker getting in the way of the distributor's brilliant plan... The audience, of course, doesn't know any of this, but gets mad at the festival because they bought tickets and can't see the film they want to see.
I'm sure this particular case has its nuances, but it strikes me as another example of what's best for the distributor not always being what's best for the filmmaker, the film, the support system (festivals) or the audience. And something is wrong with that.