Monday, January 11, 2010

What's the future for Film Festivals?

I recently attended the IFFS Summit in Las Vegas, where I spoke about new online strategies for film festivals. The IFFS is kinda like a trade org (but less official) for film fests around the world, and the Summit I attended was exclusively US fests (they have another summit in Europe). I’ve also recently joined the advisory board, as the founder asked me to join and help contribute thoughts on the changes needed in the festival world. I met some great people at the conference, and I was impressed with much of what I heard - festival directors were thinking a lot about the future of the business and how they fit. This wasn’t surprising - most festival people want their fests to be vibrant participants in the future of the field, much as they’ve been key parts of the past.

I was surprised, however, that a (to-remain-unnamed) sizable contingent seemed put-off with the idea that they should be thinking about dramatic change for the future. While I can’t stress enough that this doesn’t apply to all or even a majority of the fests in attendance, in my conversations I got a sense that many people felt that film festivals will remain largely unchanged in the foreseeable future. Sure, they could see that they’d have new tools to help people discover films and buy tickets, and they knew all the requisite knowledge about how to use Facebook and whatever comes next in their marketing strategies. They also know about projection changes to come and technical possibilities. There was even an awareness that filmmakers are starting to look at things like coinciding release strategies with their festival premiere.  But this was also where the thinking seemed to stop (again, not for all). When one of my friend’s pointed out on a panel about the future (with some smart thinkers) that this trend could have serious repercussions for the festival model, and asked how they think fests might strategize, he pretty much received blank stares from the panelists as if they hadn’t heard his question.

This is just one of the new trends in the field that needs serious attention from film festivals. Perhaps it will lead to re-thinking of premiere policies, or perhaps these films will skip fests altogether. I’ve got thoughts, but that’s not my purpose here (more soon). My bigger concern is not that fests aren’t thinking about the future, but rather two related concerns: First, that fests aren’t thinking “big enough” about the future; and Second, that filmmakers, audience members and other stakeholders need to be part of the conversation.

When I say they aren’t thinking “big enough,” this is what I mean - I pointed out on my panel that in my opinion, if Sundance had really forseen the future, they would have been the ones to invent YouTube. This sounds absurd, and I am being somewhat outrageous on purpose (and I’m not singling them out versus anyone else really), but my point is that years before YouTube, you could look at where things were going with the democratization of media and put two and two together and create something like YouTube. If a fest invented it, it would look much different, but I really believe that it would be logical for fests to have invented something similar. So, my hope is that as Festivals look at the next 5 years, they’ll think big and come up with the next game changer, instead of just some fancy new submission system.

When I say that filmmakers, audiences and other stakeholders need to be involved, I seem to be stating the obvious, but in my experience this isn’t usually the case. While I know there are exceptions, I think very few festivals do any true research into what such people really want from film festivals. Most wing-it, going from the gut, and who can blame them - it’s expensive to do good studies and most fest staff are also audience members at other festivals (and sometimes filmmakers, too), and you get a sense that you kinda know what people want. Or, some people go so far as to say, “well, of you ask filmmakers what they want, you get the same answers, so why bother?” But in my view, the festival lies in a unique place, a nexus of four strands - filmmaker, audience, distributors (sometimes) and other stakeholders, that few occupy. (By other stakeholders, I don’t just mean sponsors, but also foundation funders, people who want to reach certain communities through film, civic leaders - the whole gamut of people benefitting from or participating in a festival.) Film festivals can really come up with some game changers at this nexus. I’m hoping that in 2010 and beyond, more festivals will start to have real, deep conversations with all these people about what works, what doesn’t and what can change to make things even better.

Let me be clear - I’m not being negative with any of this. I’ve worked at a small festival and I’ve been loosely associated with a larger one and consulted to many. I have deep respect for the work that all of them do, and I think they are doing a great job. I’m coming at this not from the angle of thinking something is broken or wrong, but that we need to put a lot of thought into what would be perfect. In other words, let’s remember what we know so far, the good and the bad, but step back and ask, if we were to build the perfect new festival, what would we build? How can festivals help filmmakers reach audiences even better than they do today? How can filmmakers participate more fully with film festivals? How could we all better serve the audience, and are there ways to build more participatory experiences with them? How can we server sponsors better, while maintaining integrity? How can fests connect filmmakers and audiences throughout th year? How can their curatorial authority be leveraged online? Are there new economic models? Can we launch something new and truly game changing? These are just a few of the questions we need to be asking.

Luckily, there’s a great opportunity to ask these questions, suggest your own answers and be part of the dialogue, and thus the real reason for this post. The Slamdance Film Festival has partnered with the Workbook Project (namely Lance Weiler) and the Open Video Alliance to put together a Filmmaker’s Summit on Saturday, January 23rd in Park City (sponsored by IndieFlix). The idea of the Summit is (in the organizer’s words) to focus  “on what the filmmaking community would like to see the industry become – a chance to focus on the future and not worry about the trappings of the past.” As part of this Summit, I’ll be speaking with Peter Baxter, one of the founders of Slamdance about the future of film festivals, and their shifting roles in the distribution and exhibition landscape. Peter has graciously accepted the role of not just speaking about how he sees the future, but also being on the hot-seat to take questions about what has failed, and to dream up new ideas with the audience. Kudos to him.

The organizers have put together a great site where anyone can contribute questions for the summit and also suggest answers. There’s already a couple of questions dedicated to the future of film festivals now, and if you visit, you can pose your own questions, suggest possible answers and become part of the dialogue. I’m planning to read everything submitted before the Summit and incorporate your thoughts into our dialogue. I’m very sure that Peter and I don’t have all the questions, let alone all the answers, so your help is needed. Please read and contribute not just to the festival sections, but also to the entire project. There's some great speakers (Soderbergh, yo) and some great intentions amongst the organizers. You can also watch a live stream of the Summit if you won’t be in Park City, and our hope is that the dialogue will continue far beyond Park City and the 23rd.

So, join the conversation both in the comments here and at the Summit site, and I hope this is just the start of a great dialogue.

Note: As I was pushing publish on this, literally at the same time, a tweet came through from Indiewire with thoughts on some of these questions from Eugene Hernandez. Check out that post as well, and the panel Sundance is having on the subject.

No comments: