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Apologies in advance to every film festival programmer, staff person and volunteer for my stating the obvious in this title and throughout this post, but trust me, I speak daily to filmmakers and film world people who argue that film festivals no longer matter. Sure, they might give you that a premiere at one (especially one of the top tier fests) can be helpful, but then they slide into the venom about how the rest don't matter, should be paying filmmakers (or paying them more if they already do) and yadda yadda. I don't just hear this from rejected and angry filmmakers, but even from some very established folks.
I'm not going to address the myriad complaints about film festivals here. That would take a book, or a series of podcasts. Instead, I'm just going to say why they matter to me, and I think to many other people - I just can't get that sense of discovery and excitement anywhere else. In fact, I am getting to the point where I don't even care about seeing a film on the big screen if it's not during a film festival. Yes, there, I've said it. Even though I live in one of the few cities with multiple options for watching indie films on the big screen, I often can't be bothered.
Why? Not because I don't like seeing films on the big screen, but because like everyone else, I have a lot of other viewing options that are, quite frankly, much better enjoyed at home. I have more choices than ever before, and better viewing equipment. Getting out to the theater takes too much time, and is often a disastrous, unenjoyable experience (whether at the art house or the multiplex): If I am paying you $13 for a ticket, you should be able to have more than one underpaid, clueless high school kid staffing your concession stand (where I'll spend another $13 for a coke) at prime screening time; likewise, I shouldn't have to put up with crappy seats or a subway running practically through the screen to watch that foreign arthouse picture.
When I am at a film festival, however, I have left my usual life behind and am dedicated to doing nothing but watching cinema. (Well, usually. This recent Sundance was nothing but meetings, but that's another story). I've usually got an All-Access pass, for which I've paid or (for many in the business) my company has paid, meaning I don't think about the cost, or didn't really pay at all. (Side note - it's interesting that most people in the industry who decry piracy have never personally paid to see a movie!) Unless I've been relegated to the ungodly P&I line at Sundance, I am generally able to get in to whatever I want, and not feel bad about leaving to go to something better.
I will drop whatever I am doing, or change what I was going to see, at the last minute for a film that has been recommended by someone I trust, or who looked trustworthy in the line for the popcorn. I also get a (often false) sense of being the first one to find a gem. Humans are selfish beings, we like feeling we have privileged knowledge and then gossiping about it. That sense of discovery, of being in on something that few others know about, is like a drug. I never get that feeling when I watch something later at the arthouse - it is old news, especially now when tweets arrive with reviews before the end of the film. While I love me some Twitter, it still doesn't replicate the chatter between screenings and at parties found when attending a film fest (it is coming close though).
Film festivals let the non-industry, average-Jane audience get this same feeling. In fact, I still believe this is why many in the NYC film industry hate(d) the Tribeca Film Festival - they could no longer hold their noses up when speaking with people about a film at some NY cocktail party and say "oh I saw that first at Cannes." It was a leveler, much more so than the NYFF (full disclosure - I've worked at the Institute affiliated with the Tribeca Fest, so I am biased). I'll never forget during that first year's festival, seeing my non-film-industry friends proudly wearing fest badges - that were just maps of the venues, not actual credentials - around town. They were a part of the fest community and wanted to show it off, whereas the industry hid them between entering venues!
In Park City this past week, I was constantly in meetings. I found myself with twenty minutes to spare at the top of Main Street, so I walked by Slamdance to say hello to the founders. Within seconds, each of them had told me I must see Gandu, that it was already twenty minutes into the film, but I should stand in the back and watch what I could. I walked in and watched maybe 10 minutes of the film and was blown away. I had "discovered" a voice, curated by the Slamdance programmers from the 3000 submissions, and I got that excited festival feeling again (...then I left for a meeting, yeah!). That only happens at a film festival. I've now tweeted and blogged about it several times, and I only saw ten minutes. I am quite sure a few of my followers will now watch this film they'd otherwise never hear about. My parents recently retired to Durham, NC and have started attending the Full Frame film festival and are positively giddy telling me about the films they've discovered and the filmmakers they've met. Guess what? They too will end up pushing a few of their friends to see these films later. This gets replicated at little fests like Flyway all around the world.
Now, many will argue that you can duplicate this effect with event-based releasing, and indeed you can capture some of it - the one night only, special event that you must attend to experience. I am a big fan of this, and I'm also a fan of the idea of releasing your film to theaters and/or VOD as quickly as possible after a festival premiere, but....
One of the great things we've (mostly) lost in indie cinema is the old ability to gradually release a film and build up word of mouth. The festival circuit has allowed for that audience building, but in our rush to maximize revenues and get it to everyone quickly, many people are switching tactics and skipping most of the festival circuit entirely. Trust me, I am not being old fashioned or sentimentalist when I say this will usually be a mistake. We need a lot more experiments with giving audiences access, but that shouldn't be to the detriment of one part of the model that works.
Do I think filmmakers should submit wildly to film festivals and play ever single one before releasing their film online and on VOD? No. Like everything in film, success will come from being more strategic. But this post isn't about windows and new models. It's about recognizing a couple of things. In an (internet) age of ubiquity, where what is most valuable is my time and attention, what is needed most are exactly what film festivals offer: curators, discovery tools, a communal, participatory experience and a sense of excitement. Good film festivals offer all of these. They always have. Sure, they need to get with the program and do more of this year round and a few other things, but if you ignore this, as a filmmaker, you do so to the detriment of your film and the audience's experience of it.
In thinking about the new paradigm for film, and in building it over the next few years, we should be thinking a lot more about how film festivals (especially the regional, non-industry ones) fit into the picture, because they're really good at providing what people want - now more than ever.