Friday, January 28, 2011

Film Fests still matter

Hot Docs Film Festivalphoto © 2010 | more info (via: Wylio)
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.


Anonymous said...

I'm glad to have found this blog article. I've been scouring the internet for anything that addresses film festivals from the filmmaker's (FM's) perspective. There's nothing out there!! Unfortunately, you only acknowledge that many FM's are angry and frustrated with fests, but don't address how and why fests are failing to help FM's attain their goals or, more importantly, justify the expenditures required to participate in fests. Can we say "some hope of a return on investment." The fun YOU personally have at fests isn't any kind of justification for filmmakers to participate as fest are currently structured. Filmmakers are struggling to finance their films and then they're expected to fork out $$ just to submit with no hope of getting useful feedback. If they get accepted, they're looking at an additional financial burden of $2K to $5K in travel, lodging, food & ground transport to attend a festival. Just how many fests can the very busy people that FM's desire to meet/network with realistically attend? My guess is very few. So, this festival thing is beginning to look like the film equivalent of the "vanity press" for aspiring writers. This is just the tip of the iceberg for this subject. I'm waiting for some courageous writer to write something for filmmakers (NOT free PR for film festivals) about the 7,000 festivals in the US alone, that filmmakers must sort through and make strategic decisions about with such trite recommendations as "they treat you real nice (except for refunding your submission fee) and/or it's a great party." Two crappy ways to waste precious funds for your next film.

Brian Newman said...

Bari - I didn't go into this perspective because from my position, I hear this a lot. You aren't alone in your frustrations. Keep digging, you'll find a lot of other filmmakers saying the same things. This conversation was part of the Filmmaker Summit at Slamdance in 2010. There's also a film fest, started by a filmmaker disgusted with all of this - the New Mexico International Film Fest. Check out their manifesto.
Here's another:
There was even a Twitter conference, online only, talking about this.
I personally don't (completely) agree. They can be helpful in reaching an audience. But, you have to have a strategy, meaning only applying to a few, and those that fit your strategy and your film. You should also only be attending those that help with your travel bill - which most good ones will do. There are many bad ones out there. My advice is to read "Film Festival Secrets" by Chris Holland and "Ultimate film fest guide" by Chris Gore to help narrow the field and make them more useful. But, your point is taken.

David Montgomery said...

For a while I came to the opinion that festivals only matter if you screen at hundreds of them. These days there are so many that you can narrow your focus (mine is animation of a more experimental/abstract nature and video art) and still have hundreds to choose from. At the moment this option isn't available to me as participating in fests on that scale has some definite costs.

I'd fallen into that "fests don't really serve me mentality." Nonetheless, there are a few gems out there that I couldn't resist and have given me a much better outlook. I like the festivals that are themselves more focused content-wise. Strange Beauty was one that I new needed my work as soon as I saw it. Indie Grits emphasized "gritty" and being able to attend in 2010 I saw something so integrated into the community that it was inspiring. I guess my point is that I enjoy the niche festivals and feel well served by them.

Brian Newman said...

David - Thanks for the comment. I think you are correct - the more curated and more niche they are, the better (for most films). I think that you have to really look closely and listen to other filmmakers to find the best ones. It also depends on what you are looking for - fests like Flyway only have small audiences, but they are enthusiastic, take care of you and you make great friendships with other filmmakers. Southern Circuit gets you really smart audiences in 9 (or more) Southern cities that never get these kinds of films. Etc etc.