Focus on Festivals

Festival Download

What is the role of festivals in the new Cyber Age? Simonpillai investigates.

Toronto International Film Festival Audience, courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival

MANY OF US IN TORONTO are just recovering from the annual fatigue suffered from seeing too many films and attending too many parties at TIFF (The Toronto International Film Festival). Colleagues and fellow cinephiles across Canada, from Halifax to Vancouver, are experiencing the same malaise this fall, with comments that too many films screened were “soft” or mediocre. The generally dismal mood at this year’s festivals has left many pondering about what might become of TIFF, VIFF (Vancouver International Film Festival) and the rest in the years or decades to come, particularly with the growing presence of the Internet in the movie business. Or is that vice- versa, given the spread of new technologies?

Movie downloading has become a thorn in the side of the Hollywood studios even though more and more companies are now counting online distribution as the latest of ancillary markets. Home entertainment systems are getting larger and online sales more prominent while theatrical attendance slowly but surely diminishes. Yet with all the talk about cinemas becoming fossils, film festivals are usually left out of the discussion. That is, until now.

Already we’re seeing an increased online presence among the festivals. This year, TIFF partnered with Cinando, a networking database that offers contacts, profiles, films on sale, projects in development, and even screening schedules online. Accredited TIFF delegates were automatically included in the Cinando community for what Sales and Industry Director Stefan Wirthensohn described in Variety as “efficient and productive planning for buyers and sales agents.”

Another online company making inroads in the festival circuit is Los Angeles based Without a Box, which was recently acquired by IMDB, a subsidiary of Amazon.com. Without A Box provides a networking community for 150,000 filmmakers to submit their materials to 3000 festivals in 200 countries.

While such online partnerships are simply a matter of easing regular festival business, the presence of online distributors at festivals brings to light another matter.

There’s a whole lot of talk about the crashing independent market as distributors of specialty films like Warner Independent and Paramount Vantage close their doors and Variety reports that “the worst thing that ever happened to indie film was that the studios thought it was a good business.” Filmmakers who count on film festivals to scour out a distribution deal are quickly finding theatrical distributors who are more risk- averse, especially considering the waning box-office in the specialty market.

Robin Smith of KinoSmith, distributors of Up the Yangtze

“There were some conversations about that,” said Gaurav Dhillon about his experience at this year’s TIFF. Dhillon is the founder and CEO of Los Angeles based Jaman (www.jaman.com), a fast- growing online community that provides digital distribution of thousands of films ranging in genres from comedies to documentaries. “There’s a lot of ‘the sky is falling’ in the indie market. I think the reality is that some of the more interesting fare is very difficult to fit through the hit model of theatrical. You’re putting a round object in a square opening. You’ve got the wrong shape.”

Filmmakers who can’t land a traditional deal are quickly learning that online distribution is becoming a viable outlet. The presence of such distributors on the festival scene is a leading indication of this. Amazon and Netflix proved to be major buyers at the Sundance Film Festival, while Without A Box has been wheeling and dealing with Cinequest, a San Jose Film Fest with a side business distributing films online.

At this year’s TIFF, IFC acquired the rights for Steven Soderbergh’s much- anticipated and much-debated Che, with plans to give the two-part film a one-week theatrical Oscar-qualifying run in New York and Los Angeles before putting it out on a day-and-date release in theatres and online.

“The traditional method is becoming a bit of a dinosaur,” notes Robin Smith of KinoSmith. Smith has become a prominent player on the Canadian doc distribution scene of late, particularly with the success of Up the Yangtze, a film that TIFF passed on, only to make a big splash at VIFF. Smith and Yangtze producers EyeSteelFilm combined efforts to make the film the third highest grossing Canadian documentary of all time. But even Smith can acknowledge the benefits of foregoing theatrical distribution. “The cost of putting a film out theatrically is just becoming so prohibitive—not only for distributors but for filmmakers—that almost on a survival instinct we have to look at different methods to do it, specifically when you’re dealing with smaller niche product, or more specifically, Canadian product. Because we know how Canadian films have been doing at the box office over the last ten–fifteen years.”

Smith, who is currently browsing options and opportunities in the new media game, points out that Canadians are still lagging behind the Americans in jumping on the online distribution bandwagon because we’ve got a lot to figure out in terms of domestic and international rights and finding the right business model. However, we do have a number of small projects getting underway. There’s FilmCAN (www. filmcan.org), the online magazine and forum for Canadian Cinema, which is offering about fifteen titles for download. Co-founder and publisher Ryan Noth explains that FilmCAN has adopted the model of the Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre (CFMDC) by splitting proceeds 70-30 in favour of the artist. Noth is quick to point out that, like a film festival, FilmCAN programs its films based on admiration and lack of accessibility. “We wanted to specifically target works we liked and were under-represented and could use some exposure. A good example of that is Blaine Thurier’s film, Low Self-Esteem Girl, which is our biggest seller to date and which is impossible to find on DVD or anywhere. I don’t think you can find it anywhere short of contacting Blaine himself.”

Both Noth and Smith also point to how easy it is or will be to self-distribute titles digitally. In fact, DOC (Documentary Organization of Canada) itself hopes to provide that very forum for its members with DOCspace. “Clearly distribution is very difficult for documentary producers,” says DOC’s executive director Lisa Fitzgibbons. “Getting films to an audience is constantly a challenge. Canadian documentary filmmakers and producers don’t have a wide range of distributors to go to. With the technology changing the way it is, it’s opening up opportunities to distribute directly to an audience.”

Gaurav Dhillon is also a firm believer in self-distribution. Typically dealing with the larger libraries from Paramount, Lionsgate, Magnolia and Eros International, Jaman also provides a platform for independent filmmakers to upload their content. “We love independent filmmaking,” Dhillon explains from his Los Angeles office, “and as a result we have a channel called the Filmmaker Channel. … That is an area where independent filmmakers have placed their films. And if it catches with the community or with the people at Jaman, then we’ll promote it into Jaman independent. So at that point they would then be able to participate at the same level of revenue generation that we provide to the majors as well.”

Dhillon also points out that Jaman does not demand exclusivity on any of its titles. “Our customers and users tend to be more overseas than here in the U.S,” he clarifies. “They tend to be in Canada, the U.K., India and Latin America. So as a result, nobody should exclusively put (their film) on just one place. They should put [them] in a number of places and realize that instead of selling your film, you’re basically renting out your film.”

At this point, Jaman is Beta testing a new set-up with TiVo, so that subscribers can access Jaman’s content from their home theatres. But with independent filmmakers making their films immediately accessible on such platforms, where does it all lead for film festivals? Jaman provides a vital case study on this matter. Dhillon describes the millions of worldwide viewers who access thousands of festival type fare from all over the world and participate in the various forums that Jaman provides. Indeed, Jaman seems to be as much about social networking as it is about the films, maintaining aspects of messaging and friending and linking to Facebook.

If Jaman doesn’t already sound like a virtual film festival—with the international selection and social networking—then get ready for the doozy. Jaman has made deals with the Tribeca and San Francisco Film Festivals—among others—to premiere selected films online simultaneously with their festival play dates. So anyone who could not attend the festivals could download the content directly to their MacBook or TiVo instead.

Ryan Noth (left) and his co-editor Geoff Morrison, both from FilmCAN.


Inside Iraq: The Untold Stories, dir. Mike Shiley (2004)


Scatch, dir. Anders Gustafsson (2003)


Gaurav Dhillon, founder and CEO of Jaman that provides digital distribution of thousands of films.

“Why not allow [the viewers] the joy of Tribeca?,” asks Dhillon. “Why not make Tribeca more of a global brand so anybody in the world can see it? Why not make it available to somebody in Shanghai or Mumbai or Dubai? The way you can make that happen is by putting it online.”

Jaman is fast becoming a “virtual” festival in a sense, literally displacing the need to attend Tribeca by offering that festival’s selection online. And now TiVo has partnered with Jaman so that the former’s subscribers can directly download the latter’s content through their DVRs.

If Jaman’s model forecasts the future of online distribution and film festivals, what then? Will the film festival as we know it become obsolete? Will TIFF ever go online? Both Smith and Noth agree that the Festival has reached the height of its popularity, with Noth adding that “it can really only go down from here.”

“I don’t really see them lasting all that much longer in their current incarnation,” Noth elaborates. “Especially with the price of tickets for something like TIFF. A lot of people won’t pay $25 or $40 at the Elgin, God forbid, for a ticket, when they could go online at their convenience and watch it whenever they want to. Sure, maybe it’s not a big screen, but then again, people are getting projectors and screens at home now. I don’t think the theatre-going experience will ever change, but I think from here on in festivals are in trouble, just from a purely audience-numbers point-of- view. … (And) I don’t see why some filmmakers wouldn’t choose to premiere online.”

TIFF’s Sales and Industry director Stefan Wirthensohn is not so surprised by such an idea. “We are already putting some of our short films online. … As far as I’m concerned (online film festivals) are already happening. In a lot of ways they make sense, particularly for short films, as an option. As for features, I’m not saying it’s not possible or it’s not a way to go at some point. The thing is … most of the features that we show at the festival are being produced or being made for theatrical releases, so I could not see them having their world premiere online.”

But that’s just it. With indie film’s beginning to go straight through to the ancillary markets, we seem to be entering a new age of direct-to-download, regardless of how hesitant some established festivals may be to enter it. “I think we’re in the birthing pains of a new era really,” says Dhillon. “We’re saying ‘oh my God, this is painful.’ The reality is, it’s a new life form taking shape here and it hurts.”

But it may not be all good for the filmmaker. Easy distribution means online saturation, resulting in an overload of availability that not only makes it difficult to decide what to download, but will likely just numb interest.

“I think there are more movies trying to get out into the marketplace than ever before,” says Smith. “There is definitely going to be a honeymoon stage with online and I think we’re seeing it right now starting with things like iTunes where people are downloading essentially everything and anything just for the sake of downloading. It’s a new technology. It’s fun. It’s not hugely cost prohibitive for the consumer. But at some point in the near future, as iTunes expands its catalogue and other sites open up, there is going to be far too much product out in the marketplace for people to figure out.”

As Christian Keathley notes in his book Cinephelia and History, much of the compulsion to attend theatres pre-home-video was the idea that a limited screening might have been the only opportunity to catch an unusual independent or foreign film. Going to the movies was likened to an event for the cinephile. Home video altered the mentality of going to the movies because since a vast selection of films was available on shelves indefinitely, there was no event, no rush and no immediate compulsion to catch any of them. They would always be there; dormant but there.

Of course, studios were able to re-create an eventful atmosphere by building heightened anticipation around a limited number of blockbuster films. But how many indie projects nowadays ever reap revenue from theatrical runs? For most projects, a theatrical run has been lessened to a marketing strategy, a necessity before the real revenues arrive through DVD and broadcast sales.

However, festivals for the most part have remained immune to the threat of home video. “Where does the audience that comes out for the Toronto Film Festival go throughout the year?” asks Smith. “I mean they essentially sell out every screening for bad and good movies.”

Indeed, festivals are events that appeal to the cinephile’s compulsions from yesteryear, offering a) a star-studded red carpet and b) a limited window to catch what might be an indie or doc gem before it’s lost indefinitely. While a star- studded event is virtually irreplaceable, making niche films accessible could fall prey to the Tribeca-Jaman model. Although the online festival ventures thus far have offered films online for a limited time frame, there is a sense of rarity that is lost, especially when considering how easily online (self)distribution can guarantee any film can be made available anywhere around the world at some point in time. Online sites like Jaman may make festival going and film distribution all the more easier. But they may also make catching your little indie or doc gem that much easier to postpone … indefinitely.

Brad Pitt meeting the press on the red carpet at TIFF 2008.

So is web distribution the beginning of the end of the film festival? Not so, says Dhillon. “It’s a complimentary thing. … Fast food doesn’t kill restaurants. There is no substitute.” Dhillon basks in what Noth calls the “communal” experience of watching a film in a theatre, particularly at a festival where the director can stand up for an ovation and field questions from the audience. “There’s something about funny; it is funnier with other people,” says Dhillon. “Sad is sadder. … There’s a shared humanity that will never go away. And we hope it never does. We’re rooting for it.”

Regardless of how soft this year’s fests were, Smith concurs: “As a branding mechanism and an event, the film festival will be viable for quite a while.” POV

Radheyan Simonpillai is the Photo Researcher for POV and Montage magazines. A freelance film journalist with an M.A. in Cinema Studies from the University of Toronto, Radheyan’s articles can be read regularly in Now Magazine.

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