Fest o’ fools

27 mins read

I LOVE FILM FESTIVALS! I went to my first one in the early 1970s, entering what I thought was a documentary into a Student Fest. Oddly, it won the prize as an experimental film. Since then, I’ve tried to figure out what makes festivals tick, tick, tick. Over the years, I’ve been to hundreds of festivals, as a filmmaker, juror, critic, or programmer. The films I’ve made with my friends have won at least 100 prizes.I’ve advised festivals from Australia to Prague, Thessaloniki to Montreal. I’ve worked at festivals, including the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam (IDFA). In the proto-days of the internet, between 1994 and 1996, I co-created the innovative online Virtual Film Festival (VFF), which emulated the real thing. It had a screening room with mpeg video clips, online chat, a colourful magazine and even a place for gossip in the omni-sexual washroom. Just like a real-life festival. Our team led the earliest forays into webcasting at the Berlin, Sundance, Toronto and Oberhausen festivals. Although we closed up shop just as the venture capitalists started to take interest, the VFF was a webplex that remains unequalled today, a dozen years later.

My love of festivals is unequalled, and hardly unrequited. So is my enthusiasm for docs and fests, so please excuse my hyperbolic taste for numbers. If I say 10,000 and the true figure is closer to 1,000, it’s only because I believe in virtual reality.

There are, by my count, 3,600 festivals accessible on meta-portals like filmfestivals.com. Fests specializing in human rights, music, psychiatry, mountains, bicycles and several hundred wonderful documentary festivals.

They’re blooming in all corners of the world. Encounters in South Africa. It’s all True in Brazil, Yamagata in Japan, Cinema Verite in Tehran. From Beirut to Taiwan via Adelaide. The most important international fiction festivals now all have significant documentary sections. Increasingly, there are a number of web-based fests, including a festival dedicated to cell phone cinema.

By my estimate, there are about 10,000 significant social, political and cultural documentaries made each year. So one might think that there is a film for every festival and a festival for every film. But no, there are way too many films for the finite number of slots available at this infinite number of festivals.

To make sense of this all, POV decided to bring together some of the best minds in the fest world around a cyber-table. I electronically posed questions, seeking answers, aphorisms and utilitarian advice on the big picture to illuminate the pros, cons and joys of festivals and markets.

So how are we all to negotiate this giant maze of festibilities? What is a doc-girl or media-boy to do? Where do we start?

“When you start planning your production, keep in mind which festival you would prefer to launch your film at,” says Joan Morselt, who has worked at IDFA and the Australian International Documentary Conference (AIDC). “To start your festival strategy a few weeks before you have finished your film is too late. Be honest with yourself. Not every documentary deserves an international audience or belongs in theatres.”

“Most buyers plan their festivals way in advance,” adds Hussain Amarshi, head of Mongrel Media. “So you need to start building the buzz for a film in earlier markets via trailers, posters, sales sheets, etc., to get on people’s radar. For example, if you are planning to launch a film in the Toronto International Film Festival, then you should be doing all the prep work in Cannes to create excitement and anticipation for the film’s launch in Toronto.”

“The goal of any filmmaker at a festival should be to garner as much attention for his or her film while spending as little money as possible,” says Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me). “But I truly believe you have to spend some money to be visible. Whether that’s through a basic grass-roots poster and flyer campaign or a more extensive marketing plan, you should use every resource possible (friends, family, actors, friends who make posters, neighbours who print t-shirts … anything) to keep your costs low and the exposure high.”

“Are the professionals you are interested in attending?” asks Claas Danielsen, Festival Director at DOK Leipzig, the International Leipzig Festival for Documentary and Animated Film. “Do they take the time to watch films at the festival? Many commissioning editors travel to festivals just to meet colleagues and producers and to attend pitching sessions. When you ask them how many films they watched, you won’t get an answer.”

Greg Sanderson, the Deputy Commissioning Editor at BBC’s Storyville, warns not to “presume the big fests are the only way forward,” a suggestion that US filmmaker Steve James (Hoop Dreams) agrees with based on past experience.

“I have come to think that filmmakers need to pick the festival that is the best match for the film,” says James, “instead of just aiming for the Holy Grail of a premiere at Sundance or Toronto or Hot Docs. For example, we submitted The War Tapes to Sundance in 2004 where we were one of 20 documentaries on the war submitted that year. We did not get selected. So, instead we submitted the film to Tribeca, which gave The War Tapes the kind of profile within the festival that would have been impossible for Sundance to do. It ended up being the best thing that happened to the film. It got great press in New York and won a major award, which led to theatrical distribution… The lesson here is that sometimes it’s best to be a bigger film in the right festival pond than one of many vying for attention at Sundance.”

The doc industry is divided on the benefits and drawbacks of fests. Asking my cohorts what they think of festivals and markets these days, most maintain that the experience has no substitute.

“Interaction is the key,” asserts Mark Atkin, the London based programmer and former international documentary Acquisition Executive for SBS Television in Australia. “It’s what can’t be replaced by the web. You find out what other people are up to, bump into someone at a drunken bash and end up collaborating for years afterwards, talk about the industry over dinners. The best fests offer surprises: a film you didn’t know about, bright ideas, new methods or definitions of what you do. They can be very stimulating and regenerating, setting you on a new path. I don’t just go looking for stuff. I can do that on-line.”

Executive Director at Hot Docs, Chris McDonald, insists that festivals are still important, “because our industry is in a constant state of flux. The smart festivals/markets are those that continue to evolve and respond to this change,” says McDonald. “As this happens, some festivals will drop off the radar as others emerge, and the public and industry delegates will vote with their feet and attend those events that best respond to their individual needs.”

Shaowen Ho is a manager at GZDOC, the Guangzhou International Documentary Film Festival in China, and he feels like an “amazed young boy who steps into a new school” when attending international film festivals. “I think that the big things about festivals are their diversity and democracy, their respect for art and academic value, and their tolerance and support to the young emerging new filmmaker ‘toddlers’ who are stepping into the field.”

Ikka Vehkalakti, Commissioning Editor at YLE TV 2 Documentaries in Finland, concurs with Ho’s assessment of the respect for art that is maintained at festivals. He has spent most of his years at international pitching forums and commissioning events, and finds film festivals maintain a freshness that seems lost everywhere else. “Festivals absolutely are still dealing very much more with the art of documentary and film-making,” says Vehkalakti, “while (pitching) forums are more to do with television and documentary slots. These are falling under more and more pressure by the changing character of television and the demands to get a bigger audience for broadcasts. In other words, in a festival you can still look at films as films; and at forums you look at films as products.”

Some celebrate film festivals for themselves and not for the twiddling opportunities of broadcast or distribution. My filmmaker friend Avi Mograbi from Israel jokes: “I see festivals as a tool to expose my films. What does expose mean? I wish I could expect festival exposure to lead to commercial success. My experience is that festival exposure leads to festival exposure, but it does not lead, in my case, to business- doing.”

For Steve James, festival exposure is a good thing, even if it is the only thing. “I’ve come to think of festivals as a substitute for the theatrical release for documentaries,” says James, “especially as more and more distributors are pulling back from doing genuine theatrical releases of documentaries because of poor box office performance. Festivals may be a poor substitute for theatrical, but at least the filmmaker has the opportunity to see their film play in theaters before live audiences and extend the life of the film out there in the world before it goes to television or DVD where too many essentially disappear.”

John Anderson, film critic for Variety and The Washington Post (among others) shares James’ enthusiasm for festivals. “Speaking strictly as a critic and feature writer, I see festivals as more important than ever,” Anderson insists. “How else would I be exposed to eighty-percent of the films I see (or want to see)? The market being what it is, some films play out their entire life on the festival circuit and as sad as this may be, it’s where film culture largely exists for me at the moment. I realize this isn’t good news for those filmmakers who see festivals as the six-lane highway to El Dorado, but for me it’s essential. It’s also a way to make face-to-face contact with directors, which in my case, at least, has often led to articles, reviews and other forms of ink.”

UK filmmaker and long-time festival maven Luke Holland is probably one of the most adamant supporters of a festival for festival’s sake. “Festival attendance, whether it is IDFA, Sundance, Doc/Fest or Hot Docs, affirms membership of a community,” proclaims Holland. “That is its principal virtue. It is an opportunity to take the documentary pulse, to emerge from the isolation of the sometimes lonely creative and commercial struggle, to find new allies, co-conspirators and very occasionally, money! It is also a chance to see great films on a big screen in the company of others. Of course, screening one’s own work to peers and to a critically engaged festival audience is a further core pleasure—offering more immediate rewards and lessons than are afforded by the strangely anti-climactic outcomes of national TV broadcast.”

Of course, for every benefit there is an equal drawback. Critiques vary. For some producers, festivals are only ego trips for needy directors in search of validation. Indeed Sanderson might point at Holland’s praise when he calls out a festival’s “tendency to become navel-gazing and self-congratulatory”. “What they shouldn’t be,” warns Sanderson, “is a chance for us all to tell each other how wonderful we are, a pointless competition for premieres or an international circus.”

Jean-Jacques Peretti is a festival manager at Sunnyside in La Rochelle, but he speaks for himself when he cracks the whip against the festivals. “Everyone is struggling to survive, find sponsors, therefore everything is the same,” says Peretti. “Everything is so politically correct, it’s very boring. … The producers are afraid to lose their customers, the distributors also. The commissioning editors are afraid to lose their jobs. No one takes risks any longer! The difference between festivals is now like the difference between political parties!”

Others proclaim festivals to be money-losing ventures, which take away real dollars better spent by paying customers in a theatrical launch. “I’ve also had the double-edged sword of too much success at the festival,” recalls James. “Stevie drew great crowds at two regional festivals leading up to its theatrical release in those cities, which caused the theatre booker to assume the audience for the film had been tapped out. They promptly canceled the theatrical run.”

As a result, high powered producers are beginning to charge festivals for the privilege of screening work. Others have no leverage to do so. For broadcasters, a premiere at a festival may diminish press attention for the television launch, thereby decreasing ratings at the expense of the very broadcaster who paid for the film.

“With very rare exceptions, and contrary to the beliefs of a lot of producers and distributors, festivals bring no benefit to broadcasters,” argues Storyville‘s Sanderson. “In fact, festivals normally just seep away any press coverage we might recover, so they can be detrimental. Considering that, it can sometimes be quite frustrating when a producer seems to care more about the audience of 200 people in a cinema than the hundreds of thousands who will see it broadcast—particularly when the viewers have paid for it.”

There are other logistic, timing and structural problems with festivals, along with criss-crossed rules, regulations, and policies. For example, there’s a tremendous amount of inter-fest rivalry competing for world and international premieres (where a film has only played in its own home country). Some festivals demand world premieres and exclusivity. Some festivals blackmail filmmakers into excluding their films from the competition’s competition. In life, as in festivals, formalistic criteria seem to contradict a passion for the films that all stakeholders profess. Rigidity sometimes results in mediocrity.

“It was previously possible for a film to play a series of festivals over a year,” reminds Peter Broderick of Paradigm Consulting in Santa Monica. “This has gotten increasingly difficult as festivals have become more premiere-centric. Too many festivals would prefer to play a mediocre film that has not been seen before rather than an excellent film that has.”

“Does it really matter if a film at IDFA was in Sheffield?” asks Atkin. “If I saw it at Sheffield, I’ll tell people at IDFA to see it. If I missed it at Sheffield I’ll see it at IDFA. The main point is exposure. And from the point of view of a broadcaster I have to say ‘Who do you think you are festival director X, to say when I can program a film that I have put money into?’”

Esther van Messel of First Hand Films in Zurich and Berlin concurs with our criticism against the premiere policy. She points out how it is “utterly misplaced in times where Film Subsidy Boards in each country carry a heavy load of the film’s financing plan and do need for the finished masterwork to be also seen at home.”

“Premiere rules tend to benefit festivals and their directors rather than filmmakers,” argues Heather Croall, head of Sheffield Doc/Fest in the UK. “I have heard it said by those festivals who are strict about premiere rules that their driving reason is to (a) attract the buyers and (b) attract the press. Where does the filmmaker feature in that mix? I would like to see some real auditing on whether (a) and (b) actually stand up. Do the buyers really go because of the premieres? Do they go to the screenings? Or are they there to find new projects?”

Sanderson has some answers to such questions: “I think the problems surrounding festivals as industry events now stem from two misconceptions. One is that the buyers view a lot of films at festivals. Most of them don’t have time (they’re in back-to-back meetings). Another is that audiences really care about premieres. … If festivals are about audiences (and I think they should be, buyers view things on DVD now) then I think obsessive infighting over premieres is unfair to everyone. It makes life very difficult for producers, who are often caught in the middle of the holdback fights. It means audiences don’t get to see the best films, because they’re being held back for a competition in a faraway country. The industry as a whole suffers.”

Our virtual roundtable—getting quite heated over self-indulgent premiere- rules—would rather have festivals focus on ways to sustain the industry. “Clearly it’s time for festivals to become even more proactive in generating funding,” says Sean Farnel, Hot Docs’ Director of Programming. “Not just facilitating the market, but directly supporting the kind of work that has driven the growth of the festival business.”

Amarshi supports Farnel’s suggestion. “If your film’s main audience is the ‘festival audience’ then you want to play your film in as many festivals as possible,” says Amarshi, “and ideally you should get a piece of the box office that the festivals are collecting. In the old days, festivals were cultural events, but that is no longer the case. Most festivals have become corporate players putting on an ‘event’. Seen in this context, one has to negotiate with these ‘events’ for what you want.”

As for suggestions for festivals in the future, the online option keeps coming up with various ways of being put down. “Pitchings and market screenings can be done online to a certain extent,” suggests Danielsen. “This will do good to our planet and reduce global warming. But again, it’s a people’s business and the personal contact is most important. We need to meet from time to time. The best ideas come and many deals are done when you sit together in a relaxed atmosphere after work is over.”

However, Mark Atkin isn’t totally against the online idea. “I would happily create an avatar and send my rabbit into a virtual pitching room with various dinosaurs, lizards and door mice,” jokes Atkin. “But to be really effective there would need to be a sub-channel through which I can pass secret notes to my colleagues. And how can we get drunk together afterwards?”

Central to my ongoing theory of festivals, is the seven-year cycle. It takes seven years for a new festival to establish itself; the seventh is the make or break year. If it hasn’t done it by then, the festival doesn’t serve any purpose and should commit festicide. Then after each passing seven-year cycle the managers and directors of the festival, their advisors, boards and sponsors should allow their fests to renew themselves. Festivals and filmmakers need to adapt to the times. They need to reconnect with the street, adapt to new taste and technologies, monitor the evolution of image making, and the changes in audiences and the industry, where a generation is measured in months instead of years. Some fests fail to renew themselves, some just fail. Some become decentralized. Others find strength in central vision. To each their own festival.

“Festivals have become entrenched in the business of film so I don’t believe they are going to go away,” adds Harmashi. “The key is to recognize their place as another avenue to get your film seen, and use the festivals to leverage it for your interest, be it other sales; or as a launch pad for your film; or to get awards and recognition; or to get laid. None of these are mutually exclusive goals but you need to know what your priorities are.”

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