What Would A PERFECT Film Festival Look Like?
Considerations needed in driving towards goals for cinema's next century (or decade or just next version).
If you are trying to please all of the people all of the time, you fail.
Nonetheless, in the general scheme of life, I am genuinely generally going to encourage folks to be generalists. In fact even professionally, I am going to encourage generality, but not to start. You need to be excellent at something first. And if you are an institution, an organization, a company, I hope you specialize forever. At least now, for the world we are currently living in, I hope you specialize even if you didn’t back then when it all began.
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The beauty about trying to doing something specific and then doing it extremely well, is that it opens the field to many others to excel at something else. With everything, if you do it extremely well, it activates desire and affinity. More people want it and no one wants to let it go. Our film ecosystem is built however around generalization. The next cycle hopefully will change that.
Another of the attributes of specialization is that it is counterbalance to the crushing force of a dominant power. Well-executed specialization makes room on the field for other players. The true mark of leadership is to manage yourself to obsolescence. Let the next gen take over. Share what you know and leave. Please. But that’s not how it is working today, now is it?
Make no mistake, I am NOT talking politics here. But… If you believe that humanity & life are our core values, how you believe in anything other than the right to self-determination and bodily autonomy? If you believe in self-determination and bodily autonomy, how can you not be devoted to democracy and the end of authoritarian power? If you believe in democracy, how can you support a monopoly or the need for antitrust enforcement? If these are your values, don’t you also have to look at the peaceful transfer of power and the diversification of leadership and participants? This is about art and business and how do we stop settling for what we have and instead get closer to the things we truly want.
So the first step is to ask: how can my success not undermine the opportunities of others? This requires design. From the start we have to set that as a goal, and if our goal is to not limit the opportunities of others, we must specialize. Granted specialization also leads to competition within the realm of the focus — but that’s great. That’s where competition helps other excel, like the competition (and dialogue) between Picasso and Matisse or between Lennon and McCartney. Maybe Dyke & The Blazers vs. James Brown and The Famous Flames? Michael Jackson vs. Prince? Ford vs. Ferrari?
But we are here to build the road map. We are here today to consider what a perfect film festival might actually be, right? Is specialization something we’ve neglected in our film ecosystem, at least when it comes to the major film festivals? How? Why? Should it be otherwise?
When it comes to film festivals there are multiple ways one could specialize. The first is the choice of curation. The initial impetus of film festivals was simply to show the “best of” — the work of The Masters. That gave birth to the leading festivals of our time, as well as quite often the festivals of major metropolitan centers. Since “best” is often a quiet display of power, these major leading festivals had to soon open it up to surveys of new talent, often working outside the limits of the status quo, or else face the wrath of the next gen and the underrepresented. The combination of these two strands —masters & emerging — are the spine of the curation for Cannes, Berlin, Venice, and Toronto, as well as many more regional ones.
The leading festivals however add in one other attribute though which generally distinguishes them from their regional siblings: a marketplace. So it is curation AND sales that put them in the forefront? The old guard naturally grew into marketplaces because they came to be THE place to premiere new titles and for the first century+ the film business did not have many films owned by entities that would exploit the title on a global basis. It was a natural evolution for leading festivals to embrace sales after they mastered curation.
America does not actually have a film festival based on this traditional model, and it doesn’t need one. The cadence of Berlin, Cannes, Venice/Toronto fills the calendar year. I hear you though; you are all shouting “What about Sundance?”. Sundance recognized from the start that all ecosystems need an alternative to the dominant power and the status quo. Alternative curations work as a course correction against the indoctrination of a common aesthetic, perspective, and/or form.
Thank you Robert Redford. Don’t you wonder why no one since him as launched a public service to our arts and culture to the degree that Sundance initially was? It certainly is needed!
There is such a thing as “Narrative Imperialism” and since Hollywood colonized the world, in looking at American culture, a festival selection of American “masters” only would have furthered that tendency. From the onset Sundance wisely and thankfully embraced the alternative. Definitely “hurrah”, but in finding a slot on the global festival calendar then led to what I suspect was an inadvertent windfall — although this one was not positive. In selecting the January slot, it meant Sundance could not avoid becoming what the other more established global festivals had already become: a market. And in specializing in English-language films, film’s original sin-or-grace of the marriage between art & commerce, led to further unintended consequences.
Most American entertainment companies are on a calendar year fiscal year. Budgets are flush in January. Coincidently, our “celebration of cinema” aka “Awards Season” starts in the fall — more than enough time to build a campaign for any film you acquire in January. Since Sundance launched as an alternative to Hollywood, it meant that it was a selection of independent films — films financed outside of corporate America (initially) — and thus ripe for the plucking. Available titles with buyers flush with cash contributed to a media focus on sales (“Film financed on credit cards lands huge deal!) which had a flywheel effect on attracting industry attendance which increased sponsorship dollars which couldn’t help but lead to an inherent bias towards programming more “sell-able” films.
Preventative measures could have been put in place. Greater efforts to keep the focus on the films and filmmakers could have been made. It didn’t need to be engineered for sales. Sales however are news. News helps secure sponsorship. Success stories give us that warm tingle. You have to put gas in the engine, right. Well, no, but that’s the easy way to make things go, and you never know what tomorrow might bring.
Once an entity becomes the dominant player in a strand or region, it is tempting to expand into other realms. They all have, regardless of the field. It is time to ask the question though: should they? Could more be gained for more people — for the very communities they serve —by having different goals? Was a mistake made in constantly expanding to new aspects? Do you need a doc section and a narrative section? A premiere section for the established or well funded? A low-budget more experimental division? An international section? Could all of this energy be put to better use elsewhere?
The real question is “how to serve the films and/or the filmmakers best?”. To me, if it is a question of just the films, then it is the question of how to best give them proper context. And if context is the question of what are they trying to say, how well did they succeed, and how else might have it been handled, then I think it leads you back to specialization. To have proper context, you need to be with those that are aiming in the same general direction. I am really not sure who benefits when the curators want to be everything to everybody.
There’s more to discuss for sure. I hope we all soon explore some of the alternatives Sundance and other festivals could have moved in rather than primarily focusing on curation and the marketplace. It would be a different world.
Thanks for brainstorming a bit with me, and those of you that offered up a few ideas in a few different places in this post.
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Corey Doctorow, writing about the death of social media platforms yesterday:
“Here is how platforms die: first, they are good to their users; then they abuse their users to make things better for their business customers; finally, they abuse those business customers to claw back all the value for themselves. Then, they die.
I call this enshittification, and it is a seemingly inevitable consequence arising from the combination of the ease of changing how a platform allocates value, combined with the nature of a "two sided market," where a platform sits between buyers and sellers, hold each hostage to the other, raking off an ever-larger share of the value that passes between them.”
Perhaps a bit doomier and gloomier than necessary for fests -- who primarily are clawing back prestige and reputation rather than millions of identity data points and stock share prices. But none the less...
The need to be everything to everyone is in service of that “quiet power”. To only be one thing for a few people is to accept your natural limits and deny yourself the chance of feeding the ever gaping maw of MORE.
Sounds ethically good in theory, but in order to uphold your commitment to even a stated niche community, one must distribute ever increasing amounts of resources -- salaries (and hopefully benefits) to employees and staff, high quality projections and sound (and hopefully travel stipends & screening fees) to filmmakers, and appropriate fanfare, swag and enjoyment to attendees -- as always someone needs to supply those resources.
Perhaps fests first aim to become MORE so they can give MORE, but eventually the cycle swallows itself and either collapses under the weight of not being able to find more resources (RIP OTHER WORLDS), or it survives only by evolving (devolving?) into something intentionally bigger and more capable of maintaining its “quiet power” to secure more and more resources.
Link to Corey’s full thing if anyone’s interested: https://pluralistic.net/
Over the years I’ve been to dozens of film festivals, big and small, and have been compiling my own list of elements that make some more successful than others, some prestigious, some also-rans. Though I could talk on the subject for hours, here’s a brief overview of my highlight thoughts:
Best festivals are:
Run by charismatic individuals (or small, like minded teams) with a clear vision
NOT regionally focused, actually ONLY focused on good films
NOT chasing top films, filmmakers or prestige (they may show up, but, that’s not the point of the fest.)
NOT influenced by trends, popularity contests or attention grabbing headlines
NOT stuck in a rut, instead purposefully seeking “what’s next?”
Filmmakers yearn to have their films shown there as a point of pride and professional achievement
They develop a unique curatorial resumé that audiences can trust.
They weather the storms of fast trends and fickle market happenstance with nary a rustle.
Key to longevity as a fest is surviving intact when passing the torch from the original brain trust to a new generation.
Their uniqueness stands out from the crowd of other fests who chase premieres and stars, press and bragging rights.
They have fiercely loyal patrons and supporters.
They have staunch industry support and not for the usual marketing advantages, but, because the industry realizes how important it is to have these fests as testaments to film as an art form.
Extras can include:
Markets can grow in tandem alongside, but, not as an intended aspect of the festival. Business can be done at any festival, a market only makes the deal-making more visible, accessible.
Reputations can lead to it being much easier to bring films to the fest that match their vision.
Festivals can influence award possibilities, creating opportunities for films that otherwise may be unknown quantities until a big prestige festival’s surprise reaction (e.g. Slumdog Millionaire at Telluride.)