Getting hard to see the films for the fests

FILM FESTIVALS ARE AS indestructible and plentiful as cockroaches. Hopefully, they serve a more meaningful purpose to humanity than the ever-present insect.

Ideally, they present us with meaningful entertainment, inform us about ourselves and others, identify new talent and serve as a commercial launch pad for “difficult” or “challenging” new movies. And the really clever events fold in a hearty helping of showman’s panache that reminds us of the razzle-dazzle that created a viewing sensation a century ago.

There now are hundreds of these cinematic love-ins annually. In the past month and heading into September, such major venues as Locarno, Edinburgh, Telluride, Venice, Montreal, Toronto, Deauville, San Sebastian and New York are the hot tickets for new product. During the same frame, there are more than twice as many specialized or arcane outings, including numerous short fests, the Odense fairy-tale themed event, animation fests, sci-fi/fantasy focuses, one on Alpine films in Switzerland and more, more, more. Variety’s annual listing (exhaustive, not comprehensive) of festivals published last week contained 325 separate events.

People on the film festival circuit used to joke that it was possible to spend the entire year hopping from one event to the next. In fact, a woman named Betty Denby was believed to have done just that for many years. That was two decades ago at a time when there were more than a hundred fewer such events.

“The film festival circuit is now as crowded as the product lineup in theaters,” a veteran attendee in the acquisitions arena observed. “There have always been these bizarre niche events on the scene, but while scheduling was sometimes tight, you could always get to all the major festivals. Today, you have to be really selective to maintain your sanity and do your job.”

Mussolini is credited with inventing the film showcase in 1934 with the Venice turn. It was meant as a testament to the seventh art. Such factors as economy and advocacy helped launch other key early outings including Cannes and New York. In the beginning, they tended to be elitist, but time and experience required a significant public support for most to stay in business. The fact that it’s a rarity for these events to close shop suggests they’re better managed than most new production or distribution companies.

THE NATURE, IMPORTANCE and efficacy of film festivals has changed with proliferation. There’s no question that the majority now are local events to foster industry and tourism. Few of these attract major premieres and they truly scramble to secure celebrity participation.

“The most bizarre thing I ever did was accept an invitation to a festival in Northern California,” says filmmaker Michael Fields. “The programmer seemed very nice and sincere. When I got up there, it soon became apparent that this was some social event for a small group of very rich people. After the screening of my film (‘Bright Angel’), we were taken to a party at a local stable and treated to a program of dressage around midnight. It was like being on another planet.”

That event is certainly one extreme on the spectrum. On the other end one could argue that festivals that have adopted an aggressive program of pictures from emerging or iconoclastic filmmakers are the most challenging for both the public and the film professional. One of the most unusual is Rotterdam, which in addition to an exhaustive screening schedule, also invests in the development of unusual international films (“Chungking Express,” “Trees Lounge”) annually through a foundation established by a generous patron.

Also looking for a niche is the Hollywood Film Festival, which debuts in October. Its entire schedule is devoted not only to the work of new filmmakers but to works (regardless of origin) in search of commercial distribution. The gamble is that out of hundreds of submissions there will be two dozen discovery programs.

MONTREAL, TORONTO, BERLIN, Sundance and a handful of others are the pantheon, because the majority of what’s programmed is new and sometimes unseen.

“I don’t mean to be crass, but if I’m picking up films at a festival, I’m probably not doing my job,” says a vet acquisitor. “I’m tracking pictures from the development stage and seeing footage wherever possible during production. The specialized arena is particularly competitive because so few films have the potential to break out, but when they do, it can run or justify a company for years. You used to be able to pick them up at festivals, now it’s simply too late in the game.”

The comments are only slightly hyperbolic. Tales abound of U.S. distribs or their reps camping out at labs, wining and dining producers for a peek at a buzz film or simply biting the bullet and buying blind, as Miramax did several years ago with Jim Jarmusch’s “Dead Man,” or the more recent New Line buy of Atom Egoyan’s “Sweet Hereafter” sight unseen. The latter went on to win three prizes at Cannes and will open the Toronto fest after Labor Day.

The larger events increasingly have become launch pads for niche and mainstream product. That’s at the root of the early fall congestion when Europe and the U.S. are looking for ways of tubthumping commercial and artistic product. Conversely, there’s not a single major showcase unspooling during the summer. And while Cannes is Cannes, its rep has tarnished a bit because its May slot provides a limited window to open before historic viewing downturns in June and July throughout Europe. For commercial fare, that situation has become less severe, to the detriment of other pictures.

For the industry, the prize fests are either megastores or boutiques. One goes to the former for one-stop shopping and to network. The others are for discoveries or to establish a relationship that will secure that one film that flies under normal industry radar.

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