Insight into the growing festival influence

Fest vet discusses 'wholesale' and 'retail' events

For more than 50 years, Gideon Bachmann has been a distinguished observer of the festival scene. Here, the fest vet and director of the European Film Institute investigates how festivals have become a parallel method of film distribution.

The FIAPF recognizes 11 film festivals in its first category (often wrongly called “A”), where films are first seen, compete and are discovered by the directors of festivals not in that category. There are more than 600 of such directors in the latter category worldwide, and they sell tickets to audiences in their regions.

These 11 “wholesalers” are the professional, global marketplaces for new product. The others are “retailers,” bringing the films to end users outside of normal exhibition. But they, too, are a form of exhibition, a form with a growing importance and a growing financial potential.

The frontiers are not always clearly drawn because the retailers have quickly discovered that globalization of taste won’t stop at their door. Thus we find “Hollow Man” in the Piazza of Locarno, Switzerland, and “Independence Day” in Rotterdam, the Netherlands — out of competition. This does not mean that these highly regarded festivals have given up their role as arbiters of a serious world taste in cinema.

* * *

Eight-five percent of films shown at film festivals never reach commercial screens. On TV and video, they cannot be properly seen or appreciated: Dubbed and grainy, they do little justice to the intention of their creators. Festivals are not only the sole arena for them, they are also a better arena than a normal theater because the viewing is more intimate, intensive and properly backgrounded.

It also allows for the feedback that so many filmmakers crave and never get. You can go to a festival and show your film and see how it works. That’s not easy in cinemas. Box office returns are a poor substitute for the glow in the eye of a viewer.

Why then do the best films not all go to all the festivals? Why has it become a stigma to have made a “festival film”? When retail fests sprung up, they copied the competitive stance of the wholesalers who were there before them: the ambition to show world premieres, to have a film that nobody else has seen — yet.

And the ambition of grandeur, PR, fame, star glitz and bright lights, not always do these allures help raise the quality of a festival. Sometimes, they do not even help to maintain it.

* * *

Since there are more festivals in the world than good films per year, the obsession with premieres can mean that 80% of festivals only show second-rate films once the good ones have been grabbed by the competition. But the audiences of retail fests do not travel — the festivals come to them, unlike the Cannes Intl. Film Festival and the like that attract professionals from far away.

Thus, there is no reason why a really good film shouldn’t show at many festivals in front of many audiences in many countries. While competitiveness draws audiences, it reduces what they will see.

An international union of film festivals with precise, practical functions could not only work against competition among members but, because the better films would be seen in more places, could work toward obtaining revenue for films not usually considered commercial.

Such a union could acquire “festival rights” to films of great value but of scanty PR budgets or star value. A central depository that such a union could establish, in addition to technical supervision and a joint insurance policy could further enhance the creation of a lucrative festival distribution circuit. (The union that exists in Europe, La Coordination, fills only political functions)

* * *

The situation is condensing in two directions: The wholesalers are primarily markets (and some are not even festivals; to fill their commercial goals they don’t need glitz), and the retailers are discovering that they are exhibitors. But they need to recognize that they are better exhibitors than the norm, they show more films to more people in a better way that helps develop a future audience for serious films. The fact that they will have to pay (and are already paying) screening fees is a natural part of the cycle.

But beware when showing a film at a retail fest that already has a distributor. Being part of the PR-machine of normal distribution reduces the discovery function, the commercial potential and the wonderful atmosphere of adventure that festivals create that is the basis of our love for film.

* * *

Major changes are occurring in the way festivals are run and in the roster of people who run them. Four major events are changing directors this year: Cannes, San Sebastian, Berlin and Locarno. Venice changed last year. And that’s only the wholesalers. Probably the criterion for choosing new directors is how well they will navigate between the two fest trends.

Films are ever harder to get. Sales agents don’t really like festivals and tend to resist the pressure of directors who seek the personal exposure.

No need to explain why. This conflict has been with us for 105 years. So now it costs a festival money to get most films; $250-$500 a screening, often limited to a single projection. One result: Entrance fees at retail fests go up, and when a film is sold, the distributor claims his share. In small countries such as Switzerland or Israel, they say, many of the people who want to see a film will have seen it at the fest. So where is my money? Where is the revenue from the 9,000 tickets sold in the Piazza in Locarno in one evening?

The key to wholesaling, of course, is whether you attract buyers. And whether you have a record of them actually buying. Thus the trend is to look at critics at wholesale fests simply as gravy. The real festival is not on the Croisette, it is in the hotel rooms where the deals coagulate. Only at retail fests is the spirit actually in the screening rooms. And only here does a real exchange, on a critical level, actually occur.

* * *

Festivals are at a crossroads. As society changes, the industrial machinery of its self-expression changes. I suspect the survivors will be the ones who swim with the stream. But upstream there may be a gold mine, too.

It’s the incredible love people have for images and for fantasy and for emotion. In short, for moving movies.

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