Toppers weigh culture vs. commerce

BERLIN — An international lineup of film festival toppers gathered this weekend in a landmark confab to focus on a delicate dilimma: balancing the need for innovation in a rapidly changing industry while acting as passionate guardians of their craft.

That, and a number of pressing issues pitting the cultural and commercial value of festivals and their role as an alternative form of distribution were addressed Saturday. Sponsored by the European Film Academy, “Film Festivals in the Spotlight — the Future Role of Film Festivals” was hosted by Berlin Film Fest head Dieter Kosslick and U.K. film critic Derek Malcolm. Top names attending included Alberto Barbera (Venice), Irene Bignardi (Locarno), Geoff Gilmore (Sundance), Sandra den Hamer (Rotterdam), Piers Handling (Toronto), Dong-Ho Kim (Pusan), Mikel Olaciregui (San Sebastian) and Eva Zaoralova (Karlovy Vary), as well as Stefano della Casa, president of European Co-ordination of Film Festivals.

Conspicuously absent was Cannes director Thierry Fremaux. “Thierry is the most clever of festival directors. He’s now cruising around grabbing all the best movies,” joked Kosslick.

The need for festivals to embrace both tradition and innovation was emphasized by Barbera, who said that in this era of Internet and TV on demand, festivals were faced by the challenge of technological change more than ever before.

“We have to realize the impact of technological change: 35mm film will soon disappear and be replaced by digital (technology).” The Internet will also affect the way people will choose to see films in the future, Barbera said. “The survival of the festivals depends on their ability to renew themselves.”

Den Hamer and Kosslick urged more co-operation between festival organizers to set up modest distribution opportunities for non-mainstream international pics which would have no other chance of distribution.

Gilmore called such efforts unrealistic. However, the Sundance topper pointed to the success of U.S. independent films and “the Sundancing of Hollywood,” saying independent cinema had had an obvious affect on the established industry, and not the other way around. The Sundance Channel, he said, gave non-mainstream fare a distribution outlet, adding that Americans were interested in non-Hollywood product.

The role of the media seemed to cause the most passion among Europeans, with Bignardi and Malcolm decrying the increasing importance festivals place on stars and glamor to get publicity. They blasted editors for being more interested in big-name stars than in reviews of small, unknown international films.

“We should remember that stars are artists, and we have to admire what they do,” Kosslick countered. “Without stars, there would be problems making movies.”

Gilmore said that post-Sept. 11, critics may focus more on the content of films, however.

Kosslick added that while festivals allow people to see great movies, more importantly, they help promote tolerance and the acceptance of cultural and political diversity, “and that is especially significant following the events of Sept. 11.”

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