Powerful national lobbyists push product on the int'l fest circuit

LONDON — Ever wondered how some movies end up at a film festival? Welcome to the hidden, almost Masonic, network of people we’ll call the gatekeepers.

Unknown to the general public, and mysterious even to some film industry professionals, they’re the political lobbyists of the fest circuit, operating below even most general journalists’ radar and leery of being directly quoted.

National reps rather than professional flacks, astute and often ruthless in their political machinations, they operate in a shadowy world between filmmakers and fest toppers, positioning product on the festival circuit for optimum timing and exposure.

The days may be gone when one famous Central Euro gatekeeper kept a short list pinned to his wall of those pics on which he felt fest programmers and journalists should concentrate. However, there’s still plenty of room for friction and abuses of power in a process that relies on personal trust, longtime friendships and subjective opinion.

To filmmakers who aren’t in their favor, the gatekeepers’ hold on the reins of festival selection committees is positively sinister. Their approval is an essential part of the fest courting process.

The final choice is, of course, always up to the fests. But because most programmers don’t have the time (and, too often, the interest or knowledge) to follow the fine details of international productions of below-the-star helmers, it often falls to the gatekeepers to round out festival schedules.

Imagine you’re a middle-rank filmmaker and you think your new film is terrific — your big shot at a prestigious film fest and international critical glory. However, the gatekeeper in your territory may be more excited or — you suspect — more connected to a film by another filmmaker.

From small feuds do mighty hatreds grow.

The big titles by heavyweight directors, or sought-after pics from the U.S. majors, are hardly in need of gatekeepers’ services. Festivals scrabble after such product rather than the other way round. Instead, the gatekeepers’ prime responsibility is shepherding the mass of smaller to midrange pics that make up the meat and potatoes of any fest’s menu, from majors like Cannes, Berlin, Venice and Toronto to small-town specialist events.

The largest and most concentrated network of gatekeepers is in Europe, still home to the traditional “festival film,” which may occasionally bounce into the commercial theatrical arena but more often makes it no farther than cable or film weeks, accruing nice reviews along the way. Most are grouped under the 20-member European Film Promotion banner of state-funded agencies, though similar orgs exist in North and South America, and Asia.

Some gatekeepers are former journalists, some from the film biz, some career bureaucrats. But their authority as brokers can often make or break a movie’s international profile or a filmmaker’s chance of reaching the golden ring.

One of the few happy to speak on the record, Martin Schweighofer, managing director of the Austrian Film Commission, sums up the job for many when he notes that “it’s important to find the right fest, not just any fest. I often talk with producers at rough-cut stage to develop a strategy: Every film has its own personality, so not every fest is right for a picture.”

Getting the wrong fest — or even the wrong section of a fest — can be counterproductive to a movie’s launch. Is it too small for the giant screen of Locarno’s Piazza Grande or too populist for its competition? Is it edgy enough for Berlin or too cutting edge for Cannes? Will a nice but unflashy Euro pic be lost in a U.S.-dominated fest like Sundance; would it be better appreciated at Venice? And having once had a film in competition at Cannes, will an offer to screen in the Un Certain Regard sidebar be seen as a step backward for a helmer?

Sighs one Euro gatekeeper, “Finding the right fest where the chemistry all works out is very rare.”

“Many new directors see Cannes as the dream platform,” says one gatekeeper, “but if their movie isn’t right for the Croisette, or ends up in the wrong section, then Cannes can sometimes kill a film. Also, too many filmmakers turn down invitations from other fests if they think they stand a chance with Cannes — and when they finally get turned down, they’re scuppered for a major festival till the fall.”

On the credit side, however, a Central European gatekeeper adds that “having one of our films shown at Cannes — in any section — still has an effect unlike any other festival.”

“One of my main jobs,” notes Schweighofer, “is to help to establish directors,” injecting them gradually into the festival circuit’s bloodstream.

“With (Austrian helmer) Barbara Albert, for instance, I got a short by her into Locarno and started telling people to watch out for her. Then she made one segment of a movie that went to Rotterdam, followed by her feature ‘Nordrand’ going to Venice. Locarno-Rotterdam-Venice: That’s a nice festival path.”

With better-known filmmakers, a gatekeeper’s role is more of an international peacekeeper. One recalls a recent instance of a European co-production in which one producer wanted to go to Berlin and the French rights holder to Cannes; another notes a similar instance in which one wanted Cannes and the French rights holder Venice. (In both instances, the films ended up at Cannes and won major prizes.)

The plain truth is that as they schlep round the festival circuit year after year the gatekeepers have built up a network of contacts and professional friendships that few single filmmakers can match.

But some filmers still see them as wielding too much power.

In European countries with a strong federalist structure, the in-built sense of fair play can often go overboard in a selection process that may come down to one person’s tastes. Accusations of favoritism run rife.

In East Asia, one gatekeeper was well known for disliking comedies and melodramas, and never included any such pics on lists of films screened for consideration. Another, working at a government-funded institution, once quoted a price of $20,000 to “represent” a local filmmaker’s small first pic — an offer that was understandably refused.

“Filmmakers will often blame me if I can’t place their film, but I can’t make a good film out of a bad one. I can generally place about 80%, and there’s about 20 fests I concentrate on for premieres,” says Schweighofer.

Claudia Landsberger, prexy and co-founder of EFP as well as managing director of Holland Film for the past seven years, concurs. “I can’t make (fests) choose a film.” And she adds: “We generally know what selectors’ tastes are, but a foreigner can sometimes look at a film in a very different way, so we try to get them to see a film.”

For major fests, Landsberger will ship over a print, rather than screener, to give a title the best chance.

She narrows her fest launch list down to 10, in calendar order: Rotterdam, Berlin, Cannes, Locarno, Montreal, Venice, Toronto and San Sebastian, plus Annecy for animation and the Amsterdam doc fest for nonfiction. “All ensure the biggest exposure industrywise,” she avers.

Other events have different purposes. “Karlovy Vary, for instance, isn’t a buyers’ fest, it’s a press fest — and international press nowadays, not just European. There’s an interesting mixture of Americans and Europeans, and even Koreans and Indians.”

With a few exceptions, filmmakers are always free to submit their movies themselves and bypass the gatekeepers. “But they generally come back to us,” remarks one.

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