Frequent attendees say film festivals are becoming size- and premiere-obsessed

As in the world at large, so in the world of film festivals: More is not necessarily better. That’s the growing sense among regular festival visitors worldwide, able to observe on a steady basis the twin maladies that can be called “size-itis” and, especially, “world premiere-itis.”

Take Toronto. From its first edition 31 years ago, when 127 films were shown, North America’s largest festival has nearly tripled to 352 films for 2006. As long as there’s a Toronto, debate will rage over whether the event is better for having multiplied so aggressively, just as it will rage over whether the abandonment of the original concept of a “festival of festivals” (as it was long titled) for a vast survey of new films — and more and more world premieres — was an improvement.

Toronto director Noah Cowan has clearly stated his intention to place a continuing emphasis on world premieres. Which is why, for example, only one film from Sundance — So Yong Kim’s American-Canadian debut, “In Between Days” — made it to Toronto.

Co-writer-directors Randy Walker and Jennifer Shainin decided to unveil their deeply personal and original debut feature, “Apart From That,” at South by Southwest — another fast-growing North American fest — only to learn later that this cost them a chance to even be considered for Toronto. “We were told that once you’re in festivals like South by Southwest and Seattle and Cine-vegas, like we’ve been,” Shainin said after a Cinevegas screening, “Toronto’s out. World premieres only, as far as American and Canadian films are concerned.”

The urge for world premieres is understandable. Festivals clustered on the calendar (Palm Springs, Mumbai, Sundance, Rotterdam and Berlin in January-February; Venice, Telluride, Toronto, San Sebastian and Deauville in early fall) particularly lust for that first screening, and the glory attached to it.

Sundance alone can now be viewed as an almost purely world premiere event (for new U.S. indies); while partisans at Telluride quietly chuckle at Toronto’s disregard for a film actually having screened first in the Rockies enclave, and claiming the Canadian opening as the true world premiere.

A different sparring over a claim to firsts can be seen in Argentina, where Mar del Plata unveils its films less than a month before Buenos Aires during the end of March and mid-April; nevertheless, most South American fest observers say that both events are more complimentary than not, with Buenos Aires staking out a special position as one of the smartest and most adventurous fests on the global calendar.

But look at that Buenos Aires catalog: This year’s edition totals a stunning 432 pages. Like every other festival of any scope and regard, it’s grown to nearly the breaking point, and a few organizers admit that the 2006 edition simply went too far in terms of volume. One senior programmer says the fest should be trimmed by 30 to 40 films.

Some may point to Cannes’ model as an alternative to Toronto’s, which has been adopted by an increasing number of festivals, in the effort to provide their local audience base with a wide and interesting sampling of new films. Cannes, by contrast, has traditionally kept a lid on total films screened (no more than 20 in the competition slot, for example). But given that Cannes’ recent competition fields have resulted in few memorable works and too many disappointments, it’s also fair to wonder if the tightly curated model is the right medicine for size-itis.

As Daily Variety’s critics concur, festivals “have become too fixated on world premieres,” in the words of Rome-based critic Jay Weissberg. Daily Variety critic Derek Elley, reporting from the recently wrapped Locarno festival, says there were complaints that the competition section had become bloated by well over 40 titles.

Toronto’s longtime topper Piers Handling has expressed his own concerns that the festival has grown too big for its cozy Yorkville locale, and has been forced to expand into the city’s revived downtown core. “The benefits of being able to walk from one venue to another during a festival can’t be overstated,” Handling observes. “These are my favorite festivals.”

Certainly, the urge to grow has brought the need for greater private and public sponsorships, and it’s revealing to note how this has developed and even affected a festival’s profile. Some corporations have insisted on placing their logo and/or name in front of a festival’s (eg. the Nortel Networks Palm Springs Intl. Film Festival). And when in Cannes, it’s impossible not to be deluged by all things L’Oreal, just as Target has — until this year, when the Los Angeles Times became its primary sponsor — inundated the L.A. fest with its ubiquitous red bull’s-eye logo.

At the same time, and running against the grain of the perception of increased private funding of cultural events, governments have stepped up as some festivals’ primary supporters. It may be no accident that two of the more exciting and least commercial of major festivals, Rotterdam and Buenos Aires, are both mainly funded by the local city governments. And when Nortel decided to exit Palm Springs? The city of Palm Springs stepped in, which at the least allowed the festival to return to a halfway manageable name.

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