Who launched whom?

Fests' bragging rights for helmer discoveries prove tricky

How smart are the world’s top film fests?

Do they discover and nurture talent and trends, or simply surf the industry’s existing waves? Are fest selectors pioneers or camp followers?

Variety examined in detail the past 25 years of the current Big Five — Cannes, Berlin, Venice, Toronto and Sundance — to see just how on the ball they’ve been in discovering the new generation of masters and auteurs who began their feature-film careers from the ’80s onward and have lasted the course to the present day.

Timing plays a large part in any fest’s ability to grab a preem — even if they’ve spotted it coming — but over a quarter-century, the hits and misses roughly even out among fests.

The skinny? A lot of the donkey work is done by smaller fests before the big boys jump in — and leapfrog over each other. In general, look to Cannes for legitimization rather than discovery, Sundance for occasional patches of perspicacity, Berlin for dogged persistence and Toronto as a North American showcase rather than a pioneer. And Venice? Well, the Lagoon looks great at sunset.

Everyone remembers the showstopping moments, when careers were apparently made “overnight” at festivals: the Coen brothers with “Blood Simple” (Toronto, 1984); Zhang Yimou with “Red Sorghum” (Berlin, 1988); Pedro Almodovar with “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” (Venice, 1988); Steven Soderbergh with “sex, lies, and videotape” (Sundance and Cannes, 1989); Quentin Tarantino with “Pulp Fiction” (Cannes, 1994).

Cannes prexy Gilles Jacob, who masterminded the Official Selection’s program from 1978-99, rightly said the launch of “Pulp Fiction” at Cannes in 1994 forever altered the game. “The fact that Cannes helped a great movie like ‘Pulp Fiction’ gross more than $100 million … was a key moment in the history of independent cinema,” he told Variety in 1997, on the occasion of the Riviera fest’s 50th anni.

What Jacob didn’t know then was that “independent cinema,” at least in the U.S., was already a dying concept in the idealized terms earlier pioneered by festivals like Sundance. It’s also true to say that such “overnight” discoveries have become rarer and rarer ever since.

The great catchphrase of the ’90s, “festival buzz,” has taken some hard knocks in recent years, mostly due to inflated dealmaking and subsequently blah grosses, and is less and less heard nowadays. The world, the fest circuit and the whole business have become much more complex in the 21st century.

But even with those headline cases, the real history wasn’t quite as it seemed.

When Tarantino’s first pic, “Reservoir Dogs,” preemed at Sundance in 1992, it received a less ecstatic reception than a few months later at Cannes, where it played out of competition.

In general, American crix and auds didn’t quite get it: The movie’s fortunes (and Tarantino’s early rep) were made in Europe, especially the U.K., where it went on to gross more than twice its Stateside haul of under $3 million. When “Pulp Fiction” bowed at Cannes two years later, the hype, especially among Yank crix, was partly due to a feeling of having missed the boat the first time round on a native filmmaker.

With Soderbergh’s “sex, lies,” it was more a case of Cannes’ established clout (competition slot, Palme d’Or plus best actor award) pushing the movie into a wider media/marketing arena. In 1989, Sundance, then known as the United States Film Festival, with a mere 60-odd titles, was only in its fifth year and not known as a discovery platform for independent low-budgeters. Pic won an audience award, but the jury — including Jodie Foster, Monte Hellman and Debra Hill — instead prized Nancy Savoca’s femme-centered comedy “True Love.”

 Sundance’s high days started with its change of name the subsequent year, with an especially strong run during 1990-94, launching directors including Whit Stillman (“Metropolitan”), Todd Haynes (“Poison”), Kevin Smith (“Clerks”), Bryan Singer (“Public Access”), David O. Russell (“Spanking the Monkey”) and Paul Thomas Anderson (“Hard Eight”). Contrary to legend, Sundance didn’t actually “discover” Michael Moore with “Roger & Me” (pic debuted at Toronto the previous fall) or Richard Linklater with his second feature, “Slacker,” but certainly helped their Stateside profiles. 

When Zhang’s directorial debut, “Red Sorghum,” won the Golden Bear at Berlin in 1988 — one of a swathe of Asian titles at the fest that year — it appeared to open up Chinese cinema in the West in a single stroke. In fact, the fest itself — along with Montreal, Hong Kong, London and Nantes — had been quietly championing mainland Chinese cinema since the early ’80s. To a much lesser degree, so too had Cannes.

Following Zhang’s Berlin triumph in February, Cannes began its lasting embrace of Chinese cinema that May, with Chen Kaige’s “King of the Children” in competition and Hou Hsiao-hsien’s “Daughter of the Nile” in Directors Fortnight. It nabbed Zhang’s “Ju Dou” for competition in 1990, but even in the early ’90s Berlin was still the prime showcase for Asian talent. Its discovery, Ang Lee, co-won the Golden Bear for “The Wedding Banquet” in 1993 and caused a feeding frenzy among buyers.

Almodovar is an even more interesting case. None of the major fests showed any interest in his early works, apart from Montreal, which took his fourth feature, “What Have I Done to Deserve This?!!” for competition in 1984. A couple years later, Toronto claimed to discover him with a Director Focus, and Almodovar started a long, slow journey to festival respectability via Berlin, Venice, San Sebastian and New York. Cannes finally climbed onboard in 1999, when “All About My Mother” competed and won best director.

Almodovar has always shown a slight disdain for the fest circuit, preferring local premieres and home B.O. Even after the Venice showing of “Women” catapulted him into a broader arena, several of his pics never played the major fest circuit.

Legends of fall

Venice has the poorest record of preeming new talent that’s gone on to last. Though with the Italian fest and Toronto sharing many of the same titles — the lagoon fest snagging the actual world preems, mostly because of its earlier timing — the Venice-Toronto fall combo is a powerful marketing tool for any movie.

The venerable Lido queen built a rep for showcasing established helmers and quality arthouse fare in a kind of fall mirror image to its longtime rival, Cannes. The Canuck newcomer was overshadowed for most of the ’80s by its Quebec rival, Montreal. Lacking the clout of a competition (until 1994, its moniker was simply the Festival of Festivals), it built on its strength as an entree to the North American market, taking over from the New York fest.

In the case of “Blood Simple” and the Coen brothers, the pic actually preemed at the USA Film Festival, Dallas, in April ’84, where it got good notices. But Texas is only Texas. The real buzz began with its market screenings at Cannes the following month, and the real hype grew at Toronto that fall. Cannes subsequently moved to embrace the Coens three years later, when their next picture, “Raising Arizona,” played in a noncompeting slot; since then, six of their nine movies have gone to the Croisette.

Market forces

The reception of “Blood Simple” in Cannes Market is only one of many examples of where the fest’s selectors appear to have dropped the ball in spotting new talent and industry forces have taken over. Jean-Jacques Beineix’s “Diva” (1981), Neil Jordan’s “Angel” (1982), Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s “Delicatessen” (1991) and Danny Boyle’s “Shallow Grave” (1994) are all debuts that first drew attention in off-Croisette salles. The first three were all snapped up by Toronto later in those years.

But it’s not all bad news for Cannes’ Official Selection. In the past quarter century, among now-established auteurs, it can legitimately claim to have discovered Lars von Trier (“The Element of Crime,” 1984 — a year that, exceptionally, saw three first works in the competition); Claire Denis (“C
hocolat,” 1988); Jane Campion (“Sweetie,” 1989); John Singleton (“Boyz n the Hood,” 1991); Baz Luhrmann (“Strictly Ballroom,” 1992) and Philip Haas (“The Music of Chance,” 1993), among others. But given the 1,300 or so features that Cannes has unspooled during the past 25 years, that’s a low batting average.

To be fair, during his tenure, Jacob largely saw the Official Selection in those terms — a space to aspire to, after passing through Directors Fortnight and/or Critics Week. It’s a policy that current program topper Thierry Fremaux has been trying to adjust, with mixed success: This year’s selection, with eight first pics, will be an acid test for his and the committee’s selection skills.

However, even Cannes’ parallel sections have had a more mixed record for discovery during the past quarter century than in their earlier years. Since 1981, Critics Week can proudly notch on its belt the first features of Leos Carax, Amos Gitai, Idrissa Ouedraogo, Wong Kar Wai, Guillermo del Toro, Jacques Audiard, Gaspar Noe, Francois Ozon and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu — two of whom, del Toro and Gonzalez Inarritu, are in this year’s competition.

But it’s also been late to the table, only spotlighting John Sayles with his sophomore outing, “Lianna,” in 1983, after Toronto had launched him three years earlier with “Return of the Secaucus 7.” And especially since the departure of Jean Roy in 1999, after 16 years as section head, Critics’ Week has had a poor record for discovery.

Directors Fortnight has functioned more like an edgier alternative to the Official Selection, not necessarily as a pioneer of new talent. It can claim to have early championed (but not discovered) auteurs such as Atom Egoyan, Wayne Wang, Aki Kaurismaki, the Dardenne brothers, Michael Haneke, Terence Davies, Jim Jarmusch and Spike Lee. However, since 30-year-long topper Pierre-Henri Deleau left in 1998, the Fortnight has seen a shrinking even of this role.

Despite a fest’s rep, a change of topper can impact it in ways rarely given due credit, affecting its profile (and therefore clout in attracting pics) and ability to spot new talent. With the exception of the chronically strife-torn Venice, which has seen eight artistic directors in the past quarter-century, the rest of today’s Big Five have shown remarkable continuity in leadership, with Jacob at Cannes, Moritz de Hadeln at Berlin, Piers Handling at Toronto and Geoff Gilmore at Sundance building solid profiles for their events over the years.

Relentlessly inclusive

However, all except Gilmore have yielded to younger blood in the 21st century. The jury is still out on the exact direction in which Toronto (under Noah Cowan), Berlin (Dieter Kosslick) and Cannes (Fremaux) will go, especially in a fest scene where many of the old certainties and the pecking order are being swept aside and, even more than in the past, the circuit is effectively controlled by sales agents and distribs.

The ability of fests to launch and nurture new talent is being affected by growing corporatization, the prevalence of safer, less maverick programming and the apparent wisdom of the more titles the better. New talent is simply getting lost among the avalanche of pictures and ancillary events — and thus a fest’s ability to showcase discoveries and give them the requisite time to ripen in the sun. Fests were once exclusive; nowadays, they’re relentlessly inclusive.

No wonder, then, that “buzz” is becoming yesterday’s word. Sometimes, smaller can be better — for the industry, the public and the movies themselves. But that demands leaders who are confident in their selection and have a vision of cinema and its future, rather than trying to cover all bases at the same time.

The biggest irony is that the only attempt at leaner, more focused programming is being initiated by the oldest fest among the Big Five — the Grand Dame of all, Venice, not generally known for innovation. Maybe current head Marco Mueller has seen the real future. If so, he should share it with his colleagues.

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