Autumn film festivals

Big changes require new survival techniques

The fall season now offers so many permutations of festivals and markets to attend that bizzers nowadays make difficult choices about allocation of their time and resources — and then spend three months looking over their shoulder to see if they have picked the right events.

Toronto and Pusan? Or Rome and Mipcom? What if your movie didn’t make the cut in Venice? Is San Sebastian worth a shot if it is offered a slot in competition? Is the more commercial, straight-to-AFM route viable for a serious pic with Oscar aspirations?

Answers have always depended on the individual movie. But even as recently as five years ago the variables were markedly fewer. Consider the following:

  • At the beginning of the decade, Toronto fest organizers still pretended they were not operating a market, simply a fest with some very well-managed industry screenings.

  • Venice was sinking contentedly into the mud of the Lagoon. Today, under recently reupped topper Marco Mueller, it is star-struck, desperate for a market and aiming to build a palazzo that may rival Toronto’s soon-to-be-ready center.

  • Urged on by a vocal fringe, the American Film Market shifted from February slot to early November. That killed off the unloved but effective Mifed event in Milan and put more emphasis on the fall as a time to buy and sell movies. In the process, it also handed Berlin’s specialty European Film Market an undreamed-of opportunity to expand.

  • The Academy Awards edged earlier by four weeks. Supposedly a move to reduce the lobby period, the effect has been to cut Berlin out as an Oscar showcase and instead set the whole of the fall season, from Locarno in August through Palm Springs in January, as campaigning time.

  • Five years ago, Asian territories accounted for a significantly smaller share of the global movie trade. Today, booms in Korea and Japan and the growth of China as an economic powerhouse (if not yet as a film player) have embolden Asian companies to argue that others should travel to them. In 2006, the Pusan festival upgraded its informal market into something more ambitious.

  • The Rome Film Fest had not been born. Its arrival in October 2006, with wealth and fanfare, made it a rival to Venice and helped to overshadow San Sebastian. Timing last year meant it offered a dilemma to bizzers who had committed to attend Pusan, with which it supposedly maintains cooperative relations; however, a shift to late October means execs can go to both.

“The September-October period is one-and-a-half very busy months,” says Rome’s chief selector, Teresa Cavina. “We think it is possible to concentrate on three key markets: Toronto, which is the door to North America; Rome, which we want to be the European rendezvous; and Pusan, which is a great fall appointment for Asian buyers and sellers.”

Cannes and Sundance have demonstrated that at other times of the year powerful festivals have become de facto markets. Cavina says Rome is trying to serve both industry and local audiences: “Both are part of the life of a movie. We need the industry to circulate the films and audiences to go see them and respond.”

AFM’s global footprint

The AFM, notably absent from Cavina’s three events strategy, has even added in a fest component through an alliance with the AFI Fest held in L.A. at the same time. While the jury is out on the AFM-AFI collaboration, sales and distribution specialists find AFM compelling as it is one of the few events that has a global footprint including Latin America and the Middle East, though its accent on commercial and video TV fare keeps arthouse specialists away.

“From a seller’s point of view, the AFM is still the most important autumn event,” says Albert Lee of Hong Kong’s Emperor Motion Pictures, who last year joined the board of market organizer Independent Film and Television Alliance. “The AFM, Cannes and Hong Kong Filmart are the year’s three essentials with Venice, Toronto and all the others really depending on whether we have a film present. Otherwise we could go to one every week.”

And that’s the problem. Markets are becoming more like festivals, while festivals are becoming more like markets, and both seem to be multiplying.

Toronto is the one that has become a key launchpad for Oscar campaigns. Its timing at the end of the summer blockbuster season, dovetails with that of the Venice fest, allowing films and execs to swiftly access European and American markets.

The attraction of that combo had typically been about basking in the sexy, Old World kudos of the Venice Lido , and then moving on to Toronto to meet the North American buyers and close deals. Nowadays it seems both want a bit of what the other has got: Venice craves a market and Toronto wants glitz.

Indeed, Toronto’s noncompetitive gala nights have become popular as they offer a nonjudgmental springboard at the top of the Oscar season. And they are frequently imitated. Venice and Rome are expanding their galas, and Pusan fest will amp up its program this year with a first-ever series of galas.

Roman holiday

Independents and studios alike face the same dilemma of choice. “We will be taking ‘Across the Universe’ to Rome for its European premiere this year. That’s a first,” says Sony Pictures senior VP of marketing Sal Ladestro.

Galas offer more than stars and studio movies. They bring with them sponsorship and the press. Toronto has been important because it is able to attract the North American press, which rarely travels to festivals overseas. Now it is going after international journos as well.

“We’ve been helping them with accessing this,” Ladestro says. “Ten years ago, when I was working for Venice, newspapers had much more cinephile attitudes. Journalists were allowed to discover what the festival had to offer and could come home with one big name interview. Now it is the reverse. They convince their editors to let them go with the promise of something about DiCaprio or Kidman and can then maybe sneak in something about a film they came across while there.”

Fests, too, are growing in scale, showing more films and adding more sidebars. “Midnight” genre sections are fast becoming the norm as fests extend their range from auteur-driven staple into commercial and aud-friendly territory.

With more films, more festivals and more countries sponsoring industry-support initiatives, it seems that blurring of the lines between fests and markets is set to continue — and so is tension within the industry.

The mushrooming of events has coincided with a change in the international-sales landscape. Gilbert Lim, both seller and buyer at Thailand’s biggest studio, Sahamongkolfilm, is representative of distribs around the globe when he says: “Our marketplace is full of (Hollywood) blockbusters, and our local films are doing quite well. There’s almost nothing left in between for acquisitions. Many acquisitions have not performed to expectations.”

The expansion of movie production and the growth in the number of festivals could be seen as a happy coincidence, but without a growth in quality, the picture is becoming murkier. The expanded number of prizes and galas on offer devalues all.

There are signs of a hierarchy emerging. Those top sales agents, who are in command of slates of the most sought-after festival films, are increasingly asking for screening fees that range from $500 to $2,000. Ostensibly to cover extra prints, handling costs and lost theatrical revenue, the fees are also seen as a mechanism to sift out the least serious events.

Equally, AFM is increasingly picky, too. The notion of “market premieres” is a growing currency, with films that have been to other sales events being allocated to less-favored venues or timeslots.

Neither trend will necessarily cut the number of miles traveled by sales and acquisitions execs. But they may help bizzers make more rational choices.

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