Event centers on the future of festivals

Fill a ballroom with directors of film festivals and you’ll hear a representative sampling of their anxieties, from the challenges of finding sponsors and attracting media attention to the cost of importing big-name stars for red carpet appearances.

One anxiety left unvoiced at the fourth annual Intl. Film Festival Summit, however, was that there may simply be too many fests, with an estimated 4,000-7,000 worldwide.

Piers Handling, CEO of the Toronto Film Festival Group, said as video viewing on the Internet explodes, audiences will actually find more value in the real-world opportunities that festivals offer to meet filmmakers and fellow cineastes.

But Handling also spoke in his keynote address of worries that the biggest festivals are “verging on being co-opted by the industry,” used as a promotional launch pad for more commercial fare.

Handling told Daily Variety that while he acknowledges the need to engage audiences in new ways, he doesn’t think his festival would be willing to experiment with letting audiences select some of the films that screen there.

Smaller fests, though, are giving audience-driven programming a whirl. The Independent Television Festival in L.A., for instance, has a “second chance” slot, allowing Internet users to vote into the festival a TV pilot they believe the selection committee has overlooked. And next month’s Slamdance Film Festival will include five short films created by users of the Current TV website.

Telluride Film Festival co-director Gary Meyer theorized that regional film festivals are filling the spot vanishing arthouse cinemas once occupied in the cultural landscape.

Tech vendors were a major presence at the conference. Seattle company IndieFlix was touting a way for festivals to sell “online passes” that would allow fans and industryites to view fest movies online if they couldn’t attend in person. Chris Hyams, CEO of Austin, Texas-based B-Side Entertainment, said his software could help recommend movies that fest attendees might enjoy, based on their individual tastes.

Sessions on selling sponsorship and working with the media were packed with attendees. Less full was a session led by two independent filmmakers, who advised fest organizers to drop their entry fees, supply free travel and housing and make sure that filmmakers could gain entry to the best parties.

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