Corrections were made to this article on Aug. 17, 2003.
LOCARNO, Switzerland — The barbarians are at the gates of the world’s great film festivals.
Events like the Locarno Film Festival, which this week wraps up its 56th unspooling, are confronting an unsettling question: Should they remain bastions of elitist film fare, or let down their hair and embrace the crowds of general-interest film fans?
The latter option, not surprisingly, would please the private sponsors who love to associate their brands with hip young film auds — and could broaden the fests’ appeal in a time when corporate patronage is stretched ever thinner.
Here in Locarno, there’s a palpable sense that an edgy fest long known for its creative discoveries may be forced to choose between pulling up the drawbridge or putting out the welcome mat.
Longtime Locarno festgoers, the ones who remember watching films on the lawn in front of the Grande Hotel, couldn’t care less about movie stars. Yet the papers were full of critiques of fest artistic director Irene Bignardi for failing to deliver star power.
The Aug. 9 European premiere of “Calendar Girls” in Locarno should have thrilled Buena Vista Intl. general manager for Switzerland Roger Crotti, as some 9,500 fans in the town’s Piazza Grande gave the film an enthusiastic reception.
So it was a bit surprising that Crotti told Swiss daily Basler Zeitung that Locarno “needs a good mixture of sophisticated, but not too sophisticated, films. But the festival didn’t manage to get this mixture this year.”
Even better received than Crotti’s film was Bavaria Films’ sports epic “The Miracle of Bern,” which drew another huge crowd and even more rapturous applause.
But the critics in the press screening the night before had quite the opposite reaction. Boos and hisses were accompanied by taunts from some of the assembled journos yelling “Shame on Bignardi! Bring back Marco Muller!” (the fest’s former artistic director).
The best example of the pressures to go more mainstream or to stay the “pure art” course came from an interview I did last week for BBC’s “Today” program.
Edinburgh Fest artistic director Shane Danielsen and I were supposed to be talking about the accessibility and entertainment value of the films in his upcoming fest’s “New Europe” section.
I talked up the excitement of Europe’s new generation of filmmakers and passed the baton to Shane.
But the normally feisty and passionate Danielsen launched into a scholarly and somewhat torpid discourse on a Slovenian entry about illegal immigrants. Laudable as the film might be, it wasn’t the most scintillating example to set moviegoers’ pulses racing.
After the show, one U.K. industryite offered an explanation as to why the two-fisted Danielsen suddenly turned bookish on-air: “He has to cover his flank with all of the other fest directors who would make fun of him if he talked about something that wasn’t dark and obscure.”
At this year’s Cannes, purists complained about the inclusion of the “Matrix Reloaded” screening, but because there weren’t the required number of movie stars and breakout hits, the fest was deemed a dud by mainstream media.
By artistic standards, however, it was a solid-enough fest. A dozen of the Cannes films were set to shine in Toronto, one was opening the New York Film Festival and another dozen drew substantial sales deals.
So, should fests laser-focus on discovering and presenting the best in film art, or should they chase stars for TV and print coverage that helps bring in sponsorship coin that in turn helps drive expectations of more stars and audience-friendly fare?
Pity the poor fest director who fails to find the answer. Even programming the best Slovenian immigrant-smuggling drama in the world won’t be enough to save them.