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Battle behind the scenes

Dueling fests cast doubt on org's relevance

LONDON — The Sundance Film Festival is not a member, but Cannes, Berlin, Venice, San Sebastian and Locarno are. Toronto is the only North American member, but is rated in a separate, lower-seeming category along with London, Sydney and Melbourne.

Confused? Welcome to the controversial world of the Intl. Federation of Film Producers Assns.

FIAPF celebrated its 70th birthday this year, but almost no one — in or out of the fest world — fully understands it. And of the globe’s 700-plus filmathons, only about 50 are actually members.

That number decreased by one this May, when Montreal, after decades as a member — known for proudly proclaiming itself North America’s only category-A, competitive festival — withdrew from the org after a spat over this year’s dates.

Ironically, one of FIAPF’s most important tasks is to police and resolve disputes among film festivals — an ever-growing and more complex world where the battle to get premieres, prints and publicity grows annually more intense. Paris-based FIAPF is actually an amalgamation of producers’ organizations across the globe, such as the Motion Picture Assn. of America and the U.K.’s Producers Alliance for Cinema & Television (PACT).

When longtime Montreal head Serge Losique moved his fest’s dates this year to Aug. 27-Sept. 7, completely overlapping Venice and intersecting with Toronto by four days, smouldering enmities burst suddenly into flames. The rival Canuck fests had long settled into a pattern of separation by a three-day breathing space, allowing press (if not many pics) to attend both events; there was always some overlap between Montreal and Venice, but not of this exactitude.

One of FIAPF’s self-appointed jobs is to ensure fests move dates in synch, thereby facilitating movement of prints and talent. FIAPF managing director Bertrand Moullier decried Losique’s action as “setting a dangerous precedent,” and promptly decertified the Montreal event. In a detailed reply, Losique responded, “We have informed FIAPF that the Montreal World Film Festival did not wish to be ‘accredited’ by an association that has no real authority.”

Beneath all the mud-slinging on both sides — Venice head Moritz de Hadeln even described Losique as “the Al Capone of Montreal” — lies a basic question. In today’s fast-moving fest world, unrecognizable from the genteel scene of even 25 years ago, would anybody invent FIAPF if it didn’t exist already?

The overriding response from an unofficial straw-poll by Variety is “yes, but with some major reservations.”

Toronto director Piers Handling speaks for many when he says the fest world needs some kind of central org to bring order to the scene. “It’s true that for many years Toronto wasn’t interested in joining FIAPF. But we eventually decided to join a decade or so ago, as we found it very useful in settling disputes when some festivals started behaving in a wildcat way.”

Other members also note FIAPF is useful in things like standardizing and monitoring fest entry forms – the paperwork that details what fests can do with prints, how many times they can show a film, the length of extracts used for publicity, and so on. This protects producers’ rights when a picture is shown at any FIAPF-accredited event.

But Moullier himself hinted to Variety that the org is facing the conundrum of “who needs it?” nowadays. And he is aware of the gripes — from well before his stewardship — about FIAPF reps running up pricey hotel and travel tabs, supposedly in the service of “certifying” far-flung fests in glamorous locales.

When it comes to the question of the perceived “quality” of one fest over another — which the FIAPF categories essentially sidestep (see box) — Handling notes that the market essentially decides for itself. “FIAPF is very useful for us in some respects, but Toronto is already recognised as one of the world’s leading events. Many national associations that shepherd films into festivals, such as The British Council, keep their own lists of the important events.”

A large number of events manage to flourish without FIAPF accreditation, most notably Sundance. Per Sundance topper Geoff Gilmore, the hugely successful fest had “an opportunity to join a number of years ago,” but it was an offer he found he could refuse.

“It hasn’t hurt Sundance,” says Gilmore with characteristic bluntness, aligning himself with other fest directors critical of FIAPF. “In my view, (FIAPF) is about protecting the needs of the producers, and this is an agenda that was set many years ago and might have worked in the world of film festivals decades ago.”

Echoed another major fest director, “It’s always seemed an irony that festivals are regulated by a producers’ association and not by one composed of peers.”

(A primary reason could be that, in the early, post World War II years of the festival scene, films were nominated for inclusion by the producers’ organizations in various countries, rather than independently selected by festival commitees as they are now.)

Major fest directors attempted to address the situation some 10 years ago, when they met informally during the Berlin festival (but not under its auspices) and made an attempt set up such an org. But Cannes declined to join the meeting, and despite a subsequent huddle, the idea collapsed. “It’s never going to happen until Cannes joins the table,” opines the fest director.

Having come to head FIAPF only in the past year, Moullier is candid about the organization’s shortcomings.

“It was a plow-and-ox operation when I started,” he admits, adding he was “shocked that there wasn’t even a website.” It’s now under construction, and he pledges that it will be up and running by October.

While monitoring fests is FIAPF’s most visible work, Moullier notes that the majority of the org’s energies are devoted to “lobbying, audiovisual laws, copyright issues, tax regulations, and anti-piracy efforts,” as well as what he terms being “enthusiastic participants in rolling out new technologies.”

He wants to see FIAPF “modernize its regulations and more actively participate in the life of fests,” such as bringing the anti-piracy crusade to the festival circuit. He stresses that FIAPF “gives quality feedback to festival directors” and helps festivals access public funds in the form of arts subsidies.

Journalists and other seasoned fest pros would argue that they, the frontline users, provide more than enough feedback, continually offering criticisms and suggestions to festival heads.

Still, Moullier, with his pledge for “more professionalism and transparency in our dealings with fests,” is getting high marks from critics who have voiced disdain for FIAPF in the past.

He can also take some solace in Gilmore’s professed “openness to what Moullier says about having a new agenda.” In Gilmore’s view, “we (festival directors) do need an internal organization to meet and converse and exchange ideas. We do have a mutual interest in protecting the quality of the fest environment as well as the many archival operations.

Such an effort, says Gilmore, with understatement, “could be interesting.”