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Programmers at five leading festivals expound on heady process of selecting films

The college admissions process is a cakewalk compared to the nerve-wracking wait at film festival application time.

Everyone knows that acceptance to a high-profile fest ratchets up the chances of a film’s success. But few understand the mechanics of the selection process.

Peeking behind the curtain at Cannes, Berlin, Venice, Toronto and Sundance, one finds five distinct procedures and a basic divide underneath. Euro festivals tend to have autonomous sections with separate artistic directors who confer with selection committees. North American events favor a squadron of programmers and a more porous structure, with selectors having input in multiple sections and collaborating under one roof.

Europe’s three major festivals evolved in fits and starts, with new sections emerging in reaction to perceived shortcomings. This history of counterprogramming helps explain a partitioned character that lingers today.

Cannes

Nowhere is this felt more acutely than at Cannes. Separate scouts troll for the fest’s main program, Official Selection, and the independently run Directors Fortnight and Critics Week.

Dominique Welinski was a U.S. scout last year for the indie-friendly Directors Fortnight, prescreening approximately 100 submissions in New York, plus 70 tapes sent directly to Paris. She winnowed these down to four, passing them on to then-Fortnight director Francois de Silva for a final decision. If he rejected something she felt strongly about, “I would rescreen my choice with him and make my argument,” she says.

Cannes Official Selection topper Thierry Fremaux works closely with two small committees to review French and international films. “Their first goal is to watch every film sent,” Fremaux says. “We watch over 850 features and it’s important to consider each one with respect.”

Their second job is to mull them over as a group and start determining appropriate sections. “I like to work collaboratively,” says Fremaux, but the final choice remains his.

If a film doesn’t make the cut, Fremaux might contact colleagues at Critics Week or Directors Fortnight to recommend it. “It’s case by case,” he says. “But there’s nothing official. We don’t have meetings or screen together. We don’t have time.”

Berlin

For many years, Berlin followed a similar path, but recently the walls between sections have started to crumble.

“Before, our relationships were rather icy,” admits Panorama director Wieland Speck of dialogue between the Official Program (Competition and Panorama) and the autonomous Forum.

With Dieter Kosslick’s arrival as Berlinale executive director and Ulrich Gregor’s retirement as Forum chief two years ago, that dynamic shifted. “It changed from a Cold War situation to a very collaborative and communicative situation,” says Speck.

That shift is now structural. International scouts work simultaneously for all three sections (though the Forum maintains some exclusive scouts). More important, Forum and Panorama honchos sit on the Competition’s main advisory selection board, alongside film historians, exhibs, producers and journalists. That means the section chiefs screen and discuss films together.

“It was a simple trick, but it worked,” says Kosslick. “Automatically the integration was done. I think you can see that the programming is much more coordinated now.”

Venice

Venice remains split, with the fest director responsible for the main event — Venezia 60, Upstream and New Territories — while Intl. Critics Week and the market-oriented Venice Screenings are independently programmed.

In his second year as festival head, Moritz de Hadeln is spreading authority within his domain. Two selection committee members, Serafino Murri and Fabrizio Grosoli, preselect the New Territories slate. Their choices are vetted by de Hadeln, so final authority remains at the top.

Toronto

At Toronto (and Sundance) authority is spread out more broadly. At the Canuck fest, a bevy of programmers each have around 15 slots to fill festivalwide.

“Every programmer makes their own decisions,” says Steve Gravestock, programming manager. “We all sign our names to them.” Thus, a section like Contemporary World Cinema might have a dozen programmers behind its 80-90 films.

To manage 1,500 open submissions, Gravestock and four consultants prescreen tapes, then refer them to the appropriate programmer. Rather uniquely, Toronto divides responsibility along geographic lines. Gravestock covers the Philippines, Australia and Nordic countries, while Kay Armatage follows American indies, for instance, screening work in the field and the office.

Programmers constantly pass films back and forth, and Gravestock tracks everyone’s shortlist. “That’s made available to all the programmers, so they know where we are,” he says.

Sundance

At Sundance, programmers track films throughout the year, then 21 prescreeners write coverage on open submissions.

To maintain consistency, “we also grade the screeners,” says fest topper Geoff Gilmore, “so you don’t have someone who’s an easy grader and someone who’s tough.” What’s more, a poorly graded film might get a screening if a programmer find its synopsis interesting.

“It’s tough, because in 80% of the cases, the films aren’t even finished,” he says, “and oftentimes people can’t tell the difference between what’s weird and what’s bad. Weird I need to see.”

Selection is a constant and ongoing process, Gilmore says. Throughout the final weeks, programmers jointly screen and discuss a shortening list, aided by a bulletin board pinned with titles.

Though some programmers are affiliated with specific areas, like world cinema or documentary, all debate the final slate. Gilmore has ultimate authority, but, he says, “I don’t say, ‘Convince me.’ I sit there and I’m part of the argument.”

The bottom line: “We work much more collectively.”

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