Fest chiefs mull future in Cannes

Marketing-over-film mentality infiltrating events

Film fests have evolved from purely artistic gatherings into a virtual industry that must mix art with commerce, a move that concerned the panelists at Saturday’sVariety Conference Series panel.

The fest chiefs — Cannes honcho Thierry Fremaux; Sundance director Geoffrey Gilmore; Marco Mueller, who takes over Venice this year; Locarno head Irene Bignardi; Toronto co-director Noah Cowan; and San Sebastian’s Mikel Olaciregui Arrieta — agreed that fests could be thrown out of balance as they are used as a marketing tool for more commercial movies.

In the sesh, moderated by Variety exec editor international Steven Gaydos, they cautioned it’s a real juggling act putting it all together in order to please everyone. In fact, it may be impossible.

“Years ago, we would have said there’s such a thing as a festival film. Now fests are very much launch platforms not just for movies but for everything,” Gilmore said. “The cultural and business aspect of what festivals are is going through change. They say Sundance isn’t what it used to be, but what is that anyway? Festivals now have to deal with multiple agendas.”

Gilmore pointed out, however, that Sundance isn’t positioned to figure into a film’s marketing scheme because it comes in January, not the ideal time to launch a pic. In fact, he said, 80% of the pics he screens are not even finished when he views them, as opposed to Cannes and Venice, which are featuring such big-budget pics as “Troy” and “Shrek 2,” hardly the arty fare once associated with most fests.

“European festivals are now release-date-oriented, and the festival becomes the peak of a marketing campaign,” said Mueller, whose Venice fest will feature the latest Spielberg-Hanks collaboration, “The Terminal,” as it sets sail internationally.

Bignardi blamed the media in part for forcing fests into new areas. “In papers, pure criticism has become less important. It’s the attitude of the editor-in-chief, who wants other aspects covered,” she said. “A festival is now events more than films.”

Olaciregui Arrieta agreed. “It’s a problem when you put everything into a festival and the media doesn’t write about the movies. It’s not good.”

Panelists also seemed to agree the pressure to deliver 100% great films is a bit daunting.

“When a selection is good it’s because of the film, but when it’s bad it’s because of us,” lamented Fremaux, obviously still smarting from negative coverage last year.

“Gilles Jacob told me five years ago you will see what a bad year is. I saw. It’s the press that fixates on other aspects of Cannes, but to me it’s the film. Every film to me is like a film we produced.”

Competition for hot titles was another topic with Toronto’s Cowan, who said he regularly confabs with Venice since both occur at the same time. He said cooperation is key, as both fests are important for producers in different ways.

All agreed that despite the changing universe and commercial influences, it’s important to keep an edge and not lose sight of why they are there in the first place.

“The idea that we take risks is what festivals are all about. That’s what we should do,” Gilmore said.