Rising film festival stress

Glut of events creates high-stakes rivalries

At the fourth annual Intl. Film Festival Summit in Las Vegas last week, fest honchos huddled together in panel sessions with names like “Creating a Sustainable Festival,” showing a sense of camaraderie, friendliness and mutual support.

But then, most attendees there were new to the game. Among veteran fest programmers and execs, it’s more a case of strong rivalries, poaching and a secret desire that their compatriots would disappear in a puff of smoke.

Competition among film fests has always been sharp, but it’s become cutthroat as fests proliferate, with literally thousands of them vying for world premieres, stars and, crucially, sponsors. If the films are good, it’s almost a bonus.

The Festival Summit has seen its attendance double every year as orgs look to cash in on the festival craze. The stakes are high and the payoff can be big. Toronto’s Piers Handling says, “The festival brings the kind of spending to the city of Toronto that is only bested by Christmas.”

Sometimes this general sense of rivalry becomes specific.

The competition between Venice and Rome is palpable. Same is true for Texas’ South by Southwest and Tribeca, plus Santa Barbara and Palm Springs.

The rivalry between the fests in Dubai (which runs Dec. 9-16) and Abu Dhabi (with an inaugural fest that ran Oct. 14-19) is a microcosm of the fest rivalries.

Dubai was the reigning fest of the United Arab Emirates until upstart Abu Dhabi debuted this year. The latter scored a coup by landing Harvey Weinstein and Paul Haggis as attendees. Dubai upped the stakes by landing George Clooney.

Each event’s promoters speak with authority about showcasing and funding films from the Emirates, even though some suspect that local filmmakers take a back seat to glitter and hoopla. (And, as an ironic side note, the Emirates had no film industry until five years ago. In the history of cinema, it’s doubtful that any local filmmakers have ever enjoyed such a loving headstart.)

Many of the fest programmers, such as Palm Springs’ Darryl MacDonald and Sundance’s Geoff Gilmore, are sophisticated film lovers who are into the art of cinema. But the new festival landscape is increasingly forcing fest execs into the role of businessman/dealmaker.

At the Vegas confab, Denver’s Britta Erickson explained to newbie fests that they need to date and sleep with their sponsor companies — at least figuratively. “Let them know it’s not a one-night stand. Try to get them to sign a two-year agreement.”

The race to land a big sponsor has never been more heated. For most fests, sponsorship money accounts for 80% of their annual budget, which for fests in major cities is $1 million-$2 million.

Hamptons fest’s David Nugent says: “Sponsors want a lot of people — powerful people, young people, celebs, good audiences. Not a lot of sponsors are focused on the industry.”

For Sarasota’s Tom Hall, “Some sponsors are content-driven and want the promise of stars and celebs. We have to oblige that to satisfy that sponsor.”

The major events — Sundance, Berlin, Cannes, Venice, Toronto, etc. — compete to land the latest film from the Coen brothers or Wong Kar Wai, or to discover the next “Little Miss Sunshine.” Mid-range fests are similarly competing, with programmers beseeching distribs and sales agents for hot films — with stars. A celeb goes a long way in satisfying sponsorship and press desires.

Some distribs and sales agents have hired extra help just to deal with the 4,000-plus fest offers.

To deal with the onslaught, distrib and sales agents have started charging rental fees between $200 and $2,000. Some even demand a cut of the festival box office.

“One foreign sales agent wanted to charge E1,000 ($1,472) for two screenings. At that rate, we are losing money,” says Sarasota’s Hall, who this year has seen rental fees double.

Hall says that’s where the vicious cycle begins again: Sponsors want press, press want celebs, and so the fest has to pay.

This forces a fest — which in theory is a local art event — to think and monetize like a exhibitor.

Telluride co-director Gary Meyer doesn’t make many fans among festival execs when he remarks they should be open to paying fees to distributors. Meyer believes that as arthouses close, festivals must step up: “I take the filmmakers’ point of view on this. In cities where the film won’t ever play, this is their theatrical run.”

Landing a big-name sponsor also gives some fests a sense of legitimacy, sometimes to its detriment. “The challenge for many of these fests is building a set of creative standards,” says Sundance’s Gilmore. “But sometimes the sponsors are wagging the dog.”

Nevertheless, many major liquor companies have become so inundated with requests they simply refer festivals to a web form to fill out, and they rarely call back.

And if it’s not a question of sponsors, it’s a question of stars. “The press love premieres,” says Palm Springs’ Darryl MacDonald. “The leads of any coverage are about what is premiering at what festival.”

The battle over premieres always brings up jealousies about Telluride, the fest in Colorado over Labor Day weekend that regularly gets the cream of the specialty-house crop. When other fests protested Telluride’s program was essentially one of premieres, the org tried to tamp down concerns by countering that the fest offers sneaks and special screenings. The word “premiere” was removed from the Telluride website completely.

The AFI Fest in Los Angeles last month scheduled Jason Reitman’s “Juno” as its centerpiece gala, which fest organizers believed would be its U.S. “premiere,” even though the pic first screened at Telluride. But AFI execs were shocked to learn it was slated to play weeks earlier at the Austin Film Festival.

MacDonald uses the awards season to push the Palm Springs event, which runs in early January. Each year, its award galas for potential Oscar nominees are watched closely, and the studios pay attention. Macdonald says they “have become one of the bellwethers of the awards season, particularly with foreign films.”

Competing with them is the nearby Santa Barbara fest, which holds its galas just a few weeks later, right after the Oscar noms are announced. Santa Barbara’s Roger Durling says, “You gotta have a gimmick. Ours is timing. We figured it out in the last five years. We need this window dressing to build the other film programs.”

Waco Hoover, president of the Fest Summit, says one of the goals of his tradeshow is to act as matchmaker between fests and sponsors. “Seattle met one of its major sponsors, Samsung, at the Summit. Previously, we’ve had reps from BMW, Adobe, Avid, Southwest Airlines and Marriott.”

The new AFI Dallas fest is an example of a new kind of festival, one backed with a lot of sponsor connections and start-up cash. The fest is the brainchild of ad exec Leiner Temerlin, who brought in Ross Perot Jr.’s mega-development, Victory Park, and Target to help build a fest with a $3 million-$4 million annual budget. He also licensed the AFI name from the Institute for a reported six figures in a multiyear deal. While AFI Dallas is run as a separate business from the Institute and its other festivals, the association brought instant credibility.

Sometimes throwing cash doesn’t always work. Abu Dhabi saw the huge success of the Dubai fest, and wanted it. The richest city in the world looked for its legitimacy by hiring a team of American contractors (headed by fest vet Jon Fitzgerald) to build an event in four months. To separate itself from Dubai, Abu Dhabi began by branding itself as a film financing conference.

But in the red-carpet haze, the glitz factor of hosting Weinstein and Haggis threw the balance off. One person with knowledge of the behind-the-scenes build-up says that the Arab film program was literally an afterthought as the festival realized, to its embarrassment, that its competition was mostly American and European titles.

For such reasons, Gilmore is leery of film festivals as an industry. “There’s no formula. A festival should be a cultural event, not a business opportunity.”

The Tribeca fest was born just after 9/11, with a mandate to rebuild lower Manhattan. But when it announced its dates for April and insisted on premieres for its competition, it was considered a huge insult not only to Cannes, happening only weeks later, but also to a list of post-Sundance festivals that rely on Sundance rejects for their own premiere program.

“We lose out annually to Tribeca,” says Sarasota’s Tom Hall. “They have a mandate for premieres, but we don’t. Three to five films a year back out.”

Many grumble that Tribeca, now in its seventh year, is growing too rich and too big. Tribeca responded by making staff changes and by trimming down its program. Despite the growing pains, many New York-based execs want Tribeca to succeed if only to create a business festival where most distribs and sales agents have offices.

Sundance’s Gilmore sees a landscape so full of festivals — there are an estimated 5,000-plus worldwide — that he doesn’t give much advice to new ones. To people wanting to start one, he’s tempted to say, “Don’t.”

Fred Kramer, who runs film festival database Withoutabox, says: “The proliferation of film festivals is not sustainable. There will be some kind of attrition very soon.”

Denver’s Britta Erickson agreed, as she looked over the 200 registrants at the Vegas gathering. “Many of these festivals won’t last five years,” she said.

Read Michael’s blog, The Circuit, for more fest news and opinion – variety.com/thecircuit.

More Film

  • No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No

    'Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom' Feasts on $150 Million Opening

    At the fourth annual Intl. Film Festival Summit in Las Vegas last week, fest honchos huddled together in panel sessions with names like “Creating a Sustainable Festival,” showing a sense of camaraderie, friendliness and mutual support. But then, most attendees there were new to the game. Among veteran fest programmers and execs, it’s more a […]

  • NANTUCKET, MA - JUNE 23: (L-R)

    How Long Will TV and Film's Boom Market for Female Stories Last?

    At the fourth annual Intl. Film Festival Summit in Las Vegas last week, fest honchos huddled together in panel sessions with names like “Creating a Sustainable Festival,” showing a sense of camaraderie, friendliness and mutual support. But then, most attendees there were new to the game. Among veteran fest programmers and execs, it’s more a […]

  • 'Ideal Home' Review: Steve Coogan, Paul

    Film Review: 'Ideal Home'

    At the fourth annual Intl. Film Festival Summit in Las Vegas last week, fest honchos huddled together in panel sessions with names like “Creating a Sustainable Festival,” showing a sense of camaraderie, friendliness and mutual support. But then, most attendees there were new to the game. Among veteran fest programmers and execs, it’s more a […]

  • 'Calibre' Review: A Terrific, Intensely Terrifying

    Edinburgh Film Review: 'Calibre'

    At the fourth annual Intl. Film Festival Summit in Las Vegas last week, fest honchos huddled together in panel sessions with names like “Creating a Sustainable Festival,” showing a sense of camaraderie, friendliness and mutual support. But then, most attendees there were new to the game. Among veteran fest programmers and execs, it’s more a […]

  • CHRIS PRATT stars as Owen in

    Box Office: 'Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom' Gnaws on $144 Million Debut Weekend

    At the fourth annual Intl. Film Festival Summit in Las Vegas last week, fest honchos huddled together in panel sessions with names like “Creating a Sustainable Festival,” showing a sense of camaraderie, friendliness and mutual support. But then, most attendees there were new to the game. Among veteran fest programmers and execs, it’s more a […]

  • Leung Chiu-wai

    Tony Leung Breaks With Wong Kar-wai’s Jettone (Reports)

    At the fourth annual Intl. Film Festival Summit in Las Vegas last week, fest honchos huddled together in panel sessions with names like “Creating a Sustainable Festival,” showing a sense of camaraderie, friendliness and mutual support. But then, most attendees there were new to the game. Among veteran fest programmers and execs, it’s more a […]

  • No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No

    ‘Jurassic World’ Holds off ‘Incredibles 2’ in China

    At the fourth annual Intl. Film Festival Summit in Las Vegas last week, fest honchos huddled together in panel sessions with names like “Creating a Sustainable Festival,” showing a sense of camaraderie, friendliness and mutual support. But then, most attendees there were new to the game. Among veteran fest programmers and execs, it’s more a […]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content