Niche card is fests’ ace in the hole

On spring fest circuit, usefulness takes precedence

In an ever-more-crowded festival landscape, the big questions — What is the focus? Who does it serve? And how well? — become all the more important. Accordingly, we trained the spotlight on these 10 springtime fests primarily on the basis of their usefulness, either to the industry, to their audiences, or, ideally, both.

Over recent decades, the concept of a festival as simply a small, well-programmed selection of films has fallen somewhat out of favor, as organizers have added all sorts of bells and whistles — first prizes, then markets, then production arms; now every fest seems to offer training and mentoring facilities. Expect many of these initiatives to be scaled back in increasingly tough economic times, as sponsorship and government funding becomes more elusive, and attendees even more cautious about how to spend their cash.

The answer might be to do one thing well — or, to put it in marketing-speak (which is, increasingly, the dominant discourse of the fest world), to define a Unique Selling Point. Niche- and city-based fests, tapping into the loyalty of a dedicated audience, may prosper; sprawling, overly ambitious events might not. Either way, it’s an interesting time to be a fest director … and a ticket-buyer.

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Dates: Feb. 24-March 3
Location: Cartagena, Colombia
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Latin America’s oldest film fest, Cartagena kicks off its 51st edition with a new director — Monika Wagenberg, a former programmer at Miami and New York’s Intl. Latino Film Fest, and ex-topper of Houston’s Latin Wave Festival — and a new mission: to serve as the international gateway for the nation’s filmmakers. (“All the best Colombian films should begin their festival circuit in Cartagena,” Wagenberg has said. “FICCI must become more than just a local showcase for Colombian cinema — it should be our window to the international market.”) And with renewed federal funding to support local talent — administered through the national promotion fund, Proimagenes en Movimiento — and also attract foreign shoots, her timing might prove fortuitous.

Dates: March 1-13
Location: San Jose, Calif.
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As befits its setting, in the heart of Silicon Valley, Cinequest manages to straddle two worlds — film geeks and financial barons — with remarkable alacrity; not many fests can boast homepage testimonials from both Forbes Magazine and Ain’t It Cool News. Eager to emphasize its “maverick” stance (“daring to act as a catalyst of dynamic change in a cookie-cutter world”), the fest has long positioned itself at the cutting edge, as a showcase for new technologies and champion of the more DIY end of U.S. and global indie filmmaking, with programming that routinely eschews the typical fest fare. And having recently added a production shingle — Cinequest Mavericks Studio — to its distribution arm (Cinequest Distribution, natch, founded in 2006, and currently boasting a catalog of more than 60 titles, available on DVD and PPV/VOD), this outsider is anything but content to rest on its laurels.

Dates: March 4-13
Location: Sofia, Bulgaria
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Part of a loose cartel of like-minded Eastern Euro fests (including Warsaw, Cottbus, Transylvania and Karlovy Vary), Sofia continues to be overseen by its original creator, the indefatigable Stefan Kitanov, and retains a loose, carnivalesque atmosphere that recalls its origins, 15 years ago, as a music fest that happened, between bands, to screen some videos. Today it’s one of the Balkans’ cultural fixtures, with a competition strand showcasing first and second features, and the Sofia Meetings, a production market (March 10-13) that regularly draws industry pros from across the region and beyond. And while Bulgaria’s filmmakers have not yet managed to generate the same heat as their Romanian neighbors, it’s not for lack of enthusiasm.

Dates: March 11-19
Location: Austin, Texas
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SXSW has in recent years cultivated something of a house style: films too modest and handmade to survive the feeding frenzy at Sundance, yet too idiosyncratically American for easy export — last year’s winner, “Tiny Furniture,” being a prime example. Most of the so-called Mumblecore pack — Joe Swanberg, Andrew Bujalski, the Duplass brothers — have done very nicely here. Yet there are signs, this time, of a broader palette, with world preems for Jodie Foster’s buzzed-about Mel Gibson vehicle “The Beaver,” the sophomore effort from “Moon” helmer Duncan Jones (“Source Code,” which opens this edition) and “Paul,” the latest from Greg Mottola (“Superbad,” “Daytrippers”) about two sci-fi geeks (Simon Pegg, Nick Frost) who make a pilgrimage to America’s UFO heartland.

Dates: March 20-April 5
Location: Hong Kong
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Pusan might be the current colossus of the Far East fests, but Hong Kong continues to hold its own. Not only does a dedicated army of locals flock to its exhaustive screenings program (this year, more than 290 titles are set to unspool in 11 venues across the territory), but an equally loyal cadre of international buyers also head East, drawn both to the Filmart (“Hong Kong’s always been known for its shopping,” as one TV buyer put it) and to the Hong Kong-Asia Film Financing Forum, which aims to hook up more than 1,000 filmmakers, financiers and distribs.
As if this wasn’t hectic enough, the fest will also host the fifth annual Asian Film Awards, which takes place March 21, and will be broadcast to more than 300 million viewers around the world.

Dates: March 23-April 3
Location: New York
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Split between venerable (N.Y. Film Fest) and upstart Gotham institutions (Tribeca), ND/NF has quietly carved out its own enduring place: more surprising in its selections than the former, more focused and cohesive than the latter. Expect the usual balance of newish fest hits and out-of-left-field discoveries from this 40th anniversary edition, whose program includes Honggi Li’s “Winter Vacation,” German helmer Pia Marais’ “At Ellen’s Sage” and Denis Villeneuve’s Venice hit “Incendies.” Underlining it all, meanwhile, is a genuinely curatorial tone, befitting its status as an annual collaboration between the two of the city’s cultural heavyweights, the Museum of Modern Art and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

Dates: April 2-17
Location: Istanbul
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As Turkish auteurs such as Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Semih Kaplanoglu and Reha Erdem began to garner international acclaim, they started sidestepping their country’s flagship fest for higher-profile preem slots at Berlin and Cannes. Consequently, the Istanbul Film Fest faced the usual challenge for a national event in a hot production sector: how to maintain its own relevance, and sustain international attention on Turkish cinema beyond a few breakout stars. That dilemma is ongoing; but thankfully, the local selection is only part of the story here. The fest was always more a public than an industry affair, and its original mission — to bring world cinema to its auds in the capital — remains its true selling point. Not to mention its location, in one of the most breathtaking cities in the world.

Dates: April 20-May 1
Location: New York
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Tribeca faced growing criticism last year, with a number of think pieces — most notably, a screed by Eric Kohn in Indiewire — arguing that the fest, now a decade old, has yet to establish either a clear direction or a cohesive identity. The addition of longtime Sundance topper Geoff Gilmore has yet to transform it, as many industry pros expected; international buyers are still reluctant to make the trip Stateside, so close to Cannes; and a year after the departure of Peter Scarlett, no artistic director has been appointed. Nevertheless, the fest retains a certain name recognition on the circuit, and last year’s decision to expand screenings across Manhattan met with qualified approval, if not quite the blockbuster returns some hoped. A work-in-progress, then. Still.

Dates: April 21-May 5
Location: San Francisco
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Its ranks bolstered by the addition, last year, of highly regarded programmer Rachel Rosen — fresh from almost a decade as program director for the L.A. Film Fest — San Francisco represents the epitome of an old-style, public film festival. Operating for over half a century, it continues to bring its hometown auds a well-curated, best-of-the-fests selection of roughly 100 features and an equivalent number of shorts. In recent years the fest has developed a reputation for innovative pairings of live music and film, and this year’s showcase event, according to the tight-lipped organizers, will see “one of the world’s most original and distinctive orchestral-rock groups” paired with “a well-known European director” for a one-off performance. Those looking to unlock the mystery should note: apparently, it’s not their first collaboration.

Dates: April 28-May 6
Location: Jeonju, South Korea
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Committed to providing its mostly Korean auds with cutting-edge indie fare, Jeonju’s main claim to international prominence is its production fund, the Jeonju Digital Project, which has enabled three international filmmakers per year to make short films that preem at the event before commencing their fest life. This year, the Project showcases three Euro arthouse titans — two French (Jean-Marie Straub, with an adaptation of a lit work by Maurice Barres; and Claire Denis, with “Alibi for Alibi,” “not exactly a documentary,” according to the filmmaker, of a West African man) and Spain’s Jose Luis Guerin, who contributes “1900: A Neighborhood Story,” about a neighbor of the helmer who committed suicide.

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