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Edgy Platforms, Corporate Partnerships Redefining Film Festivals

The past two decades have seen the number of film festivals explode, and now new media, corporations and industry titans have seen the upside of moving beyond merely sponsoring fests into curating festivals of their own, often with the goal of selling their brands and platforms. But besides the marketing, these festivals can also give emerging filmmakers exposure and in some cases, festivals can even launch movements by consolidating and creating communities.

Oracle founder Larry Ellison is launching the Lanai Documentary Film Festival in February 2016, aiming to create a year-round event that sparks social change (the first year’s theme is Governance for Africa) and help develop the Hawaiian island he almost entirely owns. Fest co-founder Audrey Cavenecia says more industry titans and companies will be partnering on the project, expanding its reach far beyond planned Hawaii and Los Angeles events.

This year, the Kickstarter Film Festival expanded its one-night-only showcase from Brooklyn to L.A. and London while soliciting user submissions for the first time, helping fuel the company’s global expansion and exposure. Another platform for DIY filmmakers, the short-form Vine, which is owned by Twitter, got some cross-promotional support from the Tribeca Film Festival when TFF held its second annual #6Secfilms Competition.

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And Lexus and the Weinstein Co. just re-teamed for the second annual Lexus Short Film Series, creating two projects set to play at numerous short film fests around the world.

Businesses are also creating “festivals” with their names (such as Luna nutrition bar’s long-running short film fundraiser Lunafest) and using new media to promote their companies. This February, Royal Caribbean Intl. launched InstaFilmFest (billed as “the world’s first Instagram film festival”), soliciting 15-second videos.

While all these new fests have physical screenings, most can also be seen online, something Intl. Film Festival Summit president and chief creative officer Laurie Kirby says marks the biggest sea change.

“Aggregators and mediums like the Kickstarters, the YouTubes and mobile devices are starting to become places where people screen films, and that’s why they’re becoming places people are designing fests around,” she says.

And that, she adds, “begs the bigger question of what a festival is: a virtual community? A digital community? Does it even have to be people?”

For Lanai fest co-founder Cavenecia, it’s all of the above — and the basis for a movement to boot.

Larry Ellison wanted this island to be a template for the world where we can accomplish extraordinary things around sustainability and community improvement,” she says.

She proposed a film fest, Ellison suggested a documentary platform, and they agreed on a year-round operation capturing the filmmaking process of socially conscious films Ellison funds, incorporating theatrical and TV distribution via existing distribs and an Internet presence to get exposure for important issues.

“We’ll be connecting with other NGOs and influencers” — along with additional film funding partners, she says, while developing the island as a destination with two new theaters, plus an installation showing films “on top of the highest cliff, in the environment of nature.”

The bigger Internet prescence of this and other fests is inspiring developing countries to create their events, or work with existing festivals to get in on the action.

China is partnering with Sundance in the Hong Kong Selects series, premiering eight U.S. indies from the Park City fest in the new Metroplex in Kowloon Bay, next month.

With so much activity on the festival circuit, which of these new ventures will be part of a lasting trend?

Kirby says it’s hard to tell, because among nearly 10,000 fests from 1998-2013 tracked in Stephen Follows’ 2013 Film Festival Survey, 39% lasted only a year (including YouTube’s Your Film Festival, which awarded a winner $500,000 in 2012), and just 3,000 or so remained active.

Regardless, while some of these “festivals” may just be corporate promotions, many nontraditional events can give filmmakers exposure, create communities and achieve the same goals as traditional ones.

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