In opting to rebrand his festival with a simple, four letter moniker, GIFF director Emmanuel Cuenod knowingly invokes comparisons to Toronto’s TIFF and Austin SXSW and welcomes the association.
“Our central aim is to present a program full of strong and disruptive content, and to do so with a way of working that hews closer to the North American model than the European one,” explains Cuenod. “Something more open and user-friendly.”
In Cuenod’s view, the film festival model has stagnated for too long. “You take a film, an audience, some creators, and you do a screening,” he notes. “And that’s it. For me, that wasn’t enough.”
At root is a simple issue of demographics. While the median age of European filmgoer continues to notch upward, GIFF and its organizing body have very pointedly sought to cultivate a younger crop of festivalgoer.
Indeed, Geneva’s promise of a more dynamic public has been key to its recent growth. In five years, the festival’s budget has nearly doubled, swelling from €1.2 million ($1.37 million) in 2013 to €2 million ($2.28 million) this year, thanks, in part, to private and public subsidizers looking to invest in a younger generation.
To do so, to seize the attention of a consumer base comfortable with streaming and happy to engage with audio-visual content from the comfort of home, meant rethinking the basic festival-going experience. “We won’t only present the film,” furthers Cuenod, “we’ll have live performances, we’ll have cocktail receptions and after-parties to keep the festival going nearly all night long.”
All of this stems from a simple frustration Cuenod himself had felt as a festivalgoer: You’ve just seen a great movie, you’re among several like-minded peers, and now there’s nowhere to go. “I found it inelegant and even strange, considering in our society at the moment, to host an event that didn’t try to bring people together,” he adds.
As a response, the festival has diversified its programming mandate, opting to screen lesser-known properties that a VOD-weaned generation might not be able to find otherwise, while at the same time, looking to erase any divides between the different media it has on offer. “We don’t have different tiers of access,” explains Cuenod. “Whether someone wants to come for a series, a film or a VR experience, the access is exactly the same. We don’t see films being inherently above anything else.”
In keeping with that line-of-thinking, GIFF will hold competitions for music-videos and web-series, play host to the 48H Film Project and hold an event where popular stand-up comics offer riffs and live-commentary throughout a film. The idea is to not only offer younger festivalgoers a reason to come and check out the surroundings, but to give those young festivalgoers a reason to stay.
And Cuenod has a definite end-goal in mind in trying to turn this cultural event into a social one as well. “I met my wife at a music festival,” he laughs. “If you go to a place where you can’t find someone you want to kiss, it’s a fail for an event.”