A New Wave of Film Festivals

Festivals are popping up everywhere
and redefining their traditional roles. But some seem more interested
in exploitation than exhibition.

People cry in Park City at festival time. It’s common
to see grown men and women walking the streets in the gently falling
snow with tears streaming down their faces. Maybe they’ve invested
three years and their life’s savings in a movie and just sold it
for $5 million. Or maybe they haven’t. Maybe they just won an award.
Or didn’t. Maybe a projector jammed during their premiere screening
and all the acquisitions people walked out. Maybe they invested
half a million in someone else’s cinematic dream and they just
saw it for the first time and for some reason they really need
to be alone right now. Maybe their first produced screenplay is
a hit. Or maybe they just saw a documentary on war in the Balkans
that put the swirl of cell phones, ski fashions and film biz nonsense
in perspective and they’re questioning what their life means and
why they’re in a Utah resort town right now anyway. But it’s not
just Park City. There are plenty of reasons to cry at any film
festival. And if you want to check this phenomenon out for yourself,
chances are now excellent that you won’t have far to travel.

THE EXPLOSION

"It’s crazy," says filmmaker Penny Fearon, "There’s
one in every town." Indeed, the number of film festivals,
both in the USA and internationally, is exploding. Festivals are
popping up like mushrooms, dividing like amoebas, specializing,
riding other festivals’ coattails, and going on the road. Many
of the new festivals are started by filmmakers themselves. "But
it’s a good thing," says Fearon (producer of The Outfitters,
which premiered at Sundance this year). "The festival circuit
itself has become a de facto form of distribution, especially for
documentaries. It’s a way to screen your film for thousands of
people. Even the small municipal festivals help to fight the mollification
of movies."

No doubt there’s an audience for the Banff Festival
of Mountain Films, the Seoul Queer Film and Video Festival, the
Freaky Film Festival and the Los Angeles Festival of Italian Films.
But does the world really need a "Dockers Khakis Classically
Independent Film Festival?"

"I would estimate that our directory has climbed
from 400 to 600 listings in the past several years," reports
Carol Shyman of www.filmfestivals.com. Will people show up to all
these new events? Are there enough new movies? Based on this year’s
record attendance at most festivals, there’s no problem. In fact,
audience enthusiasm and the independent film glut are probably
what’s driving the boom.

We had 1,744 submission this year, up from 1,420
last year," reports Peter Baxter, Executive Director of Slamdance. "The
tapes won’t fit on the shelves of our storage room. They’re up
the walls and spread out across the floor. At one point I looked
at all those little black boxes and I figured that the average
cost of each, when you factor in the hundred or so short films,
was about the price of a new Mercedes C Class. I found myself imagining
1,744 Mercedes parked side-by-side in there."

Every filmmaker wants to get into the top festivals.
Chris Gore’s new book, The Ultimate Film Festival Survival Guide
(Lone Eagle, 1999) offers this list of 10: Sundance, Toronto, Telluride,
Cannes, Los Angeles Independent (LAIFF), New York, Slamdance, Seattle
International (SIFF), South by Southwest and Taos. The competition,
obviously, is intense. Filmmakers complain that politics and friends
in high places lend some films an unfair advantage and work against
the unknowns.

"This year at Slamdance we had over $100,000
worth of bribes offered to us, cloaked as sponsorships," says
Baxter. "But we work hard to reject any type of lobbying.
It’s a truly democratic process. Each film is watched three times.
We have a one-programmer, one-vote scoring process. After months
of screenings we sit down with the scores and create the schedule
in about two hours. Until then, no one film is in or out. Lobbying
phone calls from distributors and important people can actually
hurt a film’s chances. If we perceive the film already has high-level
support, we won’t take it, because our mission is to support the
filmmakers who need it."

The "Dances With Films" Festival in Los
Angeles takes even more pains to be democratic. "Every single
film is screened in its entirety by three to five people," says
Co-Director Leslee Scallon. "Every screener has to make written
comments, including positive ones. We mail letters to all filmmakers
with constructive feedback."

Stories abound, however, of behind-the-scenes gamesmanship
and string-pulling. And some festivals clearly take care of their
own; Sundance and Cannes, for example, have a reputation for favoring
filmmakers they’ve exhibited in the past.

"Filmmakers have to understand that the selections
process is complicated and time consuming. It may even take as
much energy and perseverance as it took to make their movie," says
Peter Broderick, President of Next Wave Films (an Independent Film
Channel company). "They’re selling themselves short if they
think they can just take a shotgun approach to festival submissions.
Lobbying certainly can’t hurt."

A festival in every town? Some towns have more than
one. Take Park City in January. Slamdance, conceived as a rebel
alternative to Sundance, in turn inspired Slumdance, No Dance and
Slamdunk. "It’s a good thing," says Baxter. "And
it’s not like Slamdance invented the concept. In the ’60s, Louis
Malle was dissatisfied with the mainstream program at Cannes and
created the Directors Fortnight for precisely the same reasons.
We felt that the films being rejected by Sundance weren’t necessarily
bad films."

Slamdance is now so successful that it’s become a
part of the hierarchy (statistically, it’s harder to get into than
Sundance), so the rebellion continues elsewhere. Philadelphia’s "Reject
Film Festival" accepts only films rejected by other festivals. "Dances
with Films" is devoted to films with "no known directors,
actors, producers or monies from known production companies." Scallon
explains that she and co-founder Michael Trent "started handing
out flyers for our new little festival, and our "no stars" concept
obviously struck a nerve, because in our first year we got over
300 submissions. Are the newer festivals worth a filmmaker’s time?

"Absolutely," says Karl Kozak, whose romantic
comedy To Hell With Love, screened at the first "Dances." "I
clinched my domestic distribution deal with Panorama Entertainment
when they saw it there. It’s a good festival, it’s in L.A. and
the films get reviewed by Variety."

The proliferation of new festivals does have a down
side, however. Some may be little more than municipal PR/tourism
efforts dreamed up by a local Chamber of Commerce. Others may be
thinly disguised money-making ventures that do not have the best
interests of filmmakers at heart. Controversy has erupted over
one New York festival that asks applicants for credit card numbers
on the phone, then uses telemarketers to sell them program space.

An increasingly common adjunct to film festivals
is the screenplay competition, which seems harmless enough. After
all, winning a prize can help a filmmaker fund a project. "But
you have to realize they exist because they’re sources of revenue," warns
one acquisitions executive. "It costs you $50 to enter, and
they may ask you for another $25 for a critique of your script.
Suppose they get a thousand entries and offer a token prize of
$1,500 and some software? It’s not hard to do the math."

Kozak warns that a 16mm film may be marginalized
by some festivals, or damaged by poorly maintained equipment. "It
seems like there’s always a problem on switchover," he says,
referring to the transition between reels. "And at most festivals,
the 16mm venues are the worst." Kozak was incensed to learn
that one festival, which charges nearly $200 to enter, screened
only two 16mm features out of 40 without advising applicants of
its equipment limitations. Filmmakers must do their homework.

A controversial trend is the proliferation of awards. "Soon
we’ll have the Best Animated Short Film Under Six Minutes with
a Political theme," jokes one filmmaker. John Pierson, in
a recent Premiere Magazine invective, called for the complete elimination
of awards at Sundance. (Pierson is on the Sundance Board.) Sundance
now gives away two dozen awards, for everything from cinematography
to comedic performance. Filmmakers complain that prizes turn festivals
into competitions, distract the press, and, with so many offered,
hurt the films that don’t win. "Well, let’s see how you do
at a few festivals," is distributor-speak for "Let’s
see if you win anything." Of course, the winners aren’t complaining.

"At first I wasn’t concerned about awards," admits
Reed Paget, whose Amerikan Passport won Best Documentary at Slamdance
this year. (see pg. 74 -ed.)"It was an accomplishment just
to get in, and I felt honored to be in the company of so many great
films. But once I won, I scanned those laurel things onto my poster.
When I got home, my answering machine was full of messages from
companies wanting to see my film."

TRAVELING FESTIVALS

Festivals used to rent a theater or two, print a
program, screen movies, and sell T-shirts. But this geographically
and temporally limited model is being challenged by a new breed:
the traveling festival. "Flixtour" is one such "festival" which
in recent years proved to be a solid indie distribution alternative,
bringing selected features and shorts to 40 college campuses across
the country each fall. Sydney’s "Flicker-fest" turns
the best of the year’s Australian indies into a road show. And
the leading showcases for digital video, Resfest and D.film, present
a series of short festivals in a string of major U.S. cities.

"Festivals have to redefine themselves," says
Baxter, whose "On the Road" project screens a select
group of Slamdance films at classy venues such as the American
Cinemateque, and the Smithsonian Institute. In addition to touring,
many established festivals are organizing mini-fests during their
off season, such as SIFF’s Women in Cinema and East Side Film Festival.
Why not, when they have the staff, contacts, and resources.

NEW MEDIA

Digital Video is not the wave of the future. It’s
already here, and festivals are scrambling to catch up with it.
Some festivals have chosen to usher in the digital age with symposiums
and fanfare, while others are quietly screening a portion of their
lineup digitally to see if the audience will notice. In many cases,
they don’t. State-of-the-art digital projectors are eagerly donated
by manufacturers, so getting the equipment is no problem. Park
City’s No Dance screened all of its offerings digitally this year,
even those submitted on film.

"Everyone’s getting very excited. With the improvements
in projection, some people are saying digital looks better than
16mm," says Baxter. "We’ve seen a 25 percent increase
in DV-originated material submitted to us. You can certainly do
more with sound on DV-that’s always been a limitation of 16mm.
Slamdance will show anything that moves, there is no bias for originating
on film. We simply want to show the best work."

Maribell Amador, programmer at Worldfest Houston,
is similarly optimistic. "It doesn’t matter how a film originates.
We see plenty of films that cost a lot of money and are great technically,
but if the story’s not there, we’re not going to select them. I’m
glad filmmaking is becoming so much more accessible."

Even festivals resisting DV will have to come around
soon, according to Broderick. "Otherwise they’ll find themselves
in the position of not being able to screen some of the best new
work." Says Jonathan Wells, Director of Resfest, "Down
the line, every festival will be digital."

BEYOND EXHIBITION

"It’s not just about exhibition and marketing
anymore," says Kathleen McInnis, a programmer at the Seattle
International Film Festival. It has to be about more. Festivals
are moving into empowerment and education. We’re teaching audiences
about filmmaking and we’re teaching filmmakers about filmmaking." SIFF
is known for innovative programs like its "Screenwriters Salon," a
series of staged readings of screenplays using professional actors,
focuses on audience feedback to the writer. The "Filmmakers
Forum" presents a series of interactive workshops, including
master classes with top directors. A pleasant synergy occurs when
festival-goers’ enthusiasm for the films they watch is fueled by
meeting the makers, and vice versa.

The Sundance Institute started it all with its Filmmakers
and Screenwriters Labs. Every year a few hand-picked applicants
are invited to Utah to work with prominent writers and directors.
The goal is to develop their skills and improve their projects,
and the program’s success is marked by the dozens of great indie
films that have emerged from the labs.

"It’s getting easier to make films. People now
realize they don’t have to go to film school in New York or L.A.," says
McInnis. "They’re looking for educational opportunities closer
to home. Festivals saw the void."

The Taos Talking Picture Festival did more than step
in-they plunged in, presenting the sweeping, ambitious "Taos
Media Forum," designed to "make media studies available
to people of all educational and economic backgrounds." Meaning
what? Six days of workshops, seminars and panels on everything
from war photography and modern visual effects to "girl culture" and
product placement. Will festival-goers really take time out from
the movies to learn about media? The Taos forums were overwhelmed
by people filling the aisles and sitting on the floor.

BUT THEY STILL SELL T-SHIRTS

"Festivals have become much more important in
the past few years," says Broderick. "If 100 independent
features were being made every year, the critics and distributors
could see most of them. But with over 1,000, people rely on festivals
to help them identify the best new work. And even if a given film
doesn’t get distribution, a festival screening draws attention
to its creators’ talent, and may help them find resources. That’s
what matters to filmmakers-the ability to keep working."

So, you made a movie? Take it to a few festivals.
Make your choice from, say, 600 options. There’s a good chance
you could start crying long before you even get to Park City. MM

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