09 juin 2011

Film Festivals for dummies

  • A festival is not a marketing stunt / fair (not primarily designed to serve commerce)
  • A festival is not a commercial multiplex / repertoire arthouse (not designed to serve the audience)
  • A festival is not a cinémathèque / museum (not designed to preserve film history)
No matter what you want from a festival, their role is to offer a platform for NEW films (not all new films, some of them, la crème de la crème). Period. All the rest is cultivating the best appeal to promote these premières (more or less successful depending on the organisers).
If the local exhibition circuit fails to deliver non-commercial films to the general public, a festival shall not bear the burden to fill the gap.
A festival doesn't HAVE TO show retrospectives of old movies (if there are, fine, but their absence doesn't redefine the quality of that festival). There are other public venues for that.
So putting the blame on certain festivals for failing expectations in these domains is a petty and unwarranted complaint.

Bachmann distinguishes "wholesalers" (major festivals) from "retailers" (secondary venues on the festival circuit):
"These 11 "wholesalers" are the professional, global marketplaces for new product. The others are "retailers," bringing the films to end users outside of normal exhibition. But they, too, are a form of exhibition, a form with a growing importance and a growing financial potential."
Insight into the growing festival influence. Fest vet discusses 'wholesale' and 'retail' events (Gideon Bachmann; 27 Aug 2000)
In fact there are 4 types of events we call "festivals", which are not what we normally call a festival/fair (except for the third one):
  1. Major International "Festivals" (World premiere artfilms) = primary showcase (opening of the festival circuit, only a few in the world)
  2. National "Festivals" (Domestic production showcase, secondary venue on the festival circuit) = local retailer that publicize world cinema at domestic level for each country (at least one in each country/region)
  3. Niche Festivals (seasonal thematic screenings) = minor film festivity, in the true sense of festival (as in celebration of a particular genre of films, or nationality, or time period, at a local level)
  4. Marketplace (sell/buy for film industry professionals) = fair, market, but not a festival
Now let's make a quick distinction between the major international festivals (Cannes, Venice, Berlin) and the other wannabe-festivals with a much more local scope (National production, genre, documentary, short films...) and a very different function in film culture. They share the same denomination ("festival") and it's enough to confuse critics in thinking their function is equivalent, they expect the same achievements from both and assume they should scrutinize them with the same rigor. They must not.
There are film events open to the public (commercial distribution or one-off event) and those reserved for the professionals (for promotional purpose, business deals, not for box office returns)

A major international festival is positioned outside of the commercial circuit (upstreams from sales), outside of the public interface (critics are the ones communicating to the public), and inside the present (pre-contemporary film culture). A professional festival is first and foremost a private go-between connecting artists and industrials, ahead of official distribution, in the hope to earn international reputation.
All the rest is optional (retrospectives, conferences, galas, photo-op, public screenings, off competition, national cinema showcase, film fund, film market...) !

This is basically a private meeting for insiders (professional from the film industry: producers, distributors, curators, critics). The only public face is eventually its awards, voted by an independent jury, publicized by the media. Critics are invited to evaluate the pre-selected nominees, and given a sneak-peek at the world production currency (which they don't get a chance to know about when they review the official distribution in their respective country).
A privileged audience may attend some of the screenings, but a professional festival is not meant to accommodate the general audience of an official public release. One or two local screenings at a festival only reach out to a very limited potential audience, this is nothing like a commercial release! Introducing a new film to the spectators is NOT the main concern of festivals. There are screen tests, promotional "premieres", and the commercial exhibition circuit for that.

To discover premium films before their official release and help to find international distributors for them. Basically the point is to connect orphan filmmakers who deserve worldwide attention to the industry people looking for films. That's why films selected in international competition are often unseen anywhere else (world premiere), and at least only released in their country of origin (which might be half of their career if it's the USA, but could be insignificant in comparison to their future international career if it's repressive/neglecting countries such as Iran or Thailand).

Filmmakers don't really need festivals to find producers and distributors... there are other channels for them to meet the right people directly where they work. Conversely, studios don't need festivals to scout for talents and purchase copyrights. In a perfect world, all these transactions could very well happen without festivals. And festivals don't do that for every films, only for the chosen few, the cream of the crop.
The existence of festivals, amidst the world marketplace of makers and buyers, merely adds emulation for the production to aim for the top of world standards. An ever evolving world standard, which needs to be reassessed regularly.


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