10 mai 2011

Clueless anti-festival clichés

"Here follows a number of current clichés about the film business:
  • Film festivals are a massive growth industry [..]
  • Film festivals are now a crucial part of modern independent (and especially foreign-language) film business [..]
  • Film festivals now constitute an alternative "distribution network" [..]
  • Film festivals are about discovery, revealing to the world films that the existing distribution mechanisms fail to reach [..]
Let's just, for the sake of balance, shade a little reality into some of the clichés:
  • New film festivals are indeed springing up all the time, particularly in North America [..] All film festivals rely on 3 revenue sources - ticket sales, public money and sponsorship
  • All film festivals rely [..] on a number of poorly paid short-term staff [..] unpaid volunteers
  • Film festivals may be an alternative distribution network for a certain type of film, but one entirely devoid of a business model: apart from the occasional screening fee [..] no money is generated for the film's maker. Tickets revenue goes to the festival
  • There are not nearly enough good films to go around [..]
[..] it is the excessive top-down structure of the film distribution system : [..] we see what films Warners or Paramount [..], when [..] and for as long as they decide we should see them."

"Big society, little clue", Nick Roddick (Sight and Sound, May 2011)

Finally an ounce of pertinence in the pages of Sight and Sound, taking a hard look at the spoon-fed system that gives the film press its only reason to carry on. If you didn't review "all films of the month", in a servile manner, the ones approved by the official distribution system... maybe this magazine would have the legitimacy to criticize the festival circuit and the state of cinema in the world. Nonetheless, this is a good baby-step in the right direction.  

Film Festivals are no more an "industry" than international car shows... it's a place to show your products and sell the rights to export them. The commercialization (the part where you sell cars to consumers) takes places afterwards, once the distributors have negotiated their contract, bought the stock and exhibit the commercial products to the public. The car shows or the film festivals do not make benefits at this point, marginal sales are insignificant  to the expected gross revenue (that shall refund the production cost). 1 or 2 screenings at a festival (500 or 2000 admissions) does not pay back the production cost of a feature film!!! The film festival circuit is located outside of the commercial circuit, upstreams from the actual commercialization. Even the festival cuts of the film are sometimes different from the final official cut, precisely because it's merely a screening destined to professionals only, fresh from the editing room, and sometimes barely finalized.

If certain films (non-commercial films, challenging artfilms, niche audience offerings...) are only allowed to meet an audience (of regular public spectators), on the "festival circuit", 1 screening at the time, they are never going to make profits. Not only it is not a viable alternative to the commercial exhibition, but it is not an acceptable ghettoization. All narrative films, whatever their format or content or style, should be treated equally by the distribution circuit, meaning that they should have at least access to a public release. Films cannot be relegated to back alleys just because they are considered "non-profitable" or "intellectual". The popularity of "blockbusters" will influence the number of screens allocated of course. There is no point in having a mass audience locked out of full theatres because there are screens showing non-commercials films to an empty auditorium... But the other extreme is equally stupid, and that is the situation we are in now : artfilms are not even slated for public distribution (or eventually on a single screen nationwide!) just because the marketing predictions estimate that the audience doesn't like artfilms. 

There must be a reasonable number of screens (or show time slots during the week) dedicated to NON-COMMERCIAL cinema, because even if few people at the time wants to watch them (and it takes more than a week-end for the artfilm word of mouth to succeed) the access to the public must be guaranteed by law. It is too easy for distributors to purchase cheap artfilm distribution rights in the sole intention to shelf them ad infinitum (keeping them off the market, where risk-taking distributors would try to buy them). Money can't buy your competition like that. Or else the richest studios would lose less money by holding up their direct competition, than by having to market their films against too many alternative choices. In the USA, money buys everything, even the silence of the artfilm culture. And American critics find this situation perfectly fine... I don't care if American audiences refuse to watch (better) artfilms / foreign films, because their taste has been formated by Hollywood standards of mediocrity. The role of film critics and the film industry is to respect all films and give them all a decent chance!  

All this isn't the fault of a growing festival circuit! All this does is to develop the professional network to exchange distribution rights, not only globally at the few major festivals, but also locally at every local festival, relaying the discoveries made by major festivals on the other side of the planet. International buyers can afford to travel to Cannes, Venice or Berlin every year. But the local arthouse exhibitors (who are not part of a mainstream franchise) need the existence of local festivals at their level, within their reach, to discover themselves the non-commercial titles they will want to invest in, take a chance to support and sell to their local regular spectators. The commercial profits of artfilms shall be made in commercial arthouses, not on the festival circuit. Art films are not made for the unique privileged festival-goer audience (the cinephile jet-set)! Art films are made to reach out to every city and villages, even if it's only 1 screening a week, and if it takes 3 or 5 years after it's world premiere. Unfortunately, it is impossible to watch them currently if you don't live in a state capital, or a cinephile city, because art films are not marketed elsewhere, and art filmmakers cannot make a living based on one-off screenings, unpaid festival screenings, direct to DVD distribution, and illegal downloads. Hollywood loses peanuts with illegal downloads, but art filmmakers lose a much larger share of their total sales (which is, at the same time, significantly lower than the average Hollywood flick's revenue). They lose a larger percentage of a smaller total. 

Art filmmakers are not making films for the sport, to be watched by critics who don't even pay admission fees. The job of serious critics is to convince readers that challenging films are worth begging for, by inciting to harass lazy distributors until they give artfilms a dignified release! 


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