IT DEPENDS: The Evolving Purposes of Film Festivals

Entertainment attorney Christopher Schiller explores the evolution of film festivals, what purposes they originally and currently served as well as who are best able to take advantage of them in today’s evolving world.
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Entertainment attorney Christopher Schiller explores the evolution of film festivals, what purposes they originally and currently served as well as who are best able to take advantage of them in today’s evolving world.

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Over time everything changes and film festivals are no different. But it is probably a matter of human nature that we tend to hang on to perceptions of how things were far longer than they actually remain. And so this column will explore past perspectives of what purposes film festivals served and for whom as well as examine what purposes they seem to currently serve and who are best able to take advantage of them in today’s evolving world.

History of Film Festivals

Film festivals, at least in concept, have been around nearly as long as film itself. For the establishment of what would be recognized as a film festival in the modern sense we need look back all the way to 1932 when the Mostra Internazionale d'Arte Cinematografica della Biennale di Venezia (a.k.a. the Venice Film Festival) was added to the Venice Biennale exhibitions of other art forms which itself was started in 1893. Therefore Venice earns the title of oldest continuous film festival.

But if we think in a broader context of the marketing and exposure purposes served by film festivals, it could be argued that the touring show of the Lumière brothers’ demonstrations of early filmmaking starting in December 1895 with the showing at the Grand Café on the boulevard des Capucines in Paris would qualify as an early version of a “road show” film festival.

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Different Purposes of Film Festivals

This brings up the question of just what are the purposes of showing films in what we would consider a festival type atmosphere. Generally they can be broken down into three main categories that would cover most of the modern targets of filmmakers needs from festivals.

Festival purposes from filmmakers perspective
market – key purpose of finding a distributor or buyer;
marketing – key purpose of getting exposure, press or “buzz” started or kept going;
audience – key purpose of getting seen.
(NOTE: this last one may be the main or only attraction for filmmakers to seek out smaller festivals for smaller films.)

But there are also the purposes for those who put on the festivals and these vary with importance and change over time as well. Here are some main ones (but there are many other reasons as well.)

Festival purposes from the festival runners perspective
Prestige – recognition of the festival’s potential role in amplifying a film’s future success;
Artistic Integrity – emboldening art and art makers, giving a rare forum for important works;
Activism – providing a forum for films on important subject matter to gather and be celebrated;
Tourism – promoting interest in an area or region by celebrating the artists creating there;

As you can tell from this list there are quite a number of purposes for film festivals to fill and not all of them (or even many of them) co-exist or are present in any particular film festival. So how is a filmmaker supposed to make a choice as to which festivals might be right for their work’s showcase?

Traditional Dreamers’ View of the Purpose of Film Festivals

There is the common impression that if a filmmaker could just get their film into the right film festival it would magically be noticed, lauded and could lead to becoming a major award winner, maybe even earn an Oscar. And while this ideal remains a potential purpose for a select few films and filmmakers the reality is that the festival route to stardom is much less common than one would hope. Just look at the numbers:

Statistics (depending on how you count)
Number of film festivals: ~3,000 (varies constantly as some fests come and go)
Number of feature films made each year: 2,500 – 4,000
Number of films truly in contention for major awards consideration: ~two dozen = less than 1%

In reality, even if you have a film of this caliber, there are only a few festivals that can be pivotal in navigating this precarious path. These are currently known as the “Fall Festivals” which, because of timing of the major awards events, have the right timing and prestige to get sufficient buzz going for a worthy film’s run at the awards. As I type this these key festivals have begun. Venice is underway, Telluride Film Festival (where I will experience this years rush of great films) is primed to go and Toronto Film Festival is waiting a few days off. In the course of three weeks every major film shooting for awards recognition will have started or continued their campaign in earnest.

There are other festivals that may boost the awareness of individual films along the way, New York, AFI and others but once these three prestigious, kick-off festivals have shown their fare the game is afoot and the players aligned for the awards race.

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Historic Filmmakers View of the Purpose of Film Festivals

Festivals used to be necessary for the traditional film theatrical release cycle. You needed to get your film into a festival in order to catch the eye of distributors who would find a place for your film on their slate and exhibitors who would be looking to select films to show on their screens. When the world was smaller and simpler this was the majority path to get your film on theater screens which was the only real goal for a film to reach its audience. Alternative routes did exist but were rare and hard to pursue with success. Times have changed.

Realistic Filmmakers View of the Purpose of Film Festivals

Changes in the ever expanding market have changed the importance of the historic path to finding an audience for a film. The old school approach still works but isn’t as necessary for success. While things like premiere status still matter to some festivals in whether they’ll want to show your film, if your interests aren’t aligned with that festival’s strength it might not be as important a deciding factor in which festivals your film plays.

Now you can decide on festivals to submit your film that align with your film goals. If you have a message film, there is likely a festival that caters to that particular message. If you have an art house film or genre film, festivals abound that would love to show it among their selections. If all you are looking for is a receptive audience, there are likely smaller film festivals that would love to show what you’ve made to their contingent. With the number of festivals out there with their varying approaches, there is bound to be a fit for the film you’ve created.

And if you are in the mood to see the best films of the year before anyone else, there are a few key festivals where you can spend quality time in the dark. It, as always, depends.

More articles by Christopher Schiller

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