Stripped-down film fes­ti­vals

Leaner and keener

Pasatiempo - - Onstage This Week -

As the Santa Fe Film Fes­ti­val cel­e­brates its 10th an­niver­sary this week­end and faith­ful fans con­sider its fu­ture amid eco­nomic un­cer­tainty, or­ga­niz­ers of some of the larger, more es­tab­lished film fes­ti­vals around the coun­try aren’t anx­iously wring­ing their hands as much as they’re adapt­ing to a chang­ing view­er­ship.

The Amer­i­can Film In­sti­tute made big news when it of­fered free ad­mis­sion to most movies at its an­nual fes­ti­val (Oct. 30 to Nov. 7) and cut the num­ber of movies from 100 in 2008 to 67 this year. And Ge­off Gilmore, for­mer di­rec­tor of Utah’s ven­er­a­ble Sun­dance Film Fes­ti­val and chief creative of­fi­cer of Tribeca En­ter­prises in New York, ac­knowl­edged ear­lier this year that in 2008 film sales were less than half what they had been the year be­fore at Sun­dance (a ma­jor out­let for film­mak­ers seek­ing dis­tri­bu­tion deals). “Are fes­ti­vals healthy? Well, yes and no,” Gilmore said in a story he wrote for the IndieWire Web site. “It’s not at all clear that a new gen­er­a­tion will em­brace fes­ti­val at­ten­dance and ex­po­sure in the same man­ner of the last gen­er­a­tion.”

But notes of op­ti­mism were sounded by sev­eral film fes­ti­val direc­tors in­ter­viewed by Pasatiempo, even as they ac­knowl­edged that un­pre­dictable changes will con­tinue to af­fect the busi­ness. Fes­ti­vals have al­ways pro­vided a venue for in­de­pen­dent film­mak­ers to screen their work, and that, th­ese direc­tors main­tained, prob­a­bly won’t change. What film fes­ti­vals will have to do is ad­just to eco­nomic chal­lenges, in­clud­ing the loss of ma­jor spon­sors, and adapt to rapidly chang­ing tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vances.

“Ten years ago [the Starz Den­ver Film Fes­ti­val] was a film fes­ti­val,” ex­plained BritWithey, artis­tic di­rec­tor of the Den­ver Film So­ci­ety for three years. “We showed 35 mm film and some 16 mm film, and maybe we had one the­ater that screened some sort of video. Now it’s al­most equal amounts of video to 35 mm films, and those videos are in­cred­i­bly di­verse.”

Di­verse, too, are the iden­ti­ties forged by film fes­ti­vals. Withey said that, this year, the so­ci­ety’s Starz Den­ver Film Fes­ti­val showed more than 200 films from Nov. 12 to Nov. 22 while em­pha­siz­ing the im­por­tance of the in­die film­maker and the ed­u­ca­tional as­pects of the medium via en­coun­ters with film­mak­ers, panel talks, work­shops, and dis­cus­sion groups. Roughly 42,000 peo­ple at­tended the 2008 fes­ti­val (2009 num­bers aren’t in yet). In 2002 the Den­ver Film Fes­ti­val opened the Starz Film Cen­ter, a seven-screen the­ater at the Tivoli Stu­dent Union, which al­lows the fes­ti­val to main­tain a year-round pres­ence.

If Sun­dance re­mains the grand­daddy of Amer­i­can film fes­ti­vals with its celebri­ties and dis­tri­bu­tion deals, the Tribeca Film Fes­ti­val may be con­sid­ered its clos­est rel­a­tive on the East Coast. Still, as Tribeca ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor Nancy Schae­fer ex­plained by phone, Tribeca is “what those in the in­dus­try call a street fes­ti­val mod­eled on the Toronto Film Fes­ti­val. While we do have a large in­dus­try/press com­po­nent ... our suc­cess re­lies on New York­ers go­ing to the movies. That’s who our tar­get au­di­ence is.”

The spring fest, which screened about 85 ti­tles this year, grew out of the rub­ble of Sept. 11, 2001. “What we learned is that New York­ers wanted a big, rowdy film fes­ti­val,” Schae­fer said. “We will con­tinue to try to launch new pro­grams, but we are mostly tweak­ing at this point. Peo­ple have mis­con­cep­tions about Tribeca. We are not go­ing to show the elite-of-the-elite films. We are go­ing to show Hol­ly­wood, for­eign,

in­die, lit­tle, big films, be­cause I be­lieve that films are for all peo­ple, and each film has its own au­di­ence.” Among the ti­tles shown in 2009 were Amer­i­can Casino, Black Dy­na­mite, De­par­tures, and a re­vival of Butch Cassidy and the Sun­dance Kid. At­ten­dance has ranged from about 150,000 in the early years to over a half mil­lion pa­trons; this past year roughly 350,000 at­tended.

The Tel­luride Film Fes­ti­val in Colorado still prides it­self on econ­omy and sur­prise. You don’t know what you’re go­ing to see when you buy a pass or a ticket to Tel­luride in ad­vance, be­cause the fes­ti­val does not re­veal its pro­gram un­til the last mo­ment. “We don’t an­nounce what we are show­ing and are not de­pen­dent upon pub­lic­ity to get peo­ple to see our films,” co-di­rec­tor Gary Meyer said. “Peo­ple buy their passes when they ar­rive and take their chances.”

Dur­ing this past fes­ti­val, the 36th (Sept. 4 to 7), Tel­luride screened about 30 new films and 15 clas­sics in­clud­ing indies, for­eign ti­tles, and bor­der­line main­stream pics ( Bright Star). Guest com­men­ta­tors and cu­ra­tors such as Alexan­der Payne ( Ci­ti­zen Ruth; Side­ways) brought peo­ple to retro cin­ema of­fer­ings (the 1959 west­ern Day of the Out­law and the 1950 noir The Break­ing Point), and the fes­ti­val of­fered the ex­pected as­sort­ment of so­cial events, such as book sign­ings and con­ver­sa­tions with film artists. It drew about 6,000 pa­trons this past year.

Yet re­gard­less of the em­pha­sis on new, un­known, and in­de­pen­dent tal­ent, Gilmore’s com­ments on the fu­ture of film fes­ti­val audiences res­onate with Withey, Schae­fer, and Meyer, who agreed that the de­mo­graph­ics of the busi­ness are skew­ing to­ward the over-40 crowd. “I want all age groups to come; I’m work­ing to lower the age,” Schae­fer said. “We’re now cen­tral­ized in Union Square, home to the New York Uni­ver­sity cam­pus and dorms, so we’re hop­ing to lower our de­mo­graphic there.”

Withey, Schae­fer, and Meyer also ac­knowl­edged that na­tional cor­po­rate spon­sor­ships dropped over the past year. “We had to make cuts, ne­go­ti­ated new deals on var­i­ous ex­penses, and are con­tin­u­ing to raise money for last year’s fes­ti­val,” Meyer said. “Spon­sors are not at the level they were be­fore: some have cut back what they can do, and some have com­pletely dropped out.”

More spon­sors are com­mit­ting to con­tri­bu­tions be­tween $2,000 and $5,000, Withey said. “The econ­omy is af­fect­ing ev­ery­body, so maybe they can’t give $15,000 like they used to.” Cut­ting back on the num­ber of films on the pro­gram is an ob­vi­ous re­sponse, one that not only pays fi­nan­cial div­i­dends but also sharp­ens qual­ity con­trol.

“Our hand was def­i­nitely forced by the econ­omy,” Schae­fer said. “What we did last year was shrink the num­ber of films in our pro­gram; we had to hone what we do and pick the strong­est films. And it’s amaz­ing, when you cut some of the fat, what you come up with. It was a re­ally strong pro­gram that a lot of peo­ple thought of as our best.”

Meyer thinks such choices are al­ways smart. “I hap­pen to be­lieve that fes­ti­vals that are show­ing movies in the hun­dreds— say, 150 to 300 ti­tles— by ne­ces­sity are forced to show medi­ocre films, even bad films. There just aren’t that many good films out there. I be­lieve that fes­ti­vals screen­ing 150 to 300 have to re-eval­u­ate: Are they serv­ing their con­stituents in the best pos­si­ble way?”

Pro­gram­ming to your au­di­ence is vi­tal, Withey cau­tioned. He’s been pro­gram­ming for the Den­ver Film So­ci­ety for 14 years and has sur­rounded him­self with peo­ple who know what draws an au­di­ence. “I think we know ... what our com­mu­nity is in­ter­ested in see­ing. This is ob­vi­ously not done in a vacuum, and it’s not about me sit­ting down and putting to­gether 150 films that I want to see, be­cause that would never work.”

Schae­fer said Tribeca dis­cov­ered it could carve out an at­trac­tive niche by mount­ing its Tribeca/ESPN Sports Film Fes­ti­val and by of­fer­ing free films via its Tribeca Drive-In Fes­ti­val, in which movies are viewed on a screen set up on the back of a build­ing. Like­wise, a free street fair spon­sored by the fes­ti­val of­ten at­tracts 150,000 to 300,000 pa­trons, she said.

Whether it takes the form of free tick­ets, celebri­ties (“When you have Nicole Kid­man walk down the red car­pet, it helps”), creative pro­gram­ming, or par­ties, Schae­fer said, fes­ti­vals may need to come up with more in­no­va­tive ideas to at­tract pa­trons, par­tic­u­larly if the re­ces­sion con­tin­ues. Some might have to scale back or take a year off. The CineVe­gas Film Fes­ti­val, for ex­am­ple, cel­e­brated its 11th sea­son in June, but the Las Ve­gas-based fes­ti­val an­nounced it would skip 2010 to save money.

Yet the re­ces­sion hasn’t yet hit hard in one area that will af­fect the short-term prospects of film fes­ti­vals, Schae­fer said: “Peo­ple are still mak­ing movies, but we have not yet seen the dearth of prod­uct due to this re­ces­sion. In a year, maybe the next cy­cle, we might ac­tu­ally have less prod­uct to choose from, which may be the first time that’s ever hap­pened in the 15-plus years that I’ve been run­ning film fes­ti­vals. We’re all fig­ur­ing out how we fit into a world where view­er­ship is chang­ing.” Meyer pre­dicts fes­ti­vals “with films made on Black­Ber­rys, iPhones, and cell­phones — in­ter­ac­tive fes­ti­vals where peo­ple around the world can share their film fes­ti­val ex­pe­ri­ence in some way.”

Withey said the fu­ture is just too un­pre­dictable to guess at. “The whole film busi­ness and dis­tri­bu­tion mod­els are chang­ing so dra­mat­i­cally,” he said. “The whole model [by which] a film plays the film fes­ti­val cir­cuit for a year and then maybe gets picked up and gets the­atri­cal release and then [goes] on to DVD and ca­ble— or the re­verse or­der— has just gone out the win­dow. Now it’s the­aters, on­line, ca­ble all at the same time, and peo­ple are grasp­ing to get a han­dle on this new par­a­digm ... in­clud­ing th­ese big fes­ti­vals with pre­miere poli­cies [re­quir­ing a film­maker to de­but his or her movie at the fes­ti­val be­fore it shows else­where].

“I don’t think film fes­ti­vals are go­ing to go away, but they’re go­ing to have to adapt to what­ever this new world or­der is.”

You buys your ticket and takes your chances: Tel­luride Film Fes­ti­val

It’s early days yet: Santa Fe Film Fes­ti­val in a pre­vi­ous in­car­na­tion

Float-in the­ater: out­door screen­ing at the Tribeca Film Fes­ti­val

Mile-high so­ci­ety: the red car­pet at the Starz Den­ver Film Fes­ti­val

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.