Stripped-down film festivals
Leaner and keener
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