Features and Columns

Culture Warrior: The Paradoxical Importance of Film Festivals

By  · Published on March 16th, 2010

Since our resident genius Landon Palmer is out on the town this week at South By Southwest, I am foolishly filling in to talk about subjects that are far over my head. For the usual insightful commentary, head back here next week. Unless I destroy the entire column’s credibility in one fell swoop. Which is my goal.

For the next few minutes, I’d like you to consider two facts. The first is that there have been film festivals almost since there has been film. The first Academy Awards was held in 1929 – back before color, back before sound – and the Venice Film Festival first took place for the first time three years later. That festival, the first in the world, was founded by fascist politico and fascist film fan Giuseppe Volpi and continues to hand out Golden Lions today.

The second fact is that these film festivals exist:

I don’t list these festivals for any other reason but to point out just how specialized film festivals have become. They have grown out of their shells mostly by the proliferation of the internet – allowing thousands if not millions to become aware of film festivals that celebrate the things they are already interested in. Love bikes? Love movies about bikes? There’s a fest for that.

Keep these facts in mind: festivals are old, and they are everywhere.

One of the first things I ever did for Film School Rejects was cover the 2006 Austin Film Festival, and there, in a black box theater that usually plays host to local improvisational troupes and open mic nights, I saw a movie called The Quietest Sound. It’s an experimental film featuring a single, 70-minute steady shot of a woman in a police station, and it’s gripping beyond what most can do if given the chance to move the camera. You’ve never heard of it, because it’s never played anywhere.

Last night, after finding myself running up a sweaty street at South by Southwest alongside the organized horde waiting to get into the marquee screening of Elektra Luxx, I started thinking about that experimental movie and its place in our culture. For the most part, it is a tree falling in the forest, but a handful of people in this world had the chance to see it. The Quietest Sound may have not crashed with thunder in the woods, but at least it wasn’t silent.

These random thoughts came together with an innocently ugly question prompted by some anonymous man during Elektra Luxx director Sebastian Gutierrez’s Q and A (a staple of the festival experience). The voice from the crowd asked:

How did you get to make a sequel if no one really even saw the first film?

It’s not the nicest thing to lay in front of a filmmaker, but it also displays in a few words the chasm that exists between understanding film as a product to be sold and film as an art form to be enjoyed. This chasm lies at the heart of the paradoxical value of film festivals. On the one hand, festivals are expensive exercises in futility where filmmakers come to be disappointed at turn outs and fans wade through dull movies. On the other, festivals are pure celebrations of film where fans and filmmakers collide to share visions, opinions, and to catch the eye of a distributor who takes great work to the masses.

Both of these viewpoints are true.

The reason for this is because there are at least five groups with differing viewpoints as to what a festival should achieve: filmmakers, film fans, film critics, distribution companies, and the outside film world awaiting news and buzz. Those group all have very different goals, and they are all multiplied by the goal of another incredibly important group – the festival programmers.

Festivals aren’t dead. They aren’t evolving. Despite the waves of editorials that arrive like clockwork every year extolling the doom, demise, revolution and rebirth of festivals, none of those take into consideration that the term “film festival” is a many-headed beast that doesn’t sit down or roll over for anyone. Most of the time, it’s serving different masters.

In his 2008 article “Do Festivals Matter?” Christian Gaines makes the level-headed claim (amongst the usual rabble) that the diversity of interests and goals in the festival world makes the idea of success a slippery one with each player focused on a separate rubric for what winning means. On any given day, on any given corner of the street here at SxSW, a filmmaker could be celebrating with friends after over 50 people showed up to his screening while another might be shaking her head in frustration that she only garnered 200. A programmer might cringe as a line starts to violate a fire code while another smiles at how many badges have been sold. A distributor could be shuffling through theaters and still not finding anything to buy. A fan might be starry-eyed at famously long legs strolling down a local block. An actor might rant that the press isn’t interested in talking to him.

Amongst that chaos, all of those people have one thing in common that is central to a question that never seems to be asked when examining the importance of film festivals.

All of those people are at the festival.

That might be a simple, obvious statement, but consider one of the major groups I mentioned earlier – the outside film world. As I write this, film websites and journals are plastered with coverage from the festival, drawing every bit of news, quickly posting reviews, and flip-camming interviews with abandon. Festivals are reporting record attendance with each passing year.

Yet, still, hundreds of millions of people (in this country alone) don’t attend them. Here is where my first two facts come into play. Keeping in mind that festivals are almost as old as film itself, and that they are pervasive, diverse and so prevalent now that there is one going on every week of the year somewhere in the world, what does the world actually get out of them?

It’s clear what directors, die hard fans with flexibility and funds, producers, press, and programmers get out of it, but is the outside world really served by having film news taken over 6 weeks out of the year (by Sundance, Cannes, Comic Con, SxSW, Telluride, and Toronto) by a host of movies that will never see the light of your local cinema? Why do we lavish so much attention on the events if they only produce a few titles that the public ever has a chance to embrace?

As someone who has been on both sides of the fence – sitting at home in my youth crawling through Comic-Con logo-ed blog posts and spending my slightly older youth wrapping a press pass around my neck – I see a strong dichotomy there. The excitement of a festival is stirring, and simply just the shot for a filmmaker to rise above the pack is thrilling, but it’s also a frustrating experience for those who aren’t on the ground in Park City or the beaches of France or the sweaty streets of Austin. A few years ago, I wrote a loving review about The Quietest Sound, but the overwhelming majority of people that read it had to respond to my enthusiasm with a shrug at an empty multiplex marquee.

Hopefully, this rambling path leads us finally to the paradoxical importance of film festivals. They have become events that shine into the eyes and awareness of millions beyond their reach, but all of that is noise if that group doesn’t also gain some value from how loud the press and publicity machines are shouting. This year at SxSW, just like others, will see larger films swim through on their way to the box office, a handful of smaller films get picked up for NY/LA weekend trips, and a huge swath that are championed into the void. It seems then, we’ve outwardly broadcast an importance that only really matters to those on the inside, those who are standing on city blocks waiting to get into a screening or waiting backstage to introduce something they’ve worked on for years.

I don’t have firm answers to the questions I posed earlier. Not any more anyway. I remember apathetically scanning over news and reviews of movies I’d never heard (and would never get a chance to see) when I was younger, but I was never the kind of film fan that went insane whenever there was a hint of a whisper of a casting rumor. Granted, there is inherent worth in discussions with filmmakers about craft that work there way out into the world, and there are certainly audiences out there that can’t make it to festivals but luxuriate in news about upcoming projects and scripts in development.

But when you see a website littered with a festival’s logo, does it excite you? Frustrate you? Leave you yawning? Make you want to be there?

With film festivals being as important and ubiquitous as they are, do you even care about them if you’re not there?

They are as old as the art form and right around the corner everyday, but there’s a strong argument that they only serve to give already famous films more fame, generate news from people who could get a platform elsewhere, and hold intrinsic value for the lucky few who get into the darkness of the theater for the ride.

There’s also an argument to say that all this reporting is classic journalism – to give someone who can’t be there the chance to experience what it’s like.

It’s something I’ll be thinking about while wading through all the SxSW-related stories.

Or when I finally get around to checking out that Bicycle Film Fest.

Don’t worry. Landon returns next week, and you can wash the bad taste of this out of your mouth by checking out his Culture Warrior archive.

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Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.