Programming Film Festivals in the Age of Netflix

We talk to a film festival programmer about the ups and downs of the recent Netflix boom.
By  · Published on May 22nd, 2017

We talk to a film festival programmer about the ups and downs of the recent Netflix boom.

Netflix is changing the game on how films are distributed. They made huge waves at Sundance this year when they scooped up over fourteen titles from the Sundance film festival. Many of these titles will never see a theatrical release and will just be a Netflix Original that graces the search engine on a new Friday. The big issue here is that many of these smaller festival films would traditionally have a lengthy run throughout regional film festivals to build that old magical marketing known as word of mouth. Netflix doesn’t see any reason to promote their acquisitions, especially when the release window occurs within weeks, not months of the debut of these features.

Why exactly is this bad news? Shouldn’t films being released from prodigious film festivals like Sundance and Cannes on an accelerated schedule never seen before be a wonderful thing? Beyond supporting regional film festivals with material to grace their screens, would smaller festival films like The Artist or Moonlight ever have gotten the attention they built without lengthy festival runs? Certainly, the journey from Telluride, Toronto, or New York film festivals have more prominence than smaller regional festivals, but word of mouth is a valuable marketing tool for many of these films that don’t have big name actors and marketing budgets behind them.

Mudbound, Netflix

The feeling I got from the Boston Movie Festival circuit was one of frustration. Area film festivals such as the Boston Underground Film Festival (that specializes in genre fare) and the Independent Film Festival Boston had limited selections available for them to program. A quick glance over to a film festival like The Overlook Film Festival or Chicago Critics Film Festival and you begin to see very similar programs. A studio like A24 seems to understand the relationship of film festivals to a successful film, seeing how they were the ones that distributed Moonlight. They provided Overlook Film Festival and Chicago Critics Film Festival with regional premieres of two of their biggest summer titles with A Ghost Story and It Comes At Night. Beyond that though, everyone is running the same films because the selection is fewer than ever before thanks to Netflix. There are no questions about the power and influence Netflix has over the movie industry in 2017, hopefully, they work with film festivals to bring attention to their releases instead of releasing them unceremoniously on their streaming service.

I had the opportunity to talk with Brian Tallerico, Producer of the Chicago Critics Film Festival, about the difficulties they faced when programming films this year. (The Overlook Film Festival declined to comment). 

Did you find 2017 film festival harder to program for than in years past?

Yes. But it’s maybe not in the way you think. It’s because the window from the festivals from which we get most of our programs to our festival has shrunk. The Grand Jury Prize winner from Sundance was never something we could consider because it premiered on Netflix the next month. When we started this five years ago, VERY few films that played Sundance were off the table by our May festival but that seems to be changing. Even SXSW had the issue with Win It All and Small Crimes dropping before our fest, which was less than two months later. We’re incredibly happy to have a Netflix film in our lineup this year but they’re definitely changing the game by adjusting windows more than anything and that has made programmers have to adjust.

Is Netflix the biggest problem or is Amazon also an issue?

It’s mostly Netflix but Amazon has definitely impacted the scene.

How important is the film festival circuit to an indie film’s success (in your opinion)?

Huge. Festivals build buzz for films and maintain a sense of community among film lovers that is the fuel for the independent film scene as a whole.

What studios still understand how valuable a resource this can be?

A24 above all others, and, yes, that’s because I’m biased in that they’ve given us major films every single year we’ve been in existence, including titles as big as Obvious Child, The End of the Tour, and A Ghost Story. From the beginning, they understood our purpose: trying to build buzz for movies we love. Others who have been essential partners include Magnolia, IFC, Fox Searchlight, GKids, and more. We’re happy to be working already with new companies Neon and Gunpowder & Sky too.

Is genre fare harder to program than others because even that market is being bought?

That’s interesting. I might argue that genre fare is harder because of the really good ones – It Comes at Night, The Witch, It Follows – are getting national releases and can be harder for a small fest to get, but I’d have to think about how Netflix has impacted the genre fest market. It doesn’t seem to be hurting things like Overlook or Fantasia Fest at all.

The film going experience is important. Many of the films bought by Netflix will never be shown in theaters. Do you believe film festivals are more vital than ever?

Undeniably. It’s not just the ability to see a film on the big screen but to interact with fellow film lovers and often the people who made the films. There’s a community angle to the best film festivals that can’t be replicated at home.

How exactly to you fix a problem like Maria…Netflix?

You don’t. I happen to think they’ll pull back on the throttle a bit when it comes to the weekly premieres/pick-ups rate we’ve seen lately but they’re not going anywhere. It’s like asking how you fix a problem like Facebook or Twitter. You may hate them but they are a part of the dynamic now in the film world, including festivals, and working with them and supporting what they do well is key: exposure for films that wouldn’t otherwise play anywhere near most people.

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