12 Questions Toward The Future Of Film Festivals

by Ted Hope

On December 2, SFFS Executive Director Ted Hope gave the following keynote address at the International Film Festival Summit in Austin, Texas. Watch the video here, or read the transcript below.

Thank you for inviting me into your community. I have been in the film business for close to 30 years now – but it is as if I lived on the other side of a wall from you. I had one vision of what it took to put on festivals, but that was just a pale shadow of the brutal reality I have come to face in my two months on the job at the San Francisco Film Society. It’s hard work running a film festival! If any of you have played my films over the years and I didn’t bestow flowers and thanks on you, please line up at the end of this talk and you can slap my hand, twice! I owe you guys!

I like to think the kind invite to speak today, though, is symbolic of us crashing down that wall, and the start of a new era – but then I have always been a tad grandiose… I mean, I did get drawn into this show business thing, after all.

Today, I think we all come for answers, but I have to warn you: my search for those answers has only led me to more questions. Those are the gifts I have to share after two months on the job as the Executive Director of The San Francisco Film Society. Questions that come from looking at our film culture and wondering how we can serve it best.

We all have a tremendous challenge before us. The film business and its infrastructure were built -- and are still based, sad to say -- on principles and concepts that are no longer applicable to the world we live in. The film business was founded on a monopolistic idea of scarcity of content and total control of that content. But we couldn’t be further from the truth of that now.

We live in the time of grand abundance of content, total access to content and rampant distraction from content. Fifty thousand feature films are generated worldwide on an annual basis. America will remain the top consumption market in the world for at least another year, and it’s thought we, at best, consume between 500-600 titles a year – basically, only 1% of the world’s supply. It will take us an entire century to look at this year’s supply of film. And next year we will still have the other 49,500 we didn’t get to this year. And yet good movies don’t get widely seen. Do we really need any new movies? And why is our entire industry so damn slow to adapt to this time of grand abundance?

As film festivals, we can – and certainly should – worry about how filmmakers are going to adapt to these changes. Our entire film culture is currently seriously threatened because artists and their supporters are not rewarded for the work they make. The system only profits the outliers and the facilitators.

I got to make the many films I did in part because I could deliver a predictably consistent positive return to my investors. That is virtually impossible now. The films I’ve made to date would not be made today; if they were, they were not be profitable or have the same sort of impact on the world. We are on the verge of being deprived of the stories that reach high and take chances. Picture a world without such tales. Is that the future we want? If it is, we need not do anything. But it isn’t, we have some serious work ahead of us.

We also need to ask about when and how the film business will pivot, or not, and how do we adapt to that subsequent adaptation, too. The film industry is a strange ritual, seeming committed to reinventing the wheel again and again, hoping that the same actions will somehow lead to different results. The film industry is the physical manifestation of Einstein’s definition of insanity. The music industry realized it needed to change its business model, and so hopefully soon will the film industry.

We are shifting from a business model structured around starting over again and again with each new film and moving to one based on forging an ongoing relationship with fans, audiences, and communities, one no longer dominated exclusively by the feature film form. When it is not about the individual movie, but about an overall relationship between creators and appreciators, what is the festival’s role?

Recognizing these profound changes, we must ask: “How are we in film-festival land affected by this total paradigm shift?” If we truly recognize where we are standing, we might only then know where we can lead.

The San Francisco International Film Festival is the longest-running film festival in America. Fifty-six years! Back in 1957, you could not yet see international film virtually everywhere in the United States. Yet 25 years ago, when I moved to NYC, I did find it easy to enjoy a steady of diet of uniquely seasoned foreign film offerings. Nonetheless, a buffet like a film festival was still a time to feast and celebrate. There was no question why film festivals mattered or what they needed to become.

Seven years ago, the biggest film festival in the world launched, offering the greatest degree of community participation and media democracy yet implemented:YouTube. Four billion videos per day are streamed. Quality may be an issue, but they filled a need we seemingly missed. Five years ago, cable VOD platforms offered 50 or so new films a month; today we get thousands. And still 27 films a week still open in NYC. San Francisco and the Bay Area now host over 80 film festivals throughout the year. How do we ensure that film festivals truly matter in this over-saturated environment of infinite options?

We all know that movies matter. We have given our labor to the only art form that brings people together, inspires, educates and challenges them. Movies build bridges of empathy across vast divides of difference. Movies make the world a better place. By choosing to run film festivals, we have acknowledged firsthand the importance of cinema, but are we contributing enough to save it, to push it forward? Are we on the bus or are we part of the problem?

I was asked to come speak to you today about where we can take festivals, what are the boundaries and how far can we go, but to begin to answer that, we have to look first at ourselves. And I too have to look directly at myself and my behavior.

I have a HD projector in my home. I have streaming galore. I realized over a year ago that I have already pre-selected everything I want to watch not just in the near future, but so far beyond that if I am able to maintain my maximum rate of consumption every year for the rest of my life, my bucket list of movies carries me almost to 10 years past the date of my life expectancy. I am living in the middle of a glorious, self-programmed nonstop film festival. Just like anyone else who wants to can be. Is this even a good thing? Is cinema about watching alone or even with just a few? I know you don’t need the answer on this one.

Three months ago, after producing close to 70 films that generally dared to take real chances and reach high, I decided I could do more to help the culture I love by stepping out of my producer shoes and sitting down around the table with all of you. Film festivals gather all the people who care about films, who absolutely adore the cinema experience, together. That is an untapped power. Film festivals are an incredible opportunity to engage with all of our culture’s stakeholders and to ask “What do we want film festivals to be?” and “What do we need film festivals to be?”

Thankfully, there is no correct single answer to that question. I enjoyed a pretty nice track record producing movies. There’s no simple answer as to why I had that success either, but a lot comes down to the fact that I never believed there was a template for creating art. Each film needed to be its own unique construction and I suspect that is true for film festivals -- truer today probably, than ever before.

Audiences, artists, art and technology evolve far faster than markets, business, or infrastructure. In this era of infinite reproduction, audiences crave authenticity and customization. When people don’t get what they want, they move on. Film attendance has been dropping in this country on a regular basis; box office is maintained by price increases. The behavior patterns of our youth influence all we do going forward. My 12-year-old son has said he doesn’t like movies, although he loves most that he’s ever seen. He doesn’t see cinema as speaking to him – and if that doesn’t change, the audience and community he is part of will be lost to us forever.

We need to find our unique stamp at every festival, and it won’t come from a top-down approach but from the crowd itself. Have we all utilized the tools we have to really listen, to evaluate and analyze? To tell you the truth, I don’t know what these tools are, but in my first year at the San Francisco Film Society, my top goal is to learn who my audiences are, and help them get to where they want to go. We should not contain our audience by the structure we have, but instead build the structures that carry them further. Isn’t that part of the definition of community building?
When I look at the power of film, and the total appeal of film festivals, it is film’s strength at bringing people together, in a really deep way, that I find its most unique attribute. Frankly, I think we all tend to take this for granted and in the process diminish it. Have we embraced cinema’s power as a community organizing tool, to help people address what they otherwise have difficulty in discussing or embracing? I think we need to build our house around this energy; it will allow us to expand in new ways than previously conceived.

We know we all want to ENGAGE audiences and we all know how to use social media now (or at least we have someone on our team that does!). I love social media; it has changed my life and expanded my horizons, but it is not deep engagement. A well-curated Facebook page or Twitter stream will never replace festivals for real engagement. But as wonderful as it is to hear a filmmaker discuss their work with an audience, it is still only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to erasing the barriers between audience and artist. What more can we do? We need to reach higher.

Film festivals are also a community unto themselves, but have we ever unleashed their combined power? As much as we share and inform, in terms of the films we present, do we just compete and cannibalize? We are the pinnacle where cinema is both appreciated and celebrated at its highest level, but have we taken it for granted that that is sufficient? Can we take it further?

To help us all move forward, I have used these questions I am raising here, to spur me on to a new set of questions, totaling 12 (granted, with some subsets & subquestions) – questions that I will use to guide me this next year at the San Francisco Film Society.

  1. What is the full power of community and how do we transform our audiences into sustainable communities? Can we curate communities in a similar way? What if we connected like minded people in a more sustainable way and then allow audience to truly influence what is seen and discovered?
  2. How doe we utilize cinema’s power to activate? What is our call to action? What is the call to action to our constituencies? How do we transition them from passive to action?
  3. What do our audiences really want Film Festivals to be? What does it mean to be a communal gathering?
  4. What do filmmakers really want from Festivals these days? Very few can be markets or premieres, even publicity machines. How can we deepen the utility of festivals for the creative community? Festivals deliver intelligent and engaged audiences to the films. Can we deepen the relationship between the fans and the creators?
  5. If authenticity, participation, and customization are indeed what people want today, how do our programs provide that?
  6. Can we work together so that films gain better momentum festival to festival and unleash the power of the combined festival community in some way?
  7. Are we utilizing the strength of the festivals as an information gathering and dissemination tool as fully as we might? What information is not being gathered when we collect films and crowds and can we change that? This is the data age. Are we embracing transparency as fully as we might?
  8. As trusted curators of this colossal heap of cinema culture, how do we really make a difference on a long term basis? Is a short burst of guidance enough? Growth requires consistency and do we provide that? We are the filter, the trusted source. Film festivals are discovery platform for films that might otherwise be ignored. How to carry that over to the online environment?
  9. How do we transform young people into loyal cinema lovers? We are losing the youth. Can we stem the tide?
  10. What is the broadest definition of film? Can we reflect that and help people embrace that? Have we forgotten what show business is and neglected the spectacle and event in favor of the practical and executable?
  11. If we are moving away from the one film at a time business model towards one of artists forming long term relationships with their audiences, how do film festivals facilitate it?
  12. The best thing the film industry can do to help ambitious and diverse work is to make sure that artists and their supporters are the direct beneficiaries of the rewards of the film. How do festivals do that?

We have an incredible opportunity before us. The only consistent is change. We can’t stand still. Never before have we had access to the tools that can change our world. But yet we don’t know where to go. We need to ask real questions and on a consistent basis. We will find the answers and the maps. There are no boundaries but ourselves.