What Film Festivals Should Do To Better Serve Their Communities

Over at The Workbook Project, Saskia Wilson-Brown continues her thoughtful consideration of the role of film festivals and how to improve it.  She provides a good bullet list precisely about what festivals can do to better serve both filmmakers and their communities.  Read it.  Absorb it.  Adopt it.  Spread it.

More Thoughts On The New Film Festival Model

"Blood Simple" was the first film I bought a ticket for at a film festival.  It was screening at the NYFF and I soon came to recognize that the films accepted to that fest were of a exceedingly high quality.  The curatorial taste behind that festival choices was something I had confidence in.  They gained my trust precisely because they have never tried to be all things for all people, and for that I have always been willing to pay a premium for. The NYFF was, and is, a trusted filter. Too many festivals these days program too many films without revealing, or reveling in, their curatorial hands, diminishing the power of their brand in the process.  If festivals are going to become the new curators, that will have to change.  Festivals must emphasize their unique taste, if not overall, then within sidebars at the festival.

One of the reasons festivals once mattered so much to indie filmmakers was that acceptance in them was a virtual badge of quality for the filmmakers to display.  As festivals proliferated and premieres became a matter of policy, the filter aspect of festivals vanished.  Festivals seemed to open up the gates to anyone and anything.  Where's Waldo?  How do you spot the curatorial hand in swarm of over 100.  The question then becomes how do festivals regain that curatorial stamp?

A return to less could be more.  If less films were selected, it would mean more for the filmmaker, in terms of prestige and discovery.  More for the audience, in terms of a filter and confidence.  A common complaint heard in industry circles is that films "get lost" at such and such festival.  I have always liked the idea of a festival within the festival, curators within the larger curation.

Another benefit of smaller selections could be that more festivals could develop distinctive flavors making them more of a required stop by the cineaste (particularly if they also transcended their geographic boundaries).  Festivals need, just like movies, to sell their individuality.  I was excited to stumble upon Saskia Wilson-Brown's post (at the indispensable Workbook Project) on the relevance of small festivals today (it is a good post and well worth your time).  She articulates what festivals provide quite well:

Empowering a community and its artists through coherent promotion; leveraging the festival name to garner publicity and opportunity for its participants; facilitating radness in general– Art for art’s sake, as it were. The efforts of the core team, then, were mostly spent on promoting and advocating for micro-communities through programming decisions, and fostering creativity and creative collaboration in our neighborhood and beyond.

Acceptance to a festival used to always mean a review by a major critic at a major publication because their was a major critic at every major newspaper. That itself was worth whatever other risk the festival brought with it (because they do bring risks). With the dismissal of the film critics from the US newspapers, there are a few such critics left -- and there is no way that they can cover all the films at all the major festivals.  Movies get lost at festivals with a wide swath.  Sure, the blogsphere's picked up a lot of the slack, but those reviews are hard to garner the same interest or generate the same want-to-see from audiences.  How can web reviews be used to generate more interest?  Can the different review sites team up and time review releases simultaneously or even post to a common site so that more traction can be generated with audiences?  Where are the new ideas that can make festivals once again a value-added proposition?  Festivals should be transparent with filmmakers upon acceptance as to how they will help market the movie to the festival's community (and beyond).

If the VOD model is going to work in these days of never-ending supply and availability, reviews are more than necessary.  They need and are needed to get traction and facilitate action.  Review aggregators should drive traffic to the VOD platform.  We need widgets that link these two services seamlessly.  Shouldn't we have all this stuff integrated by now?  But alas, we don't.  So what can we do in the interim, in this in-between-days sort of time?

In considering the joining of film festivals with a VOD extension, it is hard not to see the logic of the relationship.  Festivals offer the overwhelmed consumer a filter -- the curatorial service.   Festivals serve to generate the reviews that films need so much.  If festivals can leverage their brand and marketing muscle to heighten awareness for the individual films, maybe a film has a chance of popping out of the crowded herd at the end of the dial.  If a festival can help a filmmaker understand how to make the most of this opportunity, more power to them both.

But if the films that are offered by a festival on VOD don't arrive with that flavor and spice, the rhyme and reason of why they are in a festival in the first place, will anyone really pay attention, particularly after the novelty has worn off?  Doesn't it precisely require more than just the brand of a festival but also the highly selective curation that festivals once promised?  The potential of festivals to provide the allure of a red velvet rope and shining spot lights is there.  Will we get to see what it looks like?  It is going to need to be a lot more than public twitter boards.  If the festival can not really add a lot of value in the marketing and positioning of their specific selections, aren't they taking advantage of the films they invite?

Festivals have always been a great place for the cineaste -- and not just because we get to see good movies.  The important part of festivals has always been the conversation.  What we expect from quality content is an even better social experience around it. Online users only spend 30% of their time looking at content; the rest is search and social -- discovery & discussion.  For film festivals to successfully evolve into a cross-platform non-geographicly specific discovery tool, they have to offer not just the added value of promotion, but heightened level of conversation & appreciation.

I know festivals can provide a lot more than currently do.  Particularly with a little help from their friends.  There's a lot of good thought going on about this, but when you see that filmmakers are questioning the very value of a film festival attendance, we can all discern that festivals are not offering enough value for the films that participate in them.  The answer is to offer more.

I have written about the need to utilize something like Festival Genius.  I think expanding the festival beyond it's geographic confines is similarly key.  A clear and understandable hand in the curating should be a given.  Guided and memorable conversation that transfers leisure time into intellectual capital and social capital is of the essence.  What more do you want?

Update Tuesday 4/20:  There's a lot of good conversation on what ideal festivals would look like.  Thom Powers recently held a breakfast discussing what a new Doc Fest in NYC would look like.  Brian Newman contribute a thoughtful post encouraging community, embrace of new tools, a focus on conversations over panels, a de-emphasis on formats, an abandonment of the demand for premieres, and a true collaboration with filmmakers by sharing data, audiences, and the opportunity to sell.  And yes, to pay filmmakers.

Festivals are going to change for both audiences and filmmakers. It is going to be exciting to see who really takes the lead.