Thursday, December 31, 2009

2009: Overview

Another film watching year is in the books! My final total of 338 films seen in 2009 is lower than the 445 films seen in 2008 and 385 in 2007. However, the quality of films I saw in 2009 was much higher than that of the previous two years. With the exception of a few films (soon to be outlined in a best of 2009 post), a majority of the best films I saw in 2009 came courtesy of the film festival circuit, routed via Sundance, Rotterdam, Cannes and eventually landing in CIFF. For me, the importance of Film Festivals cannot be emphasized enough and going into a new decade film festivals continue to be the only venue for most of the cinephiles around the world to peer into the existing beautiful cinematic universe. This is because the multiplexes are dominated with the usual gimmicky Hollywood [insert Bollywood or other local commercial offering] works and as a result, non-commercial films struggle to be seen. The number of art house venues cannot possibly show every worthy foreign/independent work and distributors only have a limited budget to grab a majority of these titles for DVD releases. Thankfully there are plenty of online/print film magazines/blogs which shed a light on the relevant cinema that exists but their film write-ups are still limited to a few titles from a select few film festivals. The onus is still on the cinephile to chase down titles on their own and try to discover works that others have missed. The good think is that there is plenty of potential to find new cinematic gems. For example, I was alerted to the lineup of films at The International Film Festival of Kerala thanks to Brown Country. Not only have I not seen any of the 14 competition films, I have not heard/read about them anywhere. So there remains a huge chance to find real gems in that list. How many of these 14 films will make the rounds around the world, via film festivals or DVD? Very few. What about the rest? They will sadly disappear as it often happens every year where sometimes worthy works go unnoticed because an important distributor/critic/film programmer did not get a chance to see the film. The fate of the Indian films in the IFFK list is even more bleak. Atleast Harishchandra’s Factory will get a wider release by UTV in January 2010 but the others might be inaccessible not only to international audiences but even to the people of India.

The Real Game Changer -- availability, not format

There has been a lot of talk this year about the new possibilities regarding 3D cinema. The buzz words around 3D now even apply to TV as 3D-TV should be available sometime in 2010 (very pricey though) and in 2009, one could have seen some 3D episodes of some TV series (one episode of the amazing Chuck comes to mind). Sure the experience of watching a film in rich 3D is rewarding but that experience only applies to a limited Hollywood selection and those films would have been easily available anyway in 2D and DVD anyway. On the other hand, I think something that allows cinephiles access to films from around the world is the real game changer. The current film festival calendar is broken and the film distribution network is not adequate enough to get films shown to people. For example, Cannes takes place in May and people in North America have to wait until TIFF premiers a select few Cannes titles in September before other film festivals can then start to show those films over the next few months (or a year as the case maybe). Then it is a further 6-8 months before a few of those titles would make it out to the art house/independent screens the following summer. And then the DVD release of those films could take another 6-8 months, meaning almost 2 years could have passed since a film’s Cannes premier before the film makes it to DVD in North America. This timeline applies to the few select award winning/big name Cannes films whereas the DVD release of other Cannes films could take even longer or never happen in some cases. That is not acceptable, especially when in an age where people talk about the speed and efficiency of data.

There has to be a major rethink about how fast film festival titles are made accessible to people. Here are my two cents to speed the process up:

1) The major film festivals with a distribution network (such as Sundance, Rotterdam, Cannes) should also broadcast films over the internet on a pay per view basis.
2) The festivals should provide a method to upload films via satellite to designated film theaters around the world.

Neither idea seems far fetched but the internet option might be more doable and recently The Auteurs tried something out with the Sao Paulo film festival where people from around Brazil could watch a selection of works shown at the Sao Paulo festival. I just think this model should be extended to allow international audiences to view films from the major film festivals. One argument why such a model cannot be opened up for people around the world has to do with a film’s international rights. But if a film does not have an international distributor, then I think it is better if the film is seen rather than wait 2-3 years for a future release or worse have the film never see life outside of the festival circuit. Overall, both options would benefit everyone -- the festival could get some extra revenue, the filmmakers can get a bigger audience for their works, cinephiles can finally have choices of what they watch, various film programmers can quickly decide what films they want to book for their festivals or cinematheque and prospective distributors can assess films without flying around the world to the various film festivals.

Will anything change in 2010? I don’t think so but I do hope that things will be better so that people can access quality cinema a bit more easily.

Here’s wishing to a Happy New Year and more film watching :)

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