Friday, November 26, 2010

Film Festivals...

In Richard Porton's TIFF piece, Reginald Harkema provides a key summary:

...Politics are of course (as with everything) a huge part of it. I have become a bit of a drinking buddy with an ex-programmer and he tells me horror stories of films that he absolutely hated and would never program, but because of the stature of the filmmaker (sex, race, celebrity, connection to the festival), they were programmed. I saw this happen this year, too, and one wonders about those many good Canadian films that didn’t get programmed when so many bad films are.

Reginald Harkema is talking about Canadian Cinema but the above statement equally applies to films programmed from any country at a film festival. No film festival can stand up and admit that every single film is selected based on merit alone. The higher the number of sponsors for a film festival, the greater the chance that films will be selected to please some sponsors or board of directors. Ofcourse, the bigger a film festival, the more the number of programmers at that festival. Each programmer has their own cinematic taste so it is impossible that all the films at a festival will suit every programmer, let alone appease every single festival patron.

Porton uses this line to describe the New York Film Festival:

Unlike a “boutique” festival such as the New York Film Festival, which showcases a small number of films that its programmers assert represent the year’s crème de la crème..

New York has a smaller selections of films but even NYFF opened with The Social Network, a Hollywood buzz film. Film Festivals need such buzz films to exist. That is a fact of festival life that cannot be avoided. Based on my programming experiences at local film festivals (CIFF, CPAFF), I have come to believe a film festival needs a certain commercial vs art film ratio in order to succeed. That means, a festival needs to show a certain number of commercially accessible films in order to earn some profit so as to show the truly artistic films which may incur a loss. This is because there may be only a few cities in the world where art films will make a profit so film festivals have to bend their ways to accommodate various other films that will get the crowds in. Also, art films like commercial films don't come cheap. In fact, every year that precious Cannes film will require almost the same programming fee as that new buzz Hollywood film. Back in 2006, I was able to get a worthy art film for free but that was a rare case and I am certain that will never happen again.

A few of us have worked hard to program that ideal film festival but every year, it is frustrating to see cinematic gems go overlooked while crowds pack substandard films. The irony is that if it were not for the substandard films, then the festival would have suffered a financial loss and been unable to get worthy films the following year.

Film festival goers are a curious bunch though. If they don't like a movie at a film festival, they direct extreme hatred at the programmer or even the film festival, because in their view the film programmer committed a grave sin by booking an awful film. Yet, these same film goers will never direct such venom at a multiplex owner for booking garbage, week in, week out. In fact, people will gladly return to the multiplex the following week despite suffering the previous weekend. But if these same people have a bad experience at a film festival, there is a good chance that they will not return to see another movie at the festival.

Cinephiles will rightly complain about movies a film festival does not book but will then go about ignoring new works from unknown directors, as if the only films worth seeing are from "masters" praised in Cannes/Venice or only films from a certain country are meant to be seen. For example, in my city, some cinephiles assume any French film is automatically superior to any Asian film because in their view the French have a history of good film-making. So they ignore works of art that are coming out of Thailand, China or Malaysia but will sit through any French language film, even if the film is from an unknown first time French director.
In addition...

It is a fallacy to believe that film festivals have the ultimate say in every single selection. The reality is that festivals are sometimes at the mercy of distributors and producers when it comes to showing some films. Of course, since very little is written about the inside workings of a film festival, people attribute the presence or absence of a film to the programmers decisions. Sure festival programmers have to answer for their selections but unseen powers behind some festival decisions are able to avoid any justifications.

Film programmers often have a thankless job because they can never satisfy everyone and there is a good chance they will be criticized by some segment of the film going public, no matter what films they select. Sometimes individual programmers are praised because a critic or cinephile might like that programmer's selections. On the other hand, a programmer who might be dismissed by professional critics might be held in high regard by the festival's board of directors because the programmer regularly picks films that draw crowds.

Popular vs art. The never ending film festival struggle.

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