Entertainment Culture gets institutionalized. We start doing something for one reason, and it just becomes the way. Often the practice no longer lines up with the actual result. It requires that we step back and look at it for what it really is — but that is a lot easier said than done.
Comparisons often feel a bit stretched, but they still some times help, by providing a bit of distance, to help us recognize where our institutions went wrong. Attorney and Sales Rep George Rush previously shared with us a bit about the sales process and strategy of micro-budget filmmaking. As much as he is passionate about Indie Film, he also has another love, and through that prism offers up a bit of an alternative vision that could provide a nice corrective to the indie institution of film festivals.
As some of you may know, I am a sports nut, specifically, I am a college football fanatic. No matter what the situation is that requires my full 100% focus (at court, doing negotiations, at a romantic dinner, etc.) somewhere in my head I’m jonesing for the smell of fresh cut grass and wondering how my Cal Bears are going to beat juggernaut teams like Stanford and Oregon. Anyhow, as a result of this, I read a lot of sports non-fiction and, I hate to admit this, but most is poorly written and little more than Horatio Alger tales of overcoming the odds. It is like when I read progressive political non-fiction—I already agree with everything—it just needs to be well written for me to enjoy it. Anyhow, political tomes usually seem written by better writers than sports ones (however, one of my favorite pieces of non-fiction ever is Warren St. John’s Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer). So at Sundance this year I read a book called Death to the BCS, which I thought I’d love as the lack of a playoff in college football is beyond non-sensical. So I already agreed with the thesis of the book. Unfortunately, I thought it was poorly written. The opening paragraph made a point of calling the BCS a “cabal,” and from that point forth in the book they would only refer to them as the Cabal—ugh.
Anyhow, the arguments in the book were all one’s I was familiar. For those not familiar with the argument, the BCS makes a lot of money and does not want to change the current system to something more sporting or equitable. They want to keep things as they are because it is in their financial interest. So instead of having a college football playoff, they want to keep college football playing a zillion meaningless bowls, exhibitions really, that in the economic sense only benefit the BCS and the bowl organizers—most college football teams that play in bowl games lose money! Once upon a time, in say the teens and twenties, before college football was organized on national scale, bowl games made sense where a good team from the west coast could play a good team from the Midwest. These games were a real opportunity for what was followed regionally to be national news. However, as college football has become big business, and in the age of ESPN and twitter, these bowl games have changed very little. They make too much money for the organizers for them to push the change, but as an event they are a bizarre anachronism. I’m a Cal fan, and I find it bizarre when I look in their trophy case and see the Emerald Nuts Bowl trophy—can something be anymore meaningless? When Obama was running for president he pointed out how bad college football needed a playoff, and yet these stupid, meaningless bowl games go on! And chumps like me continue to watch them!
So why am I going off about college football when the topic here is independent film? Well, as I read this book at Sundance, it made me realize how similar the college football bowl world was to the world of film festivals. Like college bowl games, I love attending them, but like bowl games, there are more and more of them every year and the whole thing seems like a worn out anachronism.
Once upon a time, film festivals were the only place you could see international and arthouse film. These films were 35mm prints, were unlikely to end up on a Blockbuster shelf, and if that wasn’t enough, the director would be on hand to answer questions—an event! Today, with the internet, video on demand, and Netflix, pretty much every film you read about at Cannes, Sundance, etc., you’ll be able to check out within a year. Film Festivals are still events though—that’s why I still go—I want to hear the cast and crew talk about it. It is still fun as a consumer, much as going to a bowl game is still fun, but what is the point for the filmmaker?
That leads to my main festival gripe: most filmmakers I know end up losing money doing the festival circuit! Sure, some festivals do pay or at least provide assistance for screening fees, shipments, travel, and/or hotel accommodations. And the ones who do this should definitely be applauded. But at the end of the day many of the filmmakers ultimately wind up more indebted than they were before. If the purpose of a festival is to promote film as an artform and support filmmakers, it should not leave the filmmaker more indebted at the end of the process.
If the film festival also acts as a marketplace, like Sundance, then that’s the cost of doing business. If it is a festival that is more of a cultural event (99% of film festivals), what are you getting out of it besides a lot of Stella Artois? I know for young, first time filmmakers, it is good to do the circuit just to meet people, but I hate the fact this is a moneylosing proposition. For some people, just getting it out there is enough, but the core of any film festival is—duh!—the films! If money is to be spent, shouldn’t be to pay a screening fee?
I know how hard it is to get the money to host a film festival can be, but the priority absolutely needs to be taking care of the filmmakers so doing a particular fest does not put them in the red. I know there is some prestige to playing at certain festivals, but I think that prestige without compensation is a red herring. It makes no sense except to prop up some insecure filmmakers.
There are too many film festivals, just like there is too many bowl games. There aren’t enough good films, so a lot of crappy films end up at these festivals, when maybe they have no business doing so—they just didn’t work. Similarly, a 6-6 Central Michigan team has no business being in a bowl game. The point of both is as an exhibition of the best work, and those filmmakers and football teams should not lose money by participating.
So look, as much of a football nut I am, I have the same passion for independent film and film festivals. I love seeing great films with an audience before most the public has. I love the energy in the room at film festivals—seeing Hustle and Flow at Sundance was one of the most transcendent experiences in my life. I just think it is filmmakers who are the ones who make festivals exist, and thus they should be taken care of. And yeah, yeah, yeah, film festival people—I know you’re broke and barely staying afloat. I’m sorry. It doesn’t matter. Filmmakers should be the priority.
To further my analogy, and for the benefit of the small crew who loves independent film and college football, here is my list of bowl games and their corresponding film festival. This is only focused on American fests and American Independents. World Cinema would require another chart (Cannes=the World Cup, Berlin=Euro Championship, etc.), as would genre, documentary, ethnic fests.
|Film Festival||Bowl Game||Reason|
|Sundance||BCS Championship Game/Rose Bowl||This is THE game! Best of the best! The granddaddy of them all!|
|SXSW||Tostitos Fiesta Bowl*||The brash bowl/fest embracing the new, where everyone eats tortilla chips. Though lacking the reputation of Sundance/Rose Bowl, often a better game.|
|Tribeca||Capital One Bowl||Throwing a lot of money around guarantees a quality matchup.|
|Toronto||Orange Bowl||In many ways bigger and more prestigious than anything, but because of local distractions (major world cinema premieres/the Dolphins), may get lost in the shuffle.|
|Telluride||Cotton Bowl||Prestigious and full of pomp, but to a large degree important because of its past laurels. Nonetheless, a big deal, great lineup—SHOW!|
|Los Angeles||Sugar Bowl||Great lineup, but always overshadowed by the more glamorous pros around town (Hollywood/Saints).|
|Hamptons||Las Vegas Bowl||Always a good lineup, but constant begrudgery of rich assholes everywhere.|
|Maui||Hawaii Bowl||Five more mai tais please. Oh yeah, films, football, blah, blah, blah.|
|San Francisco||Sun Bowl||One of the oldest, and always a good lineup, just not going to discover a champ. However, a good barometer for future years contenders/directors.|
|Denver||Holiday Bowl||Always a good lineup, and what a party!|
|Sarasota||Gator Bowl||Great lineup, great party! A younger set—like a mini Fiesta Bowl/SXSW in Florida!|
|New York||Liberty Bowl||One of the oldest and prestigious. A great lineup, but these people are serious about/film football. Both seemed organized by Sam the Eagle from the Muppets.|
|Traverse City||Humanitarian Bowl||Great bowl/film fest started so little guys can have a voice. Sticking it to the man!|
|Rooftop||Little Caesars Bowl||Outdoor screenings in NY? January football in Detroit? Counterintuitive, but fuck it, it works!|
|Gen Art||Pinstripe Bowl||OK lineup, but its in NY. They say that’s a big media market.|
|Mill Valley||New Mexico Bowl||Decent lineup for the Patagonia set.|
|AFI||TicketCity Bowl||Pretty Good, but AFI/Jerry Jones is ostensibly your host! That means you’re in!|
* I should point out that SXSW is different from the Fiesta Bowl is one major way: unlike the Fiesta Bowl, SXSW is well-run and free of scandal.
I’ll stop there as it is too mean to compare shitty festivals with shitty bowl games that really have no reason for existing. I’ll just say there’s a lot of them! The big difference between film fests and bowl games is film fests generally take place in places where there is a critical mass of obnoxious, pretentious, sophisticated identified rich people, whereas bowl games take place where there is a critical mass of obnoxious, drunk, frat guy like rich people. America would be in better shape if these two groups were friends. America would also be in better shape if every film festival made sure that filmmakers didn’t lose a cent by participating in their fest.
But since I love football and independent film, I am forced to accept the system, even if I feel it is broken. Just writing this article gets my excited for both independent film and football. If there was only a way I could combine my two interests. Wait! There is! A documentary I produced, 4th and Goal, which chronicles the lives of six football players for six years as they pursue their goal of playing in the NFL comes out on DVD and VOD on September 20th. If you like football, independent film, or just simply a good story, you should check it out. (http://www.4th-and-goal-movie.com/)
George Rush is an entertainment attorney and producer’s rep in San Francisco.