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Festival Circus: Should Film Festivals Care About World Premieres?

Festival Circus: Should Film Festivals Care About World Premieres?

The impact of film festivals on current cinema around the world is undeniable. But the rules, logistics, politics and factors that govern the way festivals highlight movies worth your time are often mysterious to anyone outside of the industry. In this new column, festival veteran and critic Robert Koehler will delve into many of the pluses and minuses of film festivals today.

Sometimes, it’s what film festivals don’t do that counts.

Take AFI Fest (running through Thursday in Los Angeles), which doesn’t do world premieres — at least, 99% of the time. In this year’s lineup of 89 features, only two are world premieres, both red-carpet galas at the recently restored and gracefully IMAXed Chinese Theatre: “Out of the Furnace” and “Lone Survivor.”

This isn’t a new trend for AFI. Just before and during the time I served as director of programming for the festival, we developed a mission to minimize world premieres. Current festival director Jacqueline Lyanga has aggressively and wisely continued this practice, noting, “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”

Here’s why more festivals — especially American festivals — should pick up on this bit of wisdom.


Like Homer’s voyagers captured by the sound of beautiful sirens, the lure of world premieres can be irresistibly attractive, but a trap for both programmers and the audiences they’re serving.

The attractions are natural. Any given festival’s development/fundraising department likes how world premieres draw sponsors’ excitement for being on the red carpet shoulder to shoulder with stars. The publicity department likes how world premieres exponentially increase ad impressions and raise the likelihood of national and international press attending. Press beyond the local kind amps up a festival’s global visibility, especially on the web. The festival’s board of directors likes all of the above.

And a festival director needs to listen to the board — and sometimes not.

In this case, it’s best to ignore the siren call, especially when thinking of the audience.

Unless a festival is Cannes, Berlin, Sundance, Locarno, Toronto or Busan, the chances of getting a world premiere that also happens to be a good movie is slim to none. The only festival that’s recently cracked this hard line — and minimally at best — is South by Southwest. Locarno is also a special case, a festival that deliberately goes after the best but more radical movies that most of the other relatively conservative festivals ignore or turn down.

The basic fact of life in the festival world is that sales companies and producers representing their movie or movie slate hold out for the biggest and most powerful festivals to unveil their goods. They want the biggest bang for their buck since — as James Schamus explains in his unique manner in the recent book “Coming Soon to a Festival Near You” — opening a new movie at a big festival can cost well north of $1 million.

This leaves 99.99% of festivals with the prospect that any world premiering movies will be at most second-tier, and probably worse. Programmers are forced to compromise in areas that shouldn’t be compromised, festivals find themselves putting lipstick on pigs and audiences may feel deceived at the end of the day.

Worse, festivals that compromise in this way become easy prey in the future for more siren calls from sales companies, needing to drop their also-ran titles in their slates somewhere, somehow. Festival X is easy. We’ll go there.


Not all world premieres are made equal. Studios time their prestige adult movies for Oscar season. So filmmakers, producers and their partnering companies (think, for example, of sales heavyweight The Match Factory) time their new movie for the festival circuit, and the right moment in that circuit. They know if it’s not ready with finished sound by early November, it’ll be too late for the early-year Sundance-Rotterdam-Berlin roundelay. OK, they figure, we’ll get it ready for Cannes in May. Or maybe they know it won’t be ready by spring. Timing then shifts to the early fall rush of Telluride-Venice-Toronto.

This is the schedule for the movies and the moviemakers that make a splash during the festival year, the ones that fill the needs of indie distributors from Sony Classics to Strand, Adopt to Zeitgeist.

For the rest, it’s anything goes, and anyone who’s interested. Now this doesn’t mean that the rest are automatically bad movies. In fact, far too many fine movies world premiering at festivals abroad are missed entirely by American festivals. 

But what tends to spark these U.S. festivals’ attention for red carpet events are less the movie than the stars attached to them. Even better if it’s a star of a certain age that older audiences (still the core demographic of most festivals) fondly remember and haven’t seen in a while. Sadly, in ageist Hollywood, these formerly big but lovingly recalled stars aren’t getting the best projects and scripts anymore; despite their best acting efforts, their turkey movie wouldn’t exist without their presence.

Just as bad are the Sundance and SXSW rejects available to American festivals down the road. Rather than these festivals engaging in more curating of worthy movies that have already premiered, they tend to get drawn in to show a whole slate of instantly forgettable indies, most of which never see the light of day again.

These are the kind of world premieres that a festival’s market-driven departments, patrons and the filmmakers’ pals and relatives care about — and literally nobody else in the world.


Festivals lusting for first-in-world red carpets might feel lucky. Their logic goes something like this: “Well, who made Cannes God? They can’t show every good movie. Maybe we can get one.”

In one way, they’re right. Not only does Cannes not show every good movie in a year, it shows a lot of bad ones. Just look at this year’s main competition.

So there are always some diamonds out there, maybe in the rough. Maybe they were missed.

Do ya feel lucky punk? Don’t. Just because a major festival movie of note such as “Ida” wasn’t programmed by Cannes doesn’t mean that the festival down the block is going to get it. Without Cannes, the game plan shifted to Toronto, where “Ida” world premiered at its proper stature and profile (after a sneak peek at Telluride), given the status of co-writer and director Pawel Pawlikowski.

AFI got lucky this year with its world premieres, proof there are exceptions to every rule, but also that the exception proves the rule. Both are significant Oscar season titles. “Out of the Furnace” is Relativity’s big number for this time of year, with straight-out-of-the-Robert-Mitchum playbook performances from a macho cast of Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, Casey Affleck, Forest Whitaker, Willem Dafoe and Sam Shepard. “Lone Survivor” is one of Universal’s Oscar hopes, with another studly cast led by Mark Wahlberg, Emile Hirsch, Taylor Kitsch, Eric Bana, Ben Foster and Jerry Ferrara.

Maybe these movies got the pass from Telluride/Venice/Toronto. Maybe they weren’t ready. It doesn’t matter. They don’t feel like the leftovers or rejects that scar most world premieres. They’re major movies tackling important subjects (Iraq and Afghanistan, war vets back home, the recession, the forgotten working class) that feature big stars. They rate red carpets. They’re big enough to fill the huge Chinese.

AFI’s example also illustrates where world premieres should go. If a festival has a few program sections (AFI has 10), the few world premieres are best in the red carpet zone. The audience for these events isn’t the normal festival crowd, and a lot of them are there mostly to schmooze and grab some free post-screening chow. The accompanying movie is just gravy.

Everyone attending Cannes knows (or should know) that the closing night gala is usually a dog, slotted to check off some political points with a given filmmaker/producer/studio/company/country. That’s also usually the case in Berlin and Toronto. But it’s also why this year’s Toronto closer, “Life of Crime,” the smart adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s “The Switch,” was such a surprise. It was actually good.

The Toronto braintrust knows it was lucky with that one. World premieres, they know, can be worse than a life of crime.

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Is this a real article?

Charles Judson


I agree with the sentiments of the comments here. However, I think the fault lies in imprecise language, a lack of a clear definition of "World Premieres", and a macro view of film festivals that only magnifies that imprecision and lack of clarity.

That being said, I read the above and I "feel" I know exactly what he means by Sundance/SXSW rejects.

Hundreds of really good films aren't selected by these festivals. Many of them, because they are good, do go on to play great festivals and have healthy runs. They are a caliber of film almost any festival would be proud to have in their lineup.

Outside of that, there are the films that run the gamut from not very good to being decent, yet unremarkable. Most programmers are looking for the films that best fit their festivals. For the most part, we don't look to settle. As I explain to filmmakers, every festival has an ego. When paired with a quest for excellence and a desire for a shared experience, that ego is a healthy thing. A festival wants to discover great films. Many, many festivals don't want to pass over a film that they loved and featured true talent, in favor of playing the starf*cker game. When they do that, that not only hurts filmmakers, it means they can slowly slip off the national (and international) radar if they aren't careful.

When a festival is more hungry for press and recognition based off individual films than the collective quality of their programming, that ego can lead a fest to play it safe and to chase films. It also makes for an awful festival experience. Actually, painful is the way I'd put it.

Let's not pretend that every film being rejected by Sundance, SXSW, or any festival is good. While every year I can program my documentary section three times over with good films (if only I could do 30 days to get some of them in–and I'm still kicking myself that I couldn't find room for 7 of them from this year), there are others that will never make the cut. They not only won't make the cut, they won't make the cut anywhere.

We have all not selected films that have gone on to play another festival. At times, it's difficult to discern if that was due to a programmer just falling love with the film, or if there were less noble reasons. But, I've selected films that weren't perfect for reasons other than I wanted to play the "best" film. When a woman in her 50s comes up to me and thanks our festival for playing a film that her husband took her to for her birthday (true story), it makes us proud, because that's who we slotted that film for. Give me 10 minutes, I could nitpick every flaw, however the flaws weren't as important as the reasons were for screening that film. Sometimes, that World Premiere for that film was earned on merit, merit that matched the programming team's definition of it.

Where I think Koehler went truly wrong, was to not point out the additional purposes of World Premieres. Many festivals use that for their competition sections. In many cases, be you a small, regional or international festival, a comp section can definitely benefit from all being World Premieres. When you say a group of films or filmmakers are new to the scene, the can collectively elevate each other. While I do think that audiences OVERALL don't give two sh*ts about premiere status (they want good stories), I do think that World Premiere status can help draw an audience's attention to individual films that may need that extra push.

As for distributors and sales agents, they are in just as a competitive market. There are distributors, with great films, who know they can't go up against some of the larger (more powerful) distributors to get into the larger festivals. Also, with the range of distributors out there, there are those that know taking X film to a regional festival will benefit it, while the best shot for Y film is playing one of the majors. Some of us have already started seeing that mind shift as distributors are beginning to understand how crowded its out there, and how at the end of the day, a play at Cannes doesn't mean the person who would most want to drop $12 to see that film would even notice (even with increased press). Their attention is divided.

I'd also say that Koelher is oversimplifying the sponsor situation. We lost Delta as a sponsor years ago, and that was not because we were low profile. Delta was looking to do two things. One, was go where they could highlight other international hubs, such as New York. We've got one of the World's Busiest Airports. Getting someone to fly out of Atlanta to London isn't difficult. Two, they paid attention to their customers and their research told them at that same time that their customers were more interested in baseball, than football, so they ended their sponsorship of the Falcons.

Most of the large festivals would probably argue who is on their boards makes the difference to getting sponsors first and foremost. Stars help for sure. However, unless a star can pick up the phone to call in a favor to schedule a meeting like a board member can, stars ability to bring sponsors flocking is limited. And yes, a corporate sponsor may be drawn to the red carpet, but that guy standing next to her you can't identify is probably for whom that night in the spotlight is going to get that deal signed next month.

Lastly, and this isn't to knock Indiewire, I come to it multiple times a day. However, the Indiewire of 2013 isn't the same Indiewire of 2003. That's no value judgement. I'm just saying that when a site is a source for TV (Breaking Bad), Hollywood product (Fast & Furious 7), Industry News, as well as indie film news, it creates a context that requires even more nuance and precision from a writer, not less. A general audience member who isn't a filmmaker and happened to stumble across a post like this, wouldn't likely have any interest in this post. If you're a newbie filmmaker, the breadth of coverage, could make it difficult for you to understand that these blogs are speaking to different audiences and different concerns.

As I said, I think this piece suffers more from a lack of nuance, and a view of the collective festival circuit that's 10-years out of date, and too narrow, than anything else. Two pages isn't nearly long enough. Nor is one lone quote sufficient. What also doesn't help is writing from a perspective that implies, rightly or wrongly, all festivals occupy the same space, in the same way. We share the same space, yet not every festival is connected or even concerned about the world covered in this piece.

Charles Judson
Artistic Director
Atlanta Film Festival

Thank You


Bears Fonte

I don't understand the intent of this article – is it to discourage filmmakers? Is it to convert quality film festivals across the country into distribution arms of Sundance? Is it for the writer to pat himself on the back for an idea he claims to have started?

To come clean, I am a festival programmer myself, at Austin Film Festival, and I am quite proud of the films we world premiered this year (and last year as well). Not every film is made for Sundance, and just because a film does not have a studio or big production company backing it, does not mean it is not worthy of selection at a festival and finding an audience. In this day and age when there are less and less true independents out there, film festivals have become the only distribution option available to many films and filmmakers. If we only have Sundance and Toronto to supply the world with new films, there are hundreds and hundreds of films out there no one can see. I've seen so many amazing independent films this year that World Premiered at SXSW (Zero Charisma), Phoenix (Waking), Tribeca (A Birder's Guide To Everything, GBF), Seattle (The Little Tin Man, Scrapper) and Dances With Film (Forever's End). Other than Sir Ben Kingsley (who was not at the Tribeca premiere of Birder's Guide) all these films are notably without the "formerly big but lovingly recalled stars" the article suggests are at the core of programer's decisions.

I actually feel the opposite of the attitude in this article — I believe it is the film festival programmer's RESPONSIBILITY to take chances on world premieres and find new filmmakers. If they won't, who will? And in all honesty, the films that play Sundance etc., they don't really need the help that playing at a lot of other film festivals will provide. Most of them already have distribution by the time other festivals roll around, many of them have distribution by the time February rolls around. Film festivals are part of the landscape of independent film. They offer an alternative to the local arthouse cinema, and can help filmmakers find audiences they might not otherwise reach. If one film festival takes a chance on a film, that increases the possibility that another one will as well. In addition, film festivals give these filmmakers a chance to see their work up on a big screen and engage with an audience. Maybe this film didn't get into Sundance, but maybe their next film will be genius, and playing a successful run across the film festival circuit will be what it takes to encourage investors to take that leap of faith and fund it.

Really, the more I type the more disappointed I get at the tone of this article. I saw great films at Sundance 2013, but if those were the only indies I got to see all year, my life would not be nearly so rich, and I would not have a list of about ten filmmakers whose next projects I am anxiously awaiting.

Bears Fonte
Director of Programming
Austin Film Festival


As a festival-goer, my only interest is in seeing films that have not yet found distribution and that therefore one might not see without the festival. If a film already has a distributor, I don't need the festival, I can see it when it comes out. The festivals are my chance to explore work that might be less mainstream, more daring, more original, more challenging. I certainly see why festivals care about world-premieres, and as a filmmaker I obviously understand why filmmakers and producers care which festivals they give their premieres to — the more "important" the festival, the more likely you'll get noticed and make a sale. So there are several agendas here, which are not the same though they overlap. Filmgoers want to see interesting and original work, and couldn't care less if it's a world premiere, festivals need publicity to survive, so they court world premieres, which leads them sometimes to punish films that won't give them the first screening by not screening them at all, and producers need to premiere the work in the most prestigious festival possible, after which they mostly want to screen at as many festivals as possible (with some exceptions). Two out of three of these constituencies are very happy to have films in festivals that have been shown elsewhere, as commenter Lisa Nesselson says more eloquently. All they/we care about is the quality of the films. I sympathize with the difficulty festival programmers have not only financing their festivals, but keeping them relevant to filmmakers, and important enough in the festival ecosystem that the best filmmakers will continue to want to show their films there. But I suspect that the best way to earn the trust of filmmakers, and also of film goers, is just to program the very best films you can see, regardless of whether they've been shown at other festivals.

Lisa Nesselson

I just came back from my annual visit to one of the best film festivals anywhere: The Viennale in Vienna, Austria. Terrific, wide-ranging programming from all over the world, lovely vintage cinemas, enthusiastic local audiences AND IT'S NOT COMPETITIVE.
I didn't hear the term "Oscar" mentioned once in 8 days. And while there were some world premieres, nobody mentioned that either.
This strikes me as a sane, rewarding way to offer films to curious audiences.
This year in Vienna you could see "Blue is the Warmest Color" or all 12-plus hours of Jacques Rivette's "Out One" — with a pause in the middle for vet American critic Jonathan Rosenbaum to interview the film's producer along with actor Jean-Pierre Leaud.
You could see the masterful doc "The Last of the Unjust" and witness its cranky director, Claude Lanzmann on stage. (Has this astonishingly good doc "lost" something by being shown In Toronto, New York, Chicago, London since its world premeire at Cannes in May? No, OF COURSE NOT.)
Or you could catch up on the film and television performances of honoree Will Ferrell. Or go to the Austrian Film Archive for a full retrospective of the work of Jerry Lewis.
You could see 4 one-hour-long epsiodes of Werner Herzog's mind-bendingly fascinating "Death Row" series, glorious on the really big screen or you could watch thematic programs of silent shorts.
You could see the splendid Polanski-spearheaded doc "Weekend of a Champion" with festival guest Sir Jacky Stewart in attendance. Did Cannes have the world premiere of this rendition of the vintage material? Yes, they did. Did that detract in any way from the Vienna showing? No, OF COURSE NOT.
No prizes (except for a FIPRESCI prize and an award to an Austrian film). And no mention of Oscar-worthiness or Oscar-positioning or Oscar-campaigning.
Maybe not for a sales agent but certainly for any film enthusiast (local or "imported"), filmmakers, other festival programmers and (why not?) the man or woman in the street.
Come to think of it, wouldn't most of our lives be better without any mention of the Academy Awards, let alone the constant hammering about Oscar-this or Oscar-that?
No matter how healthy and nimble a film critic is, watching and reviewing dozens of films — world premieres! therefore important! never before shown! — in the space of a week or ten days is a nearly impossible task to do well.
Kinder, gentler film festivals are good for everybody.
The chase after world premieres may make sense to festival boards or sponsors but why should the average film-goer (or critic…) care where/when a film was first shown?
Why, for that matter, should a film-goer watching an over-produced trailer care whether the cast and crew of a forthcoming film have ever been nominated for or won Oscars? ("I'm not sure whether Meryl Streep can act or not. She's won 3 Oscars? And been nominated even more times than that? Well, then — that changes EVERYTHING!")
The emphasis on "awards season" is nuttier with each passing year.

Brad Wilke

As a film programmer for the Seattle International Film Festival (with a focus on U.S. independent films), I disagree with this article.

I don't want to mischaracterize any of Mr. Koehler's points, but I find the overall tone of this piece to be defeatist, didactic, and, quite frankly, a little insulting to a number of parties, not least of all the independent filmmakers themselves.

Obviously, the festivals cited in this article have their pick of each year's crop of independent films, but to think that the Sundance and SXSW "rejects" are without merit, or are somehow flawed, is clearly not the case.

This past year in SIFF's six-film Catalyst program, we world premiered four new independent films that have since gone on to much acclaim. The two films that were not world premieres were each faced with the difficult decision of choosing to debut at an earlier fest or wait until SIFF in May. And even though each was willing to wait, I assured them that their SIFF invitation would not be affected if they chose to world premiere at highly respected regional festivals that just happened to take place before ours. And it wasn't.

And here's why: it's all about finding an audience.

Today's independent filmmaker can't think that an extremely fragmented distribution network will sustain their career. They have to establish, cultivate, and sustain an audience over the course of their career, and the regional festival circuit is a perfect way to do it. Like an author with their book or a musician with their album, filmmakers must take to the road (and the internet) to build their fanbase, almost literally, one person at a time.

It's an uphill battle, and an article like this only makes it more difficult. It devalues their work in the eyes of the general audience ("Where are the Sundance laurels? Must not be that good.") and makes them automatically feel like part of an "out group" within the independent filmmaking community.

And just to be clear, this is not an apologia for SIFF's exclusion from the list, nor is it a rallying cry against the further stratification of the festival circuit. It's merely a stake in the ground for all of the independent filmmakers out there that are creating compelling work that, due to forces outside of their control (many of which the article cited, including politics, sheer volume of submissions, festival themes, etc.) don't make a splash at a major festival. And, as a programmer, I see it as a personal mission to discover those overlooked (or neglected) films, world premiers or not, and work with the filmmaking team to make the most of their festival run (whether or not it starts at SIFF).

All of that said, I believe it is possible to find high-quality world premiere independent films that people do care about, that audiences are hungry to discover, and that herald the arrival of a new voice. They arrive in my inbox everyday via Vimeo links to rough cuts passed along by SIFF Catalyst alums and filmmaker friends of friends. They come from Oklahoma or Iowa without a sales rep in place or a million dollar "festival budget." They're the reason I continue to program and the reason audiences continue to show up in the theater.

World premieres are risky, especially when they're not vetted by a committee of tastemakers and deemed "acceptable" beforehand. Programming good films is all about taking risks. There is no algorithm; there is no template. We make a bet on a film (and a filmmaker) and we hope the audience agrees. To look at it any other way is doing a disservice to the very people we claim to support: the independent filmmakers themselves.


This article should run in Variety, not IndieWire…lol.


American hate towards Venice is laughable. It's the oldest film festival in the world, americans! Deal with it!


someone forgot to study and ignores Venice


This article bothered me on so many levels that I had to leave a comment.

To say that any festival choosing to screen films that didn’t premiere at Sundance is the equivalent of “putting lipstick on pigs” is offensive and ridiculous. As someone who regularly attends film festivals, I always focus my attention on films that haven’t played at places like Sundance because I understand that it might be my only chance to see these films in a theater.

In your scenario, there shouldn’t even be film festivals … they should just re-name every regional festival something like Sundance Omaha and then just show the same slate of films in every single city. It would be amazing – get a chance to see Don Jon with none of the filmmakers or cast present, a whole three weeks before it’s released anyway!

To the author – there are still people out there that enjoy true independent cinema. While it’s great for festivals like Sundance to show high-profile films that are guaranteed major distribution, if you don’t see the value for smaller festivals to help spotlight and discover new and interesting works, clearly you’re missing the point of film festivals altogether.

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