Things I Learned at the Rotterdam Film Festival

Things I Learned at the Rotterdam Film Festival

How must festivals must change to survive in the digital age?  How can they continue to
support independent film and filmmakers, build audiences, increase film
literacy and encourage vital dialogue when watching films on a big screen is no
longer the norm?  Panels and programs at
Rotterdam grappled with these issues, but the festival itself illustrated some
of the confusion of these shifting roles.

Next year, the festival will launch IFFR Live!  Audiences around the world will be able to watch film premieres at the same time as festival audiences.  Selected films will stream simultaneously in art houses and online platforms and spectators will be able to participate in Q&As via social media.  Currently supported by IFFR, Fortissimo Films, Trust Nordisk Film Sales and Doc&Film, IFFR Live! is intended to boost theatrical audiences for European films. 

A panel of festival
artistic directors– Marco Müller (Rome), Frédéric Boyer
(Tribeca), Hans Hurch (Viennale), Tina Fischer (CPH:Docs), Chris
Fujiwara (Edinburgh), and Nashen Moodley (Sydney)–discussed
the tricky balancing of aesthetics and economics in festival programming. “Festivals radically changed the way of engaging with and treating film,” said Fujiwara, but now “the old format has to be challenged.”  

Here are four things I learned on the panel:

1. Festivals are increasingly
run like a business.
 This affects
many of the artistic directors’ decisions. Müller questioned whether a focus on world sales put a premium on films with
commercial potential or those of a certain length. “Now festivals have to bring in
celebrities or filmmakers to attract an audience,” added Boyer. “People are attracted to the ‘event’ of a
festival,” leading to a growing embrace of parties, exhibitions,
workshops, marketplaces and the like.” Added Moodley, “The Sydney Film Festival is dependent on
the box office for survival, and this affects which
films and which filmmakers will be invited to attend.”

2. Competition between festivals for world premieres and
audience-pleasing films is intense.
But Boyer insisted: “You cannot play
films just to please the press or the audience.” 

3. Retrospectives are still important. Fujiwara called attention to the place of
retrospectives in creating a film-literate audience. In the enviable position of having enough financial
support from Venice to program as he likes, Hurch stressed the importance of
slowly introducing the public to more challenging films. “Once there is
trust between the public and the festival, the programmer can push the
boundaries a little.” 

4. Big festivals like Rotterdam may be too big. Rotterdam offers more films than any viewer can possibly take in, not to mention the exhibitions, panel discussions, and other related events. “At a certain point [a large festival] is not good for the quality of the films,” said Hurch, “and it’s too hard for the public to meet filmmakers or connect in debate.  Rotterdam is too big.  It doesn’t have a heart.”

Judging from the films I saw at Rotterdam, commercial
considerations played a small part in the programming. Yet the festival does not ignore the commercial side. It runs CineMart to help filmmakers launch
co-productions. “Tabija” by Igor Drljaca won the €10,000 Eurimages Co-Production Development Award and
the ARTE International Prize of €7,000 went to “Happy Time Will Come Soon” by Alessandro Comodin.

The purpose of the Big Screen Award is to help fund a commercial release within the
Netherlands. The winner of the €10,000 grant
to support distribution costs, chosen by an audience jury, was “Another Year,”
a first feature by Ukrainian Oxana Bychkova,
which the jury called “Pitch perfect, beautifully acted and
choreographed, modest, subtle and utterly convincing.”  The film was picked up for international distribution
by Russian sales agent Ant!pode.  Among
the other films nabbing international distribution were Dick Tuinder’s
“Farewell to the Moon” by Media Luna New Films; and Caroline
Strubbe’s “I’m the Same, I’m An Other” by New Europe Film Sales.

Heart or no, Rotterdam’s public attendance is strong–many come back year after year with friends and family. And it’s
probably no coincidence that two of the films on the public’s top 10 list are
not only from the Netherlands, but take place at least partly, in Rotterdam.

PUBLIC’S TOP 10

    1. Nebraska, Alexander Payne, USA, Audience
      Award winner
    2. Zombie: The Resurrection of Tim Zom, Billy Pols, Netherlands
    3. Starred Up, David Mackenzie, UK
    4. Feel My Love, Briet Teck, Belgium
    5. Sorrow and Joy, Nils Malmros, Denmark
    6. The Selfish Giant, Clio Barnard,
      UK
    7. Papusza, Joanna Kos-Krauze, Krzysztof
      Krauze, Poland
    8. The Creator of the Jungle,  Jordi Morató, Spain
    9. The Other Side of the Heart Is White, Leonard Pansier, Netherlands
    10. Her, Spike Jonze, USA

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