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Criticwire Survey: Do You Trust Film Festival ‘Buzz’?

Criticwire Survey: Do You Trust Film Festival 'Buzz'?

Every week, the Criticwire Survey asks film and TV critics two questions. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?” can be found at the end of this survey.) Send suggestions for future questions to sam at indiewire dot com.

Q: With Sundance over and Berlin in
full swing, the 2015 film festival season is fully upon us. Do you trust the “buzz” you hear coming out of festivals, and, if you attend them, how much does it affect your own reactions?

Vadim Rizov, Filmmaker Magazine 

“Buzz” isn’t a monolithic thing, nor do all festivals play the same films. Am I likely to trust buzz for a very Sundance-sounding (in the pejorative sense) Sundance title? Not at all. It doesn’t take too many “Happy, Texases” or “Hamlet IIs” (depending on how old you are) to make the point clear that people who stand in line far too long for a movie bought for far too much money have too much of a stake in the matter to want it to be good. Am I inclined to trust the collective verdict of people whose aggregate taste generally works for me, regardless of the specific festival they’re reporting from? Probably. Am I going to trust the trade publication press corps with “hard” art films? (“Tabu” is a very particular type of recent buzz title in this sense.) With specific writers excepted, nope. But I don’t trust anyone but a small group of people in any context, so festivals don’t do much to change that. 

I don’t attend many festivals; this was my first Sundance. It’d be dumb to say the setting doesn’t have any bearing on my experience whatsoever — the desire to see something great on marathon days could lead to reaction overinflation, or angrier-than-merited responses — but I believe I’m basically the same, hard-to-excite person no matter where. 
That said, I absolutely pay attention to festival coverage. Many exciting movies never get distribution (those hard art films again!). Since I live in NYC, I have the possibility of catching many of them in one-off screenings at various rep houses, but I won’t know what to look out for if I’m not informed in advance. But that’s my geographically anomalous situation.

Scott Mendelson, Forbes 

Due to the whole “my kids are still young enough to want me around” thing, I have not and probably will not do the festival circuit until I am much older (even SDCC always seems a bit out of reach for one excuse or another every year). So the festival circuit is where I actually am returned to the role of “nonprofessional movie nerd.” I read about the “buzzy” screenings, read the reviews from those who are there whose work I enjoy, and make a mental note to see what I need to catch when the time comes. 

For what it’s worth, I do find it amusing that those who do the full year-round festival circuit (Sundance, Cannes, Venice, etc.) seemingly get to see the so-called “best films of the year” in a more spread-out fashion, while the rest of us (most film critics and most paying audiences) are faced with the occasionally stressful task of trying to see all of the year’s would-be greats towards the tail-end of the year. On the other hand, and I admit this is a bit lazy on my part, but appreciate the luxury of letting other critics and film writers pick out the stuff that merits my attention while I stay at home and wait for the so-called gems to arrive at a theater or VOD outlet near me. 

I obviously lose the thrill of discovery, and sometimes a film is over-hyped by the time it arrives, so it’s a trade-off of “convenience” versus “adventure.” In other words, I have failed to learn the lesson of every great Pixar movie yet made. But again, until my kids are older (and that includes the third one coming in late May), it’s not really a choice I can make anyway. 

Steve Dollar, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post 

Even if I don’t count the festivals in New York (where I cling like a tipsy kitten to falling branches several months a year), I traveled to at least 10 festivals in 2014 and missed a few that I might have attended, including those in Baltimore (Maryland Film Festival), Sarasota and Wilmington, N.C. (Cucalorus), not to mention Fantastic Fest and a once-religious jaunt to Sitges, in Spain, the planet’s greatest genre fest. Once you get going, it becomes a way of life. And as I became geographically unrooted amid a retooling of my writing career the past few years, festivals also became the center of my social world. And even more necessary. I once flew to Europe for a festival because I had nowhere else to sleep. My friends were on the jury so they were generous with their food coupons. Everyone put my drinks on their tab. I was a glorious and homeless bum, partying with Gaspar Noé and Abel Ferrara while blogging for $25 a pop as I was otherwise completely unemployed, as was anyone who might employ me, this being post-crash 2009. Things brightened and, more professionally, once again I had a legal street address and a steady paycheck, I gradually learned that there’s a pretty evident cost-vs.-return formula when you’re freelancing out of Toronto or Park City, but at a certain point a lot of it begins to make no economic sense at all. I go because I go.

Watching sometimes amazing movies all day and night in the company of smart and talented artists and peers, followed by late-evening revels and beer-sloshed karaoke blowouts and spontaneous gay-bar crowd-surfing and mostly nude hot-tub confessions is some of the most fun I can imagine. Somewhere in there, all kinds of discoveries are made in an environment where the making of discoveries is elevated to a kind of communal nirvana. My life would be a lot more boring without all these jaunts, and I wouldn’t know half the terrific people I can now count as friends and passionate fellow-traveling cinemaniacs. Sure, they can always send you a screener, but a screener won’t change your life — or deliriously ruin it. In some ways, the festival road is a way for PBR scribes to get a whirl in the Champagne Room, while polishing up their Polish/German/Italian/Texan/Spanish/Finnish and seeing every cool movie in the world two years before they show up on Netflix. In another way, it’s a path: The only way to stay in continuous intimate yowling touch with your tribe. I’m not sure that I can live without it anymore. See you soon, Columbia, Missouri! 

Scott Renshaw, Salt Lake City Weekly

Since Sundance is my only festival experience annually, I get to be on both ends of the cinephile experience when they’re going on: the eagerness to announce, “hey guys, this is awesome,” and the quivering envy when someone else announces, “hey guys, this is awesome.” There are never any guarantees either way; something that comes out of Sundance highly lauded is bound to get its eventual contrarian “overrated” take, or I might shrug at the darling of Berlin/Cannes/Telluride/Toronto. But there’s no question that I find myself putting certain films on my to-see checklist that wouldn’t be there otherwise, and I hope that on occasion I can have the same impact. None of these are movies that will do a critic-proof nine-digit opening weekend. Those of us who love movies and are blessed to write about them for a living love giving the best work whatever small nudge we can, and I for one appreciate the nudges I’m given. 

Michael Pattison, Sight & Sound 

I could write one sentence here or ten paragraphs. And indeed, have done: I went to 24 film festivals in 2014, mostly in a journalistic capacity and some in a teaching capacity, which amounts to a lot of articles and reviews and perhaps as many Tweets. As I keep saying when teaching criticism to aspiring film writers at festivals, this profession is a lifestyle choice and dependent on so many mutually conditioning factors: finances, geography, networking skills, hard work, how much hunger you have for it, turnover rate and — I like to think — good writing. I live in Gateshead, NorthEast England, so on the one hand I really have to go to film festivals if I’m to making anything resembling money from criticism, because I live at a remove from the UK’s cinephilic hub, London, so can’t attend weekly press screenings (which is probably to my credit). On the other hand, I’m able to go to the number of festivals I do for the same reasons: London sucks your energy as much as it does your disposable income. 
I was drawn to film criticism as a reader and a writer because of the textual analysis. But festivals are social and historical events, and they ineluctably exemplify the political contradictions, hypocrisies and power imbalances of the world that conditions them.

Talk about the function of criticism and the purpose of festivals has to come down at some point to notions of access — who has access to what and why, who shapes the viewing cultures we have to endure, who is benefiting from certain films being exhibited and who isn’t, and so on. More and more, I find critics more interesting — and infuriating — to speculate about than the films we’re all sitting watching: their tastes, their political toothlessness, the cliques they form. This profession has bullies and phoneys as much as any other, and I like the idea of showing up to one of their parties (and festivals often are, or feel like, week-long parties) and antagonise and engage in the most militaristic sense, because I kind of hate how irrevelant and inconsequential it all is — I hate it to its teeth. On the other hand, I like some of these people too, and I would call a lot of them friends. But I’m convinced less and less that critics write for anyone other than their own breed. It’s an incestuous bunch and I’m trying my best not to be deformed by it. Greetings from Berlin! 

Jason Osder, George Washington University, “Let the Fire Burn”

I love film festivals. I feel a special connection to the documentary focused ones: True/False, Full Frame, AFI Docs, DokuFest, Sebastopol, HotDocs… When one of these is going on, there is a good chance I have more friends at the festival than in the town where I live. So, first and foremost it is about community for me. If you make docs and don’t live in Brooklyn, this is where you go to meet up with your tribe. I guess I pay some attention to the buzz, and watch things that I wind up writing about in one way or another, but for me is is people first, then films. 

Liz Shannon Miller, Indiewire 

Because my beat is TV, I typically have an outsider relationship to film fests. And while I’m completely uninvested in acquisition news, I do like the gossip that comes out of the fests, especially when it comes to how the film was received. That’s probably the most important news, to be honest, especially with smaller, riskier films. All the reviews coming out of Berlin have been pretty interesting. 

The closest thing TV has to a Sundance or a Cannes, at this point, is probably honestly the TCA press tour, which happens twice a year, bringing together critics and creators for two weeks. (Tim Goodman of the Hollywood Reporter has dubbed it “The Death March With Cocktails,” a nickname so sticky that this January, one network gave out flasks with the moniker engraved on it.) 

But the thing I’ve observed is that the people who read our coverage don’t really care about the experience of sitting in a ballroom for many, many days, listening to panels of actors and producers try to sell their shows. They care about the shows, though, so that’s what we focus on. My philosophy is thus that the point of a festival isn’t the festival — it’s the media being celebrated there. When you’re inside the experience, it feels like the most important thing. But it’s not everything. 

Tomris Laffly, Movie Mezzanine

I am usually quite romantic about film festivals. The freshness of the shared cinematic experience, the exuberance of being one of the first people to experience a film, the memories that reach beyond the screen… At the end of a defined period of mass-consuming art with like-minded enthusiasts, you (or at least, I) feel there is a worthy story in almost everyone you meet and every experience you allow yourself to be a part of. So yes, I do take film festivals seriously. And I am emotional about them. But that emotionality doesn’t equate irrationality and automatic acceptance of any mediocre title (even if it was a hotly awaited premiere,) which is something film festival attendees that care to share their opinions with the outside world often get accused of; something I never managed to wrap my head around.

I do understand to a certain degree that festivals tend to create an echo chamber where buzz builds more buzz, which eventually leads to unrealistic expectations and eventual disappointment. But I also find it quite appalling that the cycle of popular/influential film festivals has become a battle between skeptics and attendees. Especially having attended Sundance and Telluride Film Festivals for the past few years consecutively, I experienced this attitude first hand. Beware if something moves you deeply and you would like the world to know (especially out of Telluride where the “O” word starts dropping into the conversation.) The knives get pulled out in defense and sharpened instantly, as if the festival buzz is there to destroy the cinematic art form, as opposed to generate a hopeful anticipation towards its brand-new fruits of labor.

When I follow the word out of a festival I don’t attend (basically, a great majority of them, such as Cannes, Venice, Berlin, Toronto, SXSW…), I look for both positive and negative enthusiasm, and I allow the excitement of it all to shape my expectancy of certain titles to a healthy degree. I do realize sometimes the reading of a film out of a film festival might not be completely accurate; but I do trust those who meticulously file their thoughts will do so with personal honesty and care (at least, with as much care as possible in a tiring and sleep-deprived environment) and offer me at least a glimpse into the cinematic landscape of near future. And whether or not I will eventually agree with the festival consensus is very much beside the point. For me, being an active or observing part of a festival is a thrill in itself. 

Take the latest Malick, “Knight of Cups,” for instance, which just premiered at Berlin. The reactions have been so wildly divisive that I simply can’t wait to see it and determine what side I will take. Soon, I hope.

Richard Brody, New Yorker

Being in New York, I have the good fortune to frequent the New York Film Festival. True to its origins (and the story of its founding would be a great little book in itself), it’s a festival of festivals, a world-anthology that never fails to deliver wonders. I rarely travel to festivals; my beat is centered on movies that play in New York, so the NYFF has pride of place, along with BAMcinemaFest (which I consider more or less the NYFF for American independent films, though the actual NYFF is now, finally, paying more attention to them), Tribeca, and other local events. I’ve had the pleasure and the privilege of attending the Maryland Film Festival in recent years, too, which is a crucial showcase for independent films and gathering-place for independent filmmakers; and if time permitted, I’d go to more festivals, both to see movies at the time of their premiere and to see movies which may not make their way promptly to New York—in other words, for business and for pleasure—even if the very fact of seeing three or four movies a day isn’t ideal for substantial movies that pack big ideas and deep moods. On the other hand, since the question is personal, I must confess: I don’t think that my judgment is affected by a festival context, whether I’m seeing a movie in a press screening or a public one, or on a TV or a computer screen.

Of course, subsequent thought comes into play, and subsequent viewings can yield different results. But once the movie starts, nothing else counts—not buzz, not the reviews of even my favorite critics (even if their advice is among the reasons for my seeing a particular film), not the pre-screening festivities with cast and crew, not the sense of being among the first to see the film. The power of the experience is overwhelming. Buzz is of interest regarding business, of none whatsoever regarding aesthetics. As for other critics, I read many with enthusiasm, admiration, passion, gratitude, and humility, and I think that their heat-of-the-festival responses have as much validity as their long-pondered disquisitions. All aspects of great minds matter. 

Piers Marchant, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Philadelphia Magazine

I’ve only really taken in the full flight of the festival scene since I started going to TIFF a few years ago, but I do think it’s a viable resource. Yes, it’s entirely possible to get swept up in the fest-hype of a given flick, or over-rate something based on the relative enclosed world of that magical ten days (at Sundance, a la “Dope”), more or less what used to happen at summer camp, when a given counselor would seem crazily attractive, but only relative to the small pool of people available. Still, I think some significance can be gleaned from a collective of critics/fans/artists extolling the virtues of a given film, and being on the ground, covering the films in question, gives you a chance to see a wide range of possibilities — in some cases, films you will not get to see otherwise — that helps shape your cinematic world-view in a given year. I got to see three absolutely outstanding films at Sundance (The Witch, Brooklyn, James White), as luck would have it, films that I feel strongly will hold up outside of the feverish festival backdrop, and so more than felt the experience worthwhile. 

Edwin Arnaudin, Asheville Citizen-Times

For the festivals I’ve attended, my goal is to see and review as much as possible. I’m usually running on fumes by the end, but I still feel able to accurately assess each film. Because of those experiences, I put a similar trust in my colleagues who cover more prestigious festivals and look to reviewers whose opinions I value most to give me an uninflated take on what they’ve seen. So far, so good.

Joey Magidson, The Awards Circuit, First Showing

It depends on the festival, really. I’ll admit to paying more attention to Sundance when I’ve been there or when I’ve heard an excess of Oscar buzz around a title or two (like last year with “Boyhood” or “Whiplash”), though I tend to keep an eye on Berlin, Cannes, Telluride, Toronto, and Venice no matter what. I go to the New York Film Festival and the Tribeca Film Festival at the very least each year, and usually it winds up being a 50/50 split in terms of if the buzzed about movies live up to the hype. You certainly have an inkling about which to make sure you don’t miss, but there’s always at least one or two surprises to be found in any given lineup. Essentially, I play it by ear. If I’m looking at the buzz out of a festival I haven’t been to, I try and see if there are any outside factors buoying that sort of acclaim. The same goes for if it’s a fest I’m at, just I can see it for myself firsthand, sometimes even becoming part of the initial buzz if something is really praiseworthy. They’re unique animals, film festivals. You want to pay attention to them, but not look at festival hype as a kingmaker. For every film like “Pulp Fiction,” there are plenty of ones like “The Wind That Shakes the Barley” as well.

Q.V. Hough, Vague Visages

I used to live two blocks from Graumann’s Chinese Theatre from 2006 to 2012, so I’m familiar with larger events like TCM Fest, AFI Fest, LA Italia and many more. While living in LA, I worked in the TV Promo business with ABC and attended festivals simply as a fan. The Santa Barbara International Film Fest was always a favorite in late January, and I miss the drive up the 101 for director and writer panels.

I’ve lived in Fargo, North Dakota since January 2013 and have become quite impressed with how the Fargo Film Festival has improved over the years (I grew up across the border in Minnesota). Local cinephiles like Greg Carlson, Emily Beck and Matt Olien have worked hard to bring a fresh vibe to the March event and Oscar nominees/winners now attend on a yearly basis. Hal Hartley was in town last Winter and John Waters will be honored next month. It may sound funny to outsiders, but filmmakers always rave about the downtown experience (Broadway), the luxurious Hotel Donaldson, the historic Fargo Theatre and the appreciation of the Fargo-Moorhead community.

Gary Kramer, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News

My friend and I plan our work vacations to attend film festivals. I generally try to attend several festivals a year, including Tribeca, AFI Docs, Telluride, New York Film Festival, and the Philadelphia Film Festival. I cover Frameline, Outfest, NewFest, and QFlix every year as well. And I have attended Miami International Film Festival, Toronto, AFI (Los Angeles) and other festivals whenever possible.

I spend weeks poring over schedules to see what I can see first, what I want to see, what interviews I can obtain, as well as what I can’t see elsewhere, to create tentpoles in my schedule. I’m always encountering conflicts where two films I want to see are playing at the same time, usually across town. But this is the nature of the fest: you can’t see everything, no matter how much I try.

I tend to avoid the “big” buzzy movies because my work and interest focuses on finding the little gems. I’d rather see something unique than something that will be out in a few weeks. I also always see as many shorts programs as I can because they showcase some fantastic talent and also provide a nice break when you see 4-5 films a day for 4-5 days on end. Sharon Badal at Tribeca, in particular, has inspired me with her shorts programs.

As far as Buzz at a fest goes, there are always films that are hotly anticipated, or sleeper hits that become the talk of the fest. Wild Tales at Telluride last year is a good case and point. It deservedly became the must-see film of the fest. But while I pay attention to the buzz, it’s more to be aware of what’s hot or not and why. I try to see films that interest me or that I plan to write about and while I will deviate from my schedule when I hear a film is a dud or this other title I’d not consider is worthwhile, I also find that the film I haphazardly plug into my schedule to fill a time slot is often an unexpected pleasure.

While I do review many films I see at a festival, there are several titles I save to work on months later, when they get released. Seeing the filmmakers at a festival can often provide insight that can be discussed later in an interview, especially when I get the chance to see a film again. In addition, I have made many strong, significant connections with actors and filmmakers from meeting with them at festivals, which is a huge benefit to attending.

Ultimately, what is best about festing is seeing something no one else has — even those friends I travel with to festivals.

Mike McGranaghan, The Aisle Seat, Film Racket

I’ve covered film festivals in the past, but I don’t any longer. Having a family has made me significantly less interested in being away from home for days or weeks. That said, I follow my colleagues’ coverage of film festivals intensely. I find that, with each new fest, some movie that I really want to see comes on my radar. I first heard of “Juno,” “Drive,” “Whiplash,” and others through this sort of coverage. It helps me know later on what I want to make a point of reviewing. As for the ever-present festival buzz, I take it with a grain of salt. Enough colleagues ringing the bell for a particular film will certainly raise my interest. Yet I also know from personal experience that some movies play better in that kind of environment than they do during a regular release. For instance, so many critics came out of last year’s Fantastic Fest raving about “John Wick,” which I found utterly mediocre and not even remotely special. Again, though, I think the real benefit of festival coverage is that it makes people aware of interesting films that they will be able to see somewhere down the road.

Jeff Berg, Las Cruces Bulletin, ABQ Free Press

I used to think that festivals were the be all/end all, but the last couple of years that thought has faded. I’ve only attended a couple of the “big” festivals one time each, but have made it a point to attend the Mill Valley and Denver festivals as often as I can. Both are well run, lesser known, and often show the same stuff that TIFF and Telluride showed a few weeks earlier at a higher price.

I don’t think much of the buzz and such that goes with certain titles now, which often ends up being artificial. In fact, I guess I just prefer to find things on my own and see pix that I probably won’t see elsewhere, especially some of those that never find distribution. A bit of a yawn, it has become.

Peter Keough, Boston Globe

Because of my altered circumstances (RIP Boston Phoenix), I have not attended a festival in over a year but when I did I valued them highly as a way to plunge into the world of future releases and films that will never be released, domestically at any rate. As a FIPRESCI jury member I also met fellow critics from around the world, which always impressed me and restored my faith in the profession because of their intelligence, good humor, humanity, knowledge and ability to speak English better than myself. Nowadays I find others’ reports from festivals an invaluable guide to my future viewing and a source of insight into what is going on in the film world.

John Keefer, 51 Deep 

I’ve never been to a film festival, at least something like Toronto or Sundance. I did attend an extremely intimate festival for local filmmakers in PA, two of 51Deep’s films were shown so that’s why I was there. It was hosted at a local bar on a stage where band’s originally played. It was a theater in the silent era, Chaplin had attended it according to lore. Local films by local engaged fillmmakers shown in front of family and friends, a great night all around. Maybe one day I’ll go to a larger film festival but if that’s the only one then that’s fine by me.

Josh Spiegel, Movie Mezzanine

I think it’s best to take festival buzz with a grain of salt (potentially depending on who that buzz emanates from), but at the same time, to dismiss festival praise out of hand is foolish. I’m not sure it’s easy for anyone who doesn’t attend a festival—be it Sundance, Cannes, or something in between—to gauge how accurate any given critic’s #hottakes, as it were, are in terms of reflecting that festival’s quality, either. I may think that, whenever I end up seeing it (upon its release on VOD, likely), “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is underwhelming, but that doesn’t mean critics who loved it at Sundance are suspect. (I also may love the film! Who knows?) Festival buzz is, honestly, like any buzz: we should pay attention to it, but not lend it so much credence as to presume it constitutes the fact of any film’s quality.

Jason Shawhan, Nashville Scene, Interface 2037

I love the Film Festival circuit, if only because it is fast becoming the only way to see non-blockbusters in theaters. There’s certainly more to it than that, in that you can see things at festivals that you can’t anywhere else (and possibly never again), and that it’s a way to be part of a global conversation. I program a section of the Nashville Film Festival every year, and I have attended every New York Film Festival since 2002, and it absolutely helps to stay informed.

I’m intimidated by the giant competitive festivals (unless I were to be on a jury) because there’s always the creeping doubt that you’re missing something amazing and world-changing, and that threatens to undercut your response to anything. As far as Festival buzz, I think it can be useful, but I’ve never found it to be a grand overriding force (at least not on the level I encounter it). At Cannes, Toronto, and Sundance, there’s always such a rush to pronouncements and to be proven right about things, and that can get iffy. But I trust the critics whose voices I respect and have read for many years, and the good thing about having read a critic for awhile is that you learn where their blind spots are as regards certain genres, performers, or narrative events, and can adjust your own expectations accordingly.

Q: What is the best movie in theaters?

A: “Selma”

Other movies receiving multiple votes: “Two Days, One Night”

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