Cha-Cha-Cha-Changes; Awards Shifts, Festivals and Markets Quake
by Anthony Kaufman
War, terrorism, fiscal crises, the 2003 Cannes competition -- what on earth is happening? Once upon a time, life was simple: Kusturica and the Coens premiered in Cannes, the Academy Awards ushered in springtime, and events like the Montreal World Film Festival and the American Film Market stayed fixed on the calendar, staying out of the way of rival events like Toronto, Venice, and Mifed. But now, Oscar's snowbound in February to trump its rivals, the AFM is moving to the fall, and film industry professionals are already reexamining their date books.
Things get started this fall, with an autumnal festival circuit that's as important as ever. Domestic buyers will be especially hungry for new films, as Cannes's lackluster lineup left them empty-handed. And specialized distributors have increased incentive to launch their films at Toronto as they try to gain early buzz on Oscar contenders, whose window of opportunity has now shrunk by one month. (Next year's Academy Awards will take place on February 29, as opposed to the third week of March in previous years.)
Rumors are circling that Venice and Toronto will be what Cannes should have been, scooping up a slew of masterworks that weren't ready in time for the French Riviera. New films from Robert Altman and Jacques Rivette are on tap. And Bernardo Bertolucci, Theo Angelopoulos, and Catherine Breillat may show up, too. But hotly anticipated works from Wong Kar-wai, Emir Kusturica, and Quentin Tarantino may still not be ready in time, after all, and Jane Campion has decided to bypass the circuit altogether. As one acquisition exec stated, "[The festivals] can't produce these films; they can only program what's available."
The fall also faces another change of pace: the Montreal World Film Festival (August 27-September 7), which normally runs the last week of August, now directly competes with Venice (August 27-September 6) and overlaps with the first few days of Toronto (September 4-13). While Montreal has never been a must-attend event, always overshadowed by the others, domestic executives are now even more skeptical about attending. "Montreal has always struck me as the most optional," says ThinkFilm's Head of Distribution Mark Urman.
While Europeans might find it useful to go straight from Montreal to Toronto, Urman says for domestic buyers, "Now that it's consecutive with Toronto, it's more difficult to grapple with." Echoes Magnolia Pictures' Eamonn Bowles, "I've got to pick my festival spots and two in a row is tough."
The New York Film Festival, which runs October 3-19, may also face changes due to calendar shifts. Now occupying the prime dates to release Oscar bait, the Gotham event could see some higher profile films. To wit, this year's NYFF festival opener is Warner Bros.'s "Mystic River," directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Sean Penn, Tim Robbins and Kevin Bacon, opening in U.S. theaters just a week after its premiere. (Notwithstanding mini-major New Line's "About Schmidt" opening last year's fest, a Hollywood studio hasn't kicked off the NYFF since 1990, with 20th Century Fox's "Miller's Crossing.") "As release dates move up, will the distributors be looking to the New York Film Festival to launch a contender?" asks one executive.
The other major move in the film business calendar won't hit until 2004, when the American Film Market, held in February, will hold a second event November 3-10, its future permanent position to coincide with the AFI Film Festival and compete directly with Mifed, Milan's Film and TV market which runs November 9-13. Last year, a contingent of travel weary sales agents made the London screenings largely obsolete by circumventing the event in favor of the similarly timed Mifed. "It's ridiculously expensive to do both of these things," Focus International's David Linde told Variety in 2002. "It's best that we concentrate on Mifed." In fall 2004, the film community will have to make a similar choice between Santa Monica's AFM and Italy's Mifed.
Some industry insiders suggest the change could significantly affect the business calendar. Without a major market event in the late winter, Sundance, a number of other film festivals may also see a surge in international activity.
Cinetic Media's Matt Littin suggests that without an opportunity to buy American independents at the AFM in February, foreign buyers may choose to wade through Sundance in search of product. Likewise, the Cannes market could absorb the AFM's genre and straight to video titles, while the European Film Market in Berlin could also fill the void left by the early-year AFM, absorbing some of the auteur driven titles from Santa Monica.
If Mifed disappears altogether, U.S. indie execs won't be sobbing. "So I'll miss an excuse to go to Italy," quips Mark Urman. But the former Lions Gate Films Releasing co-president isn't sure a fall AFM makes sense, either. For Urman, a post-Berlin market offered a chance to see films that he missed at the winter festivals. Lions Gate acquisitions such as "The Dinner Game" and "The Widow of St. Pierre" came out of AFM screenings, according to Urman. A February market also offered preparation for Cannes.
"If it's in November," wonders Urman, "what's it going to prepare you for? I'll see everything I need to see in Toronto, so where is a bunch of new product going to be coming from in November? You don't do Sundance business in November."
Still, many executives welcome a two-market calendar: Cannes in the spring, and the AFM or Mifed (whichever survives) in the fall. "Cannes and the AFM is enough," says Samuel Goldwyn's Tom Quinn. "The whole idea of going to a market is antiquated to me; we're not selling fruit. There's FedEx and screening rooms -- I like seeing people face to face, but I don't see the reason for spending all that money."
If there is a shakedown, as it appears, with both the AFM and Mifed holding fast in the fall, Cinetic's Littin says it could result in an unpredictable split in attendance between the two events. Will the Asian buyers go to Santa Monica, and the French and Germans stay in Europe?
But Littin explains that in the market for international pre-sales, "the truly outstanding projects, those that are both very commercial and relatively affordable, will get financed regardless of the changing market calendar." He continues, "It is the projects that are on the borderline or seen as greater risks that benefit most from the publicity and buzz surrounding a market such as the AFM, and these projects will need to be more strategically presented to buyers in the absence of a natural spring gathering point."