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Eugene Hernandez: The Future of Festivals?

By Eugene Hernandez | Indiewire December 7, 2009 at 4:51AM

December 7, 2009, New York, NY -- Film festivals are changing.
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December 7, 2009, New York, NY -- Film festivals are changing.

To get a better sense of how they are changing, keep a close eye on three leading American events: Sundance, SXSW and Tribeca. Also, watch the moves of a new crop of filmmakers who are hitting the fest circuit in 2010.

New Sundance Film Festival director John Cooper piqued my interest in the shifting role of fests during a telephone conversation last week ahead of the announcement of the 2010 Sundance lineup. He said plainly something that a lot of festivals and filmmakers have been grappling with over the past year, "Film festivals themsleves [will] become part of a distribution strategy for a film. That's what's coming. It's right around the corner."

"We are going to see, in the future, a lot of films leaping into distribution right from the festival platform," Copper stated, "If not during the festival then the day after -- it's going to happen this year." Sundance is expanding its event into eight other cities for one night next month, but taking a wait and see approach on distribution initiatives. Meanwhile other festivals -- namely SXSW and Tribeca -- are aiming to blaze some new trails.

Over the past fifteen years, film festivals have been an important stepping stone for filmmakers seeking distribution. Hire a rep, take your film to a festival and (hopefully) sell it to a distribution company for a release six months to a year later. That approach generally works best for bigger films with name actors or high concept loglines. But, just a few companies are acquiring movies on the festival circuit right now. So, what about striking new work from emerging directors that is discovered at a fest but may not have the obvious hooks that attract traditional buyers?

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Back in 2007, just a week after the end of the Sundance Film Festival, I was at dinner alongside the directors of a pair of the most acclaimed films at that recent fest. Two of the most talked about movies at Sundance that year. As excited as they were about the success they found with both critics and audiences alike in Park City, the duo were concerned about the distribution prospects for their films. Even then they asked me, why couldn't they just immediately take their movies to Apple's iTunes store to get them out and start capitalizing on the attenion that had been generated by their new movies?

Today, even as sales reps continue to compete this week to sign a new crop of Sundance movies, filmmakers are pondering alternate solutions. Directors and producers are wondering how to immediately make the most of success at a large festval, what to do if they go there and their film doesn't become an immediate "hit" and how to strategize a film that didn't get into the festival in the first place.

With 113 feature films invited to screen at the upcoming Sundance Film Festival, from more than 3,700 that were submitted, the cycle begins again but with new approaches being considered.

The recent success of Lee Daniels' "Precious" from Sundance '09 and Oren Peli's "Paranormal Activity" from Slamdance '08 has raised the expectations of some going into Park City this year, while the ongoing impact of the economic crisis has caused concern among many others.

"There will be sales at Sundance," a high-profile film seller assured me over breakfast last week, hours before the Sundance Film Festival lineup was announced. But, the insider predicted, big deals will mainly follow a select group of higher profile movies. Smaller films from emerging filmmakers, the movies that are often the most interesting ones to come from festivals like Sundance, SXSW, Tribeca and others, will instead have to puruse a so-called "self-publishing" approach to find an audience and monetize their movie, this person said. Filmmakers will have to drive their own distribution, the respected insider reiterated.

So, with the Sundance 2010 lineup out in the open, established and emerging filmmakers alike are left to explore what happens next. This year it will be interesting to watch how festivals structure themselves as potential outlets for filmmakers who are hoping to immediately make the most of their movies in the marketplace. And how, if at all, the traditional distribution community responds.

An emerging move that has industry folks buzzing is a push by Tribeca Enterprises to position itself in the role of some sort of distributor of movies. Tribeca is looking to secure a crop of new films -- as many as ten, according to some insiders -- to release them in conjunction with their Spring festival in New York City and beyond. Tribeca insiders are committed to changing the current model, but are not yet ready to talk about plans that are understood to be evolving as they talk with filmmakers and the industry. Observers will certainly be tracking how the formative plans develop.

Meanwhile, a partnership earlier this year between SXSW and IFC Films brought five festival titles to IFC's VOD platform during the festival, including the day-and-date world premiere of Joe Swanberg's "Nights and Weekends" on cable television at the same time that the movie debuted at SXSW. Similarly, SnagFilms debuted "The Least of These" online concurrent with its world premiere.

Given the overlapping film and Internet events that take place at SXSW, the event would seem well positioned.

"Conversations are getting louder about how festivals can and should aggressively help filmmakers use new technologies to reach a broader audience," new SXSW festival producer Janet Pierson said at the time. Nearly a year later, those conversations have intensified.

Yesterday, Pierson told me that she has no interest in turning her festival into a film distribution company, yet she said the festival would follow filmmakers' leads and work with them to connect their films with audiences. Talks are underway now as SXSW planners work to finalize their 2010 lineup.

Longtime Sundance chief Geoff Gilmore anticipated this activity last year in a first person article for indieWIRE as the festival got underway in January, asking, "Can festivals keep their integrity and even expand their meaningfulness to a range of constituencies? As they move into the future, will cyberspace and other forms of outreach (broadcast, cable etc.) become more a part of festival events in the same way of most sporting events? Will new forms of media become a part of so-called film festivals?"

And just a month later, talking with indieWIRE in the wake of his announcement that he would be leaving the Sundance Institute for Tribeca Enterprises, Gilmore said, "We have to look at what festivals are going to be and we have to look at how that is going to evolve."

"What Tribeca Enterprises is going to do is be involved in setting up a new paradigm," Gilmore explained at the time, "The ways that festivals become platforms for new enterprises."

In Las Vegas today and tomorrow, festival organizers from around the country are gathering for the annual Film Festival Summit. My colleague Anne Thompson will be moderating a conversation today scrutinizing current and emerging festival models.

I look forward to hearing more. What do you think?

Eugene Hernandez is the Editor-in-Chief & Co-Founder of indieWIRE and can be reached on his blog, through Facebook or via Twitter: @eug.

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This article is related to: First Person