By Robert Koehler | Indiewire November 27, 2013 at 10:03AM
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 column, festival veteran and critic Robert Koehler delves into many of the pluses and minuses of film festivals today.
It might be the effect of attending too many film festivals, but one way of looking at the October-December glut of Oscar contenders is as the "Awards Festival."
From day one of the big-time festivals featuring world premiering competition lineups, the buzz is all about what's in line for the Palm, Bear, Lion, Leopard, pick your animal -- and what's not, plus who might pick up the acting prizes. Sometimes, a ten-day period at one of these festivals is like a compressed Oscar season, with the new movies rolling out and the guesswork and prognosticators working overtime.
Maybe this is a way of making the Oscar season tolerable, something different from the gargantuan publicity contest it always becomes.
But when this gets flipped -- when festivals turn themselves into Oscar season derbies -- trouble's on the horizon.
The pull that the Oscar race has on the big media centers and the places where most Academy members live -- Los Angeles and New York -- is painfully obvious to anyone who lives near those cities' cultural ground zeroes.
Less noticed is that while the greater New York area is done with festivals when November rolls around, the Oscar epicenter of Southern California is just getting started. AFI Fest took over the TCL Chinese complex on Hollywood Blvd. from Nov. 7 - 14 -- grandly, I might add. January's around the corner, when Oscarmania reaches fever pitch, and so does the Palm Springs Film Festival (Jan. 3-13) and the Santa Barbara Film Festival (Jan. 30-Feb. 9).
There's a literal alignment of the stars going on, and while it undoubtedly brings publicity and ad impressions, the intersection of the Oscar contender machinery with a film festival's ongoing life can hijack a festival's entire identity…that is, if the festival allows it. The three So Cal events are studies in how this can be massaged, or not.
Of the three, Palm Springs was the first to aggressively flirt with Oscar and turn it into a serious commitment. Founder and Palm Springs mayor Sonny Bono wanted the festival to have a global profile (Sonny was no dummy) that would help it stand apart from the American-centric focus of Sundance, which runs immediately after Palm Springs.
This meant a program weighted toward foreign-language films. And almost as naturally as the sun daily dipping behind the massive San Jacintos that loom over the desert resort, the Oscar's foreign-language submissions came into great favor at Palm Springs as an ideal match of dates and slate. When the Oscar show took place in late February or early March, the festival arrived right when Academy voters were starting to make their choices, just as the filmmakers of the submitted films were being brought to Los Angeles for their last-minute get-out-the-vote push. (Never mind that most Academy voters pay little heed to these sorts of campaigns.)
The idea appeared to work, since attendance grew. Then something funny happened.
The festival organizers -- these went through various permutations over the two-plus decades of the festival's existence -- got it in their heads that if having 30 foreign Oscar contenders was a good thing, then getting 40, 50, or maybe even 60, might be great. Even more, organize a FIPRESCI jury (comprised of critics of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics, a mainstay at significant festivals worldwide) that would consider the field and come up with a prize that -- who knows? -- might influence the Academy.
I served on this jury twice in the ‘00s, where it quickly became famous for being "the jury from hell," as one amusing jury president once labeled it to me over a drink.
Now here's a fixed rule of festival life, never to be broken: No festival jury should ever be assigned to watch and weigh in on more than 25 films. There's just not enough time to take them in and judge them fairly. (Cannes maxes out at 22.)
My second Palm Springs jury had to watch 56, making it easily the world’s most overworked festival jury. Prospective jury members (many traveling from the other side of the planet) had to have watched at least half of the lineup before they arrived.
But the jury problem was just a blip compared to the issues this posed for audiences. The mandate to book so many Oscar submissions meant that what could be a finely curated program would be molded into something else -- a weird amalgam of "official" movies submitted by nation-states with occasionally dubious submitting "committees" and movies that the programmers actually preferred. Despite a fairly vast lineup such as Palm Springs' (nearly 200 features landed there in recent editions), every slot is precious. Even if they weren't aware of it, festival audiences would be cheated out of a potentially better movie that would have to be put aside for that bad submission title.
And ask anyone who's seen enough of the Oscar submissions during these bloated years: There were plenty of baddies. There still are.
Part of this process was wisely amended in recent years by festival director Darryl MacDonald, so that the jury would only need to see a selection of the overall Oscar field. This helps the jury, but Palm Springs still goes after as many of the submission titles as it can get -- as high as nearly 90% plus of total submissions -- which still weights the overall program heavily toward official national selections and away from programming curation. With a record field of 76 titles (five more than last year), this can create a huge and not always welcome footprint in the program.
Inoffensive mainstream audience-pleasers still dominate the category (because these are what many countries' selection groups presume will appeal to Academy voters), but genuinely important and vital films do get through. Palm Springs programmers try to get these for the audiences, but it isn't a slam-dunk that they will; that depends on whether the movie's sales company or U.S. distributor -- the ultimate festival gatekeepers -- gives a green light.
Festivals love giving out prizes like they’re candy. Palm Springs and Santa Barbara put a spin on this, giving out prizes to Oscar contenders for being Oscar contenders. This has become such a dominant quality of both festivals that it's what they're both widely known for on the international festival circuit. (When I told a Norwegian producer that I often attend both events, he said, "Oh, yes, those Academy Awards festivals.")
Most festivals select honorees, tributes and subjects for focus -- such as the New York Film Festival's massive focus on the entire filmography of Jean-Luc Godard or AFI Fest's honoree/guest programmer Agnes Varda -- based on programing taste (the former was a top mission for NYFF director Kent Jones in his first year) or any combination of factors (Varda is an AFI Fest fave, a lover of all things Los Angeles and the subject of a major LACMA show).
The ongoing roster of Palm Springs and Santa Barbara "winners," now being announced in a roll-out of press releases, reads like a contenders list in the trades: over in Palm Springs, here are Sandra Bullock, Julia Roberts, Steve McQueen, Bruce Dern and Matthew McConaughey; up in Santa Barbara, in come Cate Blanchett, Oprah Winfrey, Forest Whitaker and Emma Thompson, with many more Oscar hopefuls waiting in the wings.
How these names are picked is a closely-held process, but be certain that they result from lengthy negotiations between the studios backing these contenders' movies, the contenders' handlers and the festivals. Often, like the choices for festival galas, it comes down to availability as much as design. It's a messy business, full of compromises, something that can make festival directors want to tear their hair out at the end of the day.
But behind it all is an mutual back-scratching bear hug: Festivals raise bucks off the parties held in the "winners'" honor, the studios and the contenders get good publicity. Win win.
Not so fast. Both Palm Springs and Santa Barbara give the impression that they're picking favorites in the Oscar race. What does it mean, as Palm Springs has done, to name McQueen "director of the year"? So Alfonso Cuaron, a director contender for "Gravity," is chopped liver? Alexander Payne, in the race with "Nebraska," is an also-ran? Especially when, as is often the case, that none of the movies in the race actually screen at the festivals?
This is a classic case of festivals placing their carts before their horses, allowing outside interests to dictate and create conditions. It can ruin a festival's look.
PUT OSCAR IN HIS CORNER
Can't ignore Oscar, especially in Southern California during winter. So what to do with the little naked guy?
AFI Fest practices one good idea, also adopted by the Denver Film Festival and in an even more severe way at the Mill Valley Film Festival, all events appearing at the start of the Oscar season: sector them off in their own corner, and let the rest of the festival run at its own pace.
AFI filled its 2013 Gala and Special Screening slates almost entirely with already established contenders (such as "Saving Mr. Banks," "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" or "Her") or new ones ("Lone Survivor"), while all of the other non-glitz sections were pretty much contender-free.
Denver informs its audience up front that its special presentations section includes "some of the year's best cinematic, Oscar-worthy films," which this year included "August: Osage County," "Nebraska" and "Philomena." Oscar fever isn't permitted to spread beyond that point.
Mill Valley pared it down further this year, slotting contenders strictly for opening ("Nebraska") and closing night ("Walter Mitty") and a pair of "spotlights," on "Dallas Buyers Club"supporting actor Jared Leto and "12 Years a Slave" director McQueen with star Chiwetel Ejiofor.
Of course, Denver and Mill Valley can easily manage to keep Oscar craziness to a low volume, being physically far enough away from Oscar Central. AFI Fest's discipline is perhaps more impressive, given its Hollywood Blvd. location.
In all three cases, audiences can get an early taste of the Oscar season if they wish, or can simply ignore it. They can do this because these festivals know where to put Oscar: In his corner.