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Festival Circus: Should Film Festivals Care About World Premieres?

By Robert Koehler | Indiewire November 13, 2013 at 10:20AM

Sometimes, it's what film festivals don’t do that counts.
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"Out of the Furnace," one of only two world premieres at this year's AFI Fest.
"Out of the Furnace," one of only two world premieres at this year's AFI Fest.

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 new column, festival veteran and critic Robert Koehler will delve into many of the pluses and minuses of film festivals today.

Sometimes, it's what film festivals don’t do that counts.

Take AFI Fest (running through Thursday in Los Angeles), which doesn’t do world premieres -- at least, 99% of the time. In this year's lineup of 89 features, only two are world premieres, both red-carpet galas at the recently restored and gracefully IMAXed Chinese Theatre: "Out of the Furnace" and "Lone Survivor."

This isn't a new trend for AFI. Just before and during the time I served as director of programming for the festival, we developed a mission to minimize world premieres. Current festival director Jacqueline Lyanga has aggressively and wisely continued this practice, noting, "if it's not broke, don’t fix it."

Here's why more festivals -- especially American festivals -- should pick up on this bit of wisdom.

WORLD PREMIERES ARE A TRAP FOR PROGRAMMERS AND AUDIENCES

Like Homer's voyagers captured by the sound of beautiful sirens, the lure of world premieres can be irresistibly attractive, but a trap for both programmers and the audiences they're serving.

Unless a festival is Cannes, Berlin, Sundance, Locarno, Toronto or Busan, the chances of getting a world premiere that also happens to be good is slim to none.

The attractions are natural. Any given festival's development/fundraising department likes how world premieres draw sponsors' excitement for being on the red carpet shoulder to shoulder with stars. The publicity department likes how world premieres exponentially increase ad impressions and raise the likelihood of national and international press attending. Press beyond the local kind amps up a festival's global visibility, especially on the web. The festival's board of directors likes all of the above.

And a festival director needs to listen to the board -- and sometimes not.

In this case, it's best to ignore the siren call, especially when thinking of the audience.

Unless a festival is Cannes, Berlin, Sundance, Locarno, Toronto or Busan, the chances of getting a world premiere that also happens to be a good movie is slim to none. The only festival that's recently cracked this hard line -- and minimally at best -- is South by Southwest. Locarno is also a special case, a festival that deliberately goes after the best but more radical movies that most of the other relatively conservative festivals ignore or turn down.

The basic fact of life in the festival world is that sales companies and producers representing their movie or movie slate hold out for the biggest and most powerful festivals to unveil their goods. They want the biggest bang for their buck since -- as James Schamus explains in his unique manner in the recent book "Coming Soon to a Festival Near You" -- opening a new movie at a big festival can cost well north of $1 million.

This leaves 99.99% of festivals with the prospect that any world premiering movies will be at most second-tier, and probably worse. Programmers are forced to compromise in areas that shouldn't be compromised, festivals find themselves putting lipstick on pigs and audiences may feel deceived at the end of the day.

Worse, festivals that compromise in this way become easy prey in the future for more siren calls from sales companies, needing to drop their also-ran titles in their slates somewhere, somehow. Festival X is easy. We'll go there.

This article is related to: Festivals, Reviews, Lone Survivor, Out of the Furnace, World premieres, Festival Circus, Toronto International Film Festival, AFI FEST, Locarno International Film Festival, Cannes Film Festival, South By Southwest Film Conference and Festival (SXSW), Life of Crime, Ida