FESTIVALS: In Praise of Small Jewels: The Rise of the "Regional" Film Festivals
by Sandy Mandelberger
(indieWIRE/6.28.2000) --The Florida Film Festival, which concluded June 18 in Orlando after an impressive program of over 150 features, documentaries and short films, was particularly resonant, reminding me that some of the most memorable pleasures I have experienced in a career of film festival hopping have occurred at the smaller events outside the radar of the Cannes and Sundances of this world. These smaller events, often derisively referred to as "regional festivals," are often pooh-poohed (or mostly ignored) by much of the industry and the trade press, yet they contain jewels of discovery, providing for that most sorely missed attribute at the larger media circuses: intimacy.
The explosion of smaller festivals, both in the United States and overseas, is alarming. In the past 15 years, it seems that every city, town, region, and backwater worth its salt has decided that a film festival in its environs is good culture, good business and good promotion. Want instant recognition that your city is growing? Produce a film event. Want to demonstrate the cultural sophistication of your Lilliputian populace? Take some films and project them on a screen, on a sheet, the side of a barn, whatever. Want to make friends and influence people, invite a Hollywood star, an indie darling, a foreign director with little or no English skills, to attend your event -- and, of course, shower them with gifts . . . keys to the city, honorary doctorate degrees and that most ignominious of double edged swords, the Lifetime Achievement Award (is my career over already)?
However it can be argued that smaller film festivals take on the necessary work of educating audiences and raising the bar of film appreciation. In a society that has seen fit to slash art funding in the schools, provides next to no support for working artists, and has eroded tax incentives and other stimulants for film financing, don't these non-profit events deserve all of our support?
One would think so. And yet as someone who is often hired by smaller film festivals to bring new films to their communities, I am continually amazed at the reactions I often get from film distributors, producers and sales companies. More often than not, I encounter a wall of, if not outright opposition, then yawning indifference and even hostility. As one harried marketing executive at a major distribution company shared with me recently: "When I receive a fax or email from the whoever-heard-of-it-and-who-gives-a-shit film festival, I cringe. And I receive almost 50 of those every week."
It is true that film festivals require a lot of handholding, an endless back and forth of painstaking strategizing to maximize exposure. And small festivals are often understaffed and that cuts into efficiency. Materials are generally needed yesterday. And requests for painstaking details (never the strong suit for a distributor or sales company) require even more time and energy. Dealing with festival requests is often viewed as a tangential nuisance, a distraction from the "real work" of selling the film or getting the film to the attention of the top industry executives.
In defense of the nay-sayers, it is true that no matter what the size or stature of the Festival, they always go after the biggest titles (but will settle for less). They always want the prized director or star to visit their humble hamlet and make themselves available to local press, politicos, corporate sponsors and the ladies who lunch (and write sizable checks). Festivals are always demanding Premieres and look upon even the best of projects as "used goods" if they have played anywhere else. But how many times can a film be "virgin"? How many premieres can one film have? Does a local audience really notice or care -- it's new to them and isn't that all that matters? I can't tell you how many excellent films have been closed out of film events simply because programmers could not abide showing a film that someone in New York, Podunk or Katmandu had seen before.
For those distributors fed up with all these "little festivals" pleading to screen some of their films (engraved invitations from Gilmore, Handling, De Hadeln and Barbera notwithstanding), they have embarked on a strategy to separate the men from the boys by insisting on a screening fee (ranging from $250 to $750 for each screening, or even more amazingly, a request for a cut of the box office). With budgets already stretched to the max and corporate sponsorship kept on a very tight leash, most of the smaller festivals cannot possibly pay for each and every film in their program. If this trend continues, it is very likely that some film festivals will simply fold, and local audiences will be denied a wider array of filmed entertainment simply because they chose to live their lives outside of the urban metropolises.
But is this good business sense for distribs? Yes, it does take time to respond to festival requests. Yes, time is money and it is not unreasonable that fees are being requested. However, with only an eye on the short-term headaches, those distributors (and filmmakers) are missing out on the big picture. They minimize their exposure in the "second cities," thereby affecting the future performance of the film in these areas. They don't always see the festival for what it is: a test market, a proving ground, a chance to get immediate audience feedback, an event that creates or prolongs a film's much needed momentum. Momentum as a continuum, not a static event that gets born (and dies) in Park City, or the Cote d'Azur, the Venice Lido or the wintry streets of Berlin's Potsdamer Platz.
And do films that only show at the most prestigious of venues always get their due at those bigger events? As someone who has made the pilgrimage to these mega Festivals for many years now, and has toiled to grab the attention of distributors, journalists, programmers amidst a dizzying array of films on offer, I can tell you that the attention span among film professionals in Cannes or Sundance often rivals that of a teething infant in soiled Pampers. The cycle is always the same -- a film has its moment in the spotlight, its critical pans or raves, its bidding war, the critical reappraisal at a second viewing and then: out with the garbage, the next film steps up to bat. Of course, this is a bit of a crude exaggeration. But haven't we all had soul searching conversations with filmmakers who have ascended to the mountain top at Park City only to land with a loud thump in the valley of the Salt Lake Desert not sure what to do after they've seen the face of God (and I do mean Robert Redford).
And somehow I return to Orlando, Florida and the living, breathing resonance of a smaller jewel of a film festival that is adventurous in its programming, efficient in its execution, committed to its vision and rousing in its embrace of filmmakers and, God forbid, the unwashed public that hungers for something beyond the summer blockbuster. These festivals have their place. They fulfill a sacred duty of presenting a broad variety of films that may never again see the light of day in that community. Filmmakers get their work seen by local audiences outside of the New York-Los Angeles axis and experience inspiring feedback from unjaded and appreciative audiences.
"The smaller festivals offer a camaraderie among fellow artists that you just don't dare yourself to experience in the cutthroat atmosphere of the bigger events," one film director shared with me. "At the first festival I screened at, I kept thinking of the other filmmakers as competitors that were draining attention from the film distributors from my film, wishing they would all go away or at least be felled by some nasty flu that would keep them bed-bound until I could finish up my business," he continued. "Terrible, isn't it? And terribly common," he assessed.
At the Florida Film Festival, Oscar-nominated animator Bill Plympton, a member of the Shorts Competition Jury and also a presenter of a work-in-progress of his latest opus "Mutant Aliens," shared this sentiment. "It's at the smaller film festivals that you get your most valuable feedback from an ordinary audience," he offered. "This Festival is unique in that I can screen my film while it is still in the process of being finished and actually make some critical decisions based on true audience response," he continued. "I would be afraid to do that at a bigger event."
And where else could such smaller and specialized gems such as the Florida Film Festival award winners "Bobby G Can't Swim" (Grand Jury Prize, dir. John-Luke Montias) "The Woman Chaser" (Jury Award for Narrative Filmmaking, dir. Robinson Devor), "Stanley's Gig" (Audience Award, Narrative, dir. Marc Lazard) and "Legacy" (Best Documentary, dir Tod Lending) get their moments in the sun, be the big fishes in the smaller pond and create the groundswell of buzz and appreciation that all filmmakers aspire to? (Other winners included a Special Jury Award for Michael Apted's documentary "Me and Isaac Newton," Best Documentary Short to Steve Bognar's "Picture Day," Best Narrative Short to Jason Reitman's "In God We Trust," Best Animated Short to Steve Katz's "Protest," and Best Live Action Short to Ellie Lee's "Dog Days.") Would any of these films have been able to gravitate to the top of the heap in the more crowded fields of the mega events? Could their unique qualities be heard above the din of chirping cell phones and the clicking of paparazzi flash bulbs?
Hey, I'm a liberal. High and low, they both have their place. Big and small, they both have their qualities. I want to be part of all of it. But those who take the position that only a few film festivals really matter and that the rest should curl up and die are making a great tactical error. They make the uniquely American mistake of confusing quantity with quality, and become blind to the gems that await those willing to search in the most unlikely of places.
[Sandy Mandelberger is President of International Media Resources, a marketing and promotion firm, who coordinated the Florida Film Festival's International Showcase of foreign films. He is a frequent contributor to indieWIRE and other Web-based news services and publications.]