Film Festival Fever, Part I: Sifting Through the Snow
by Anthony Kaufman
January. New Year's resolutions are thrown out by week two, millions gear
up for the Superbowl, presidents and governors make impossible promises and
a little gathering in Park City, Utah, marks the first celebration of
the year's next cinematic crop. With the snowy sheen of Sundance just two
days away, it is time to gain perspective on the year to come and examine
the nature, diversity and workings of the friendly monster known as the
film festival. Although Sundance garners more attention in the U.S. than
any other festival, it is only one option among many and often only one
step in a long journey of film fetes across the land.
"It's a longer trip," says Mike Monello of the Orlando Film Festival, "If
you don't get into Sundance, you have to do four to five film fests before
getting noticed." Many filmmakers follow a fairly routine pattern of
submissions, suggesting Toronto, Rotterdam, and Berlin as essential fests.
But nothing is clear on the festival circuit and every film has its own
path. "One shouldn't underestimate the importance of the Fall festivals,"
says Mark Fishkin of the Mill Valley Film Festival, "There is the right
festival for the right film. In some cases it might be Telluride, in other
cases, it might be New York, and in other cases, it might be Mill Valley.
There's a place for all of us. It's up to the filmmaker, at that particular
time, to decide where they want to go."
For most industry professionals, Sundance obviously remains first on the
list. "There's no way to not think of yourself in relation to Sundance,
especially because we are a fest of American independents," says Nancy
Schafer of Austin's South By Southwest Film Festival (SXSW), a reputable
fest that many claim is second in line. "[Sundance] has achieved a
mythology that no festival in the U.S. has -- that no one else can beat,"
says Christian Gaines of the Hawaii International Film Festival (a former
Sundance Programmer), "Sundance is the number 1, but what's number 2?"
While Sundance resides on its snowy peak, the rest of the fests remain
combating for second position, a place that remains always changing and
specific to each and every film. "Other festivals have a different reason
for being around," continues Gaines. "They all have their niche, whether
gay or lesbian, Latino, you have to look at them as a network, an exposure
system for filmmakers."
The niche festival or even the regional festival functions something like a
weekend frat party when compared to the glitzy deal-making or industry
fetes such as Sundance or Cannes. Many in the community regret this
evolution from celebration to big business, while others find the move
beneficial to the fostering of independent film. Mike Monello admits,
"Sundance is so incredibly unfriendly, but Sundance is so important. They
didn't intentionally position themselves as the end-all, be-all of the
fests." Christian Gaines does not blame them for it; he sees it as an asset,
"It's like any corporation, if you're getting loads of publicity, what are you
going to do, turn your back on it?" Mark Fishkin echoes the point, "In
many ways, it has become a market. Is that a good thing? Definitely. If
you can create interest in particular films, and create a market for them,
then that's great."
Not everyone agrees. "The whole problem with the festival thing is the word
'fest' -- it implies fun, celebration, a bacchanalia of film," says Nick
Davis (whose film "1999" received good buzz at the 1997 Independent
Feature Film Market, but was rejected by Sundance) "when it should be
called a film market." J. Hunter Todd, founder of WorldFest, lambastes
Sundance, calling its practices of premiere-hungry programming "the biggest
damage to the independent film world." Aside from the communal aspect that gets
bandied about when describing film festivals, Sundance is also about money and
everyone knows it. Directors are competing for attention, press are
competing to get them attention and everyone is fighting for a bed to sleep
in. And if you're a new director like Davis and you're thinking, "This is
where my child is going," do you want it to be a cutthroat market or a
comfy, supportive network?
"Mythologies perpetuate themselves," says Scott Saunders, who is heading to this
year's Sundance screenwriter's lab with a new project, "When things take on
mythological proportions, people really believe in them. It's a stamp of
approval that distribution companies can use. The fact that they have
participated in [Sundance] becomes a great marketing tool. Just the fact
that the film has shown there gets so much attention."
If any filmmaker knows the film fest circuit, it is Scott Saunders, whose
film "The Headhunter's Sister" has traveled to Florida, Seattle, Los
Angeles, Montreal, Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, New York, London,
Ireland, France, Germany, just to name a few. After receiving several
awards and traveling to more places than most Americans visit in a
lifetime, "Headhunter's Sister" still has no distribution. Saunders "hasn't
given up hope on the distributor possibility" and looks at his film
festival experiences as mostly positive. He cites the Hof and X-ground
festivals in Germany as especially generous and complements the European
festivals for having more money and paying for filmmaker's flights.
"It's all worthwhile at the small fests," says Saunders, "It's about
building an audience." When talking to Saunders one begins to see there is
more to the world than just Sundance or Toronto or Cannes. If the short-cut
Sundance-to-Miramax myth is not realized, the "longer trip" can be a
greatly valuable and enjoyable experience. "Chicago was a particularly good
festival," continues Saunders, "They treated us well, took care of us, put
us up in a four star hotel and . . . David Garfinkle, Board of Directors of
the fest, went out of his way to show us a good time in Chicago." Saunders
also praises the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival, "Thomas Harris is a
really good festival programmer and really cares about the filmmakers,
really cares about showcasing work which is significant, that he believes
in for artistic reasons." Saunders also says Germany's X-ground was a
"special festival because it's run communally. No one's on 'staff' and they
do a damn good job of it."
While feature filmmakers enjoy the perks of free plane trips and special
dinners, the shorts filmmaker often gets lost in the indie-fest shuffle.
Kat Smith, whose award-winning short film "The Clearing" has played
numerous fests says, "Short filmmakers are usually expected to pay their
own expenses and given that these are the very people who have just
financed a film out of their own pocket, they're the least able to do so."
However, Smith says, "some fests have won a warm place in my heart, because
they treat all filmmakers with equal respect ... Florida, Austin, Taos. And
it's smart of them, too -- after all, the director with the really hot
short today is likely to be the director with the really hot feature
they'll be chasing next year."