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May 1, 1998 2:00 AM
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Film Festivals Under the Microscope at Avignon/NY

Film Festivals Under the Microscope at Avignon/NY

by Anthony Kaufman




With four film festivals transpiring over the last ten days in New York
City alone (Women's Fest, Gen Art, International Independent Film &
Video, and Avignon/NY) -- not to mention LAIFF having just finished and
Cannes just around the corner -- it is particularly apt that indieWIRE
organized another look at the graces and gluts of today's indie fest
landscape. Too many festivals? Alternative distribution method?
Community gathering or industry melee? (One morally righteous audience
member asked the panelists if they felt some sort of programming
guilt?). All were questions explored by the panel "Film Festivals: Where to
Now?" taking place at Avignon/NY's seminar-laden festival, moderated by
indieWIRE's own Eugene Hernandez and Mark Rabinowitz and including
rep-legend and Split Screen creator, John Pierson, the Independent
Feature Film Market's Sharan Sklar, the Film Society of Lincoln Center's
Genevieve Villaflor, Hamptons Head Programmer Stephen Gallager and
Austin Film Fest programmer Jason White.


Too Many Festivals or Too Many Films?


"The film festival scene has changed to reflect the film production
scene in my opinion," said John Pierson, "there are a thousand features
being made independently in America, and less than 10% are ever going to
find some sort of theatrical home; that leaves a lot of films looking
for some place for somebody to wind up managing to see them." And for
filmmakers who cannot find distribution, "The growth of the festival
circuit," maintained Pierson, "has been a way for providing a safety
valve." Rather than deride the festival boom, Pierson and the
panelists see it as a necessary outgrowth of a rampant production slate
and a marketplace simply not large enough to sustain it. "It's actually
a very good thing that there's some kind of exposure that can come,"
says Pierson, "which perhaps, even though the film is not going to enter
the theatrical marketplace, can still get that filmmaker or makers into
the mix so they can make more movies that will."


Following on Pierson's premise, the panelists first discussed the
problems of indie exhibition before hitting the topic of film
festivals. While Gallager lamented the fact that "the theatrical market
has shifted so radically to bigger and bigger films," Pierson claimed
the problem resides in the outrageous number of indie product. "If all
these films can't sustain two weeks in New York City, really, instead of
blaming the system by being congested with Hollywood product, we need to
take a look at other factors as well. The films that open and close in
two weeks in New York are not getting shoved out by other films, they're
getting shoved out by doing no business, because the audience is having
to choose between 5 and 6 films [released every week]."


"It's very tough these days for the handful of films that I would really
like to see (that aren't getting the kind of marketing that Miramax is
doing)," said Gallager, "they're not in the theaters that long."
Pierson interrupted by giving an historical perspective: "But it's a
myth that they used to stick around that much longer. Everybody has to
hear about 'My Life as a Dog' and 'My Dinner with Andre,' and if you
look at those film's grosses in their fifth or sixth week, in 1982 or
1985 dollars, they were still getting way more people coming to see them
than the films that are getting bumped out after two weeks now."
Still, Pierson, both praising and blaming Miramax, admitted "the way in
which the top ranked theatrical independents have been marketed has
actually made a theatrical audience way lazier about casting a wider net
and checking our more films."


The Options?


If the films won't get theatrical, "What does that mean" asked
Hernandez, "if a lot of these films are only going to play at film
festivals or regional festivals, . . .given that there is no financial
model for that?" Pierson's answer: "Any filmmaker who is in that state
of limbo has to switch over to the concern about recouping the budget
and get into the state of mind of 'I'd like as many people as possible
to see my film.' . . .in the mean time, exposure is the name of the
game." Jason White follows the calling card model, claiming filmmakers
should travel with other projects prepared. "You really have to have
that second project, it's really important. Don't just think this is
your baby and lifelong dream -- it's great and all, but what happens
when your baby doesn't sell?" Even if you don't get a distribution deal,
the panelists agreed that festivals can function as networking
opporunities, where filmmakers can make valuable connections.


Sklar cited Scott Saunders as an example. His film "The Headhunter's
Sister
" wasn't picked up, but the director did win the IFP's "Someone to
Watch Award" and the cash and esteem that goes with it. "Another thing
that I've seen filmmakers do at film festivals," Mark Rabinowitz noted,
"is they'll bring their film around, a film that doesn't get picked up,
but in going from festival to festival, not only do they meet other
filmmakers, they meet producers, and can actually package their next
film while they're bouncing around from festival to festival." Stephen
Gallager also tolled in with proof from the Hamptons where a
prize-winning filmmaker invited jury member Roy Scheider to star in his
next film while a short film picked up a producer. But Gallager quickly
corrected the omni-business mentality, advising "[You] shouldn't go in
there, looking for a deal, [you should] just enjoy the experience of
seeing your film with an audience."


For the Community. . .?


Audiences are what it's all about anyway, right? Gallager notes, "A lot
of regional film festivals have, in fact, taken the place of art house
cinemas in their communities." Even though there may be "more screens"
available, there are less strictly alternative venues and film festivals
have the ability to expose audiences to non-mainstream fare, "It's
about cultivating audiences to accept the types of the films
that aren't what they grew up watching," said Sklar. "In some ways, it
can help develop those audiences for independent films." Villaflor
agreed, "People should really take a chance about seeing independent
films or foreign films. . . especially at film festivals, they were
chosen for a particular reason, there's merit, it's definitely important
to take that chance." Festivals provide ample opportunity for that
chance to take place and for that reason, should always be encouraged.
"I do think that the audience who has a knowledge of off-Hollywood is
vastly expanding," Pierson contributed to the discussion, "when
festivals are marketed, they're marketed as an overall concept. . . what
you're selling is the overall concept of the festival, therefore people
will check out a number of different films within the festival."


Or the Fame? (aka Sundance Envy.)


Gallager, who claims he watched 700 films for the Hamptons last year and
"selecting 10 was really difficult," feels that festivals "function
differently in every community. Most of them are community events," he
continued. "Only a small handful have any kind of clout within the
industry or have enough industry presence to be able to launch a film.
That shifts every year." Besides the obvious front-runner Sundance,
Gallager felt "the LA Independent Film Festival has really come on
strong, because they have a very small selection of exclusively world
premieres." Gallager mentioned others: Mill Valley, San Francisco,
Chicago, and added, "It's hard to say which festival beyond Sundance is
going to break a new film. For the most part, when a filmmaker is
looking for a festival to premiere their film in, they have to take that
into account if they're looking for distribution." At Fort Lauderdale,
and Palm Springs, Gallager talked to filmmakers who wondered where all
the press and distributors were.


"Isn't it a problem that every festival wants to be the next Sundance?"
asked Hernandez, "Are filmmakers understanding that every festival is
not or should not be a festival that has a representative from every
distributor?" Pierson replied, "When a festival starts out and
over-reaches,. . . it's kind of pathetic. That's one thing. When a
festival is starting or declaring themselves, you have to take it at an
arm's length and watch a bit. What's also odd," continued Pierson,
talking about the much-touted SXSW film festival, "is if you look at it
this year, it's profile truly now exceeds its distributor attendance by
a landslide. There really wasn't a good distribution attendance at SXSW
this year. You would think from its public profile that there would be
much more."


At the Hamptons, Gallager felt "a lot of pressure," claiming "the board
is very divided and this is typical of a lot of festivals, of whether it
should be primarily a community event or an industry event." Gallager
concluded, "There is certainly a lot of Sundance envy out there.
There's a lot of players out there who feel like festivals should have a
certain stature. My attitude is that you have to grow into that
stature. You can't create it overnight."

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