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IN DEPTH | The Premieres Race; Rival Fests (Tribeca, SXSW, LAFF) Put Pinch on Filmmakers and Regiona

By Anthony Kaufman | Indiewire April 23, 2007 at 5:50AM

When the Tribeca Film Festival begins this week, the event will unveil 75 world premieres, five international premieres, and 30 North American premieres. That's no easy feat during the spring and early summer months, which see a dozen high-profile regional festivals around North America, from SXSW to Los Angeles, all competing for new films. But "this ridiculous concern for premiere status," as one festival programmer calls it, puts excessive pressure on filmmakers, limits their ability to generate momentum on the festival circuit, and arguably runs counter to the broader mission of film festivals in the first place: to showcase good films and cultivate cinephilia.
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When the Tribeca Film Festival begins this week, the event will unveil 75 world premieres, five international premieres, and 30 North American premieres. That's no easy feat during the spring and early summer months, which see a dozen high-profile regional festivals around North America, from SXSW to Los Angeles, all competing for new films. But "this ridiculous concern for premiere status," as one festival programmer calls it, puts excessive pressure on filmmakers, limits their ability to generate momentum on the festival circuit, and arguably runs counter to the broader mission of film festivals in the first place: to showcase good films and cultivate cinephilia.

"It's an unfortunate climate that we all compete for these films," admits Tribeca programmer and managing director Nancy Schafer, a former producer of SXSW. "I wished that wasn't the climate, but it is, and it's too bad."

Forced to make a name for themselves in a crowded festival season and pressured to offset rising costs (witness Tribeca's 50% ticket-price hike, for example), festivals are doing whatever they can to raise their profiles and stand out from the pack. And the most efficient way to do that is require a premiere, say many industry insiders.

Festival directors blame the obsession with premieres on the press and the film industry for paying close attention only to the newest of films. "As a programmer, there's nothing I'd like to do more than to pick the very best films," says Los Angeles Film Fest programming chief Rachel Rosen. "But the premiere issue is very important to both the industry and the press. It may be frustrating, but it's the reality of the situation."

For that reason, Tribeca is in talks to change the status of its competition films from U.S. premieres to only North American premieres. "It's the world premieres that get attention," says Tribeca's Schafer. "Because the press has already started covering our competition films since Cannes the year before, they aren't getting noticed."

From SXSW, Louis Black with film festival producer Matt Denter. Photo by Brian Brooks/indieWIRE

But longstanding regional film festivals are frustrated with six-year-old Tribeca's aggressive premiere mandate. "It's become a verb among springtime festival programmers," says SXSW festival producer Matt Dentler. "You don't want to get Tribeca-ed"--that is, lose a film to the Gotham-based festival, which is the first major industry event on the calendar after SXSW.

Every year, for instance, films submitted and accepted to April's regional film festivals, such as Sarasota or the Florida Film Festival, pull out of those events once they are accepted for a slot at Tribeca later in April/May or Los Angeles in June.

Tribeca Fest Raises The Stakes

"I don't remember this much premiere anxiety before Tribeca arrived," says Dentler.

While several festivals such as Full Frame, Hot Docs, and the San Francisco International Film Fesival are in touch with Tribeca about their programming as well as sharing filmmakers and prints, Independent Film Festival Boston programming director Adam Roffman feels particularly stiffed by the Tribeca Film Festival. "We are showing a number of films that are playing at other festivals," he says, "and with the exception of Tribeca, they don't put pressure on filmmakers." Even though the six-day Boston fest takes place after the Tribeca fest begins, running this weekend, filmmakers have pulled their films from Boston's lineup so as not to undercut their earlier Gotham-only launch.

Beth Murphy, director of "Beyond Belief," a documentary about two Boston-based 9/11 widows who travel to Afghanistan, for instance, withdrew her film from dozens of festivals she applied to in the wake of an invitation from Tribeca. "My goal is distribution, and Tribeca is key for the distribution piece of that puzzle," she says. "Tribeca is too important."

But forcing filmmakers to put all their eggs in one festival's basket can be potentially detrimental.

"It's like opening weekend," says Sean Farnel, programmer of Hot Docs, which opened on Thursday in Toronto. "You get your one shot, and if you don't get it, you're buried, because there are so many films and at the next festival, everyone's looking for exclusivity."

Farnel, who used to program documentaries at the Toronto International Film Festival, fondly remembers the festival run for "Spellbound," which premiered at SXSW, screened at Tribeca and other regional festivals, and then eventually at the Toronto fest where it finally broke out. "But that can't happen anymore in the current context," he says, "because Tribeca doesn't screen films from SXSW, and Toronto doesn't screen films from Tribeca."

"It's better to give films a critical mass and a momentum through the festival circuit, and that's happening less and less," continues Farnel, who believes that Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and Toronto have earned the right to insist on premieres. "But I think every other festival that does that is prioritizing their own interests over the filmmakers."

Tough Decisions for Filmmakers

"To put filmmakers in the middle is unfair," echoes programmer Tom Hall from the Sarasota Film Festival which wrapped up over the weekend. "Little movies need as much attention as they can get, and I think that's a service that Tribeca should allow filmmakers: let them play."

Nancy Shafer notes that Tribeca does allow plenty of films in its lineup that have shown at other U.S. festivals. This year, for instance, Tribeca will show Sundance premieres ("The Devil Rides on Horseback," "Nanking"), a Slamdance premiere ("The King of Kong") and SXSW premieres ("Double Time," "Mulberry Street"), but, of course, not in their competition sections.

Los Angeles's Rachel Rosen admits that her festival also gets criticized for a strict-premiere policy, but like Tribeca, they allow for exceptions. After premiering at SXSW, "Billy the Kid," for instance, was allowed to play at last weekend's Full Frame Documentary Film Festival before Los Angeles--as long as the screening wasn't publicized. It was shown as a "surprise screening." "We have a lot of dialogue with filmmakers," says Rosen. "It's a constant negotiation."

Rosen also argues that premiere-only mandates "create room for those festivals to discover more films," she says. "It forces everybody to look a little deeper, and it's created space for us to show stuff that might not have gotten an outing, otherwise. More work is getting a run, and that could be healthy for the overall film scene."

Los Angeles Film Fesival programmer Rachel Rosen (far right) with "Little Miss Sunshine" directors Jonathan Dayton and Varlerie Faris. Photo by Brian Brooks/indieWIRE

But filmmakers say they feel pressured to bypass smaller festivals because they don't want to lose out on the higher-profile competition slots at the Tribeca or Los Angeles fests.

"Call me a wimp, but I wasn't willing to take my chances and show it in Sarasota," says Jon Frankel, who withdrew from the Florida fest to premiere his Harlem football documentary "Hellfighters" at Tribeca because programmers "asked me not to show it at Sarasota," he says. "This is my first experience with festivals. I just didn't want to piss them off."

Tribeca and Los Angeles also lure filmmakers with their cash prizes--Tribeca recently upped its main narrative competition prize to $50,000, matching the size of Los Angeles's purse.

Caveh Zahedi, director of "I Am a Sex Addict," for example, got invitations from both SXSW and Tribeca after being rejected by Sundance. "We did have a hard time deciding, but I went with the money one," he says.

"I told them we might go to SXSW and they pushed us very hard not to do that," he adds. "'If you go to SXSW, you won't be in competition and you wouldn't be able to win that $10,000 prize and it wouldn't be as high profile,'" Zahedi says he was told.

Zahedi didn't win the top prize (beat out by Chinese entry "Stolen Life") and now he has some regrets about his decision. "The downside with Tribeca is that it's a very, very big festival, and because the distributors live in New York, they're busy with other things, and they go home at night. So there wasn't a whole lot of distributor presence at the screenings, and at SXSW, I think there would have been more, because everyone's there just for the festival."

"I think if I would have opened it at SXSW," he adds, "it might have made more of a splash there than it did in New York." But now Zahedi thinks he should have bypassed both festivals and waited several months to premiere in Toronto.

Turning The Tables

Hot Docs's Farnel says he tells filmmakers not to back down when threatened about a premiere. "If they tell you they love your film, they shouldn't love it any less if you premiere it at other festivals," he says. "Filmmakers need to start saying no to that insistence and determine their own destiny."

Esther Robinson is one such filmmaker. With ties to the industry as a producer and creative non-profit executive before she even made her debut film, "A Walk into the Sea: Danny Williams and the Warhol Factory," Robinson's case is unique. But after her film world premiered at Berlin and won the Teddy award, she began making demands about subsequent screenings. She told the Tribeca and Hot Docs film fests that her acceptance at both events was contingent on them working together to allow nearly simultaneous premieres.

"Filmmakers often don't understand that these conflicts aren't unique to them, and that ultimately each festival wants to make it work, so you do have some leverage," says Robinson.

Because Robinson has distribution in the works, she also asked the festival to limit the number of seats at her screenings, because prospective distributors were concerned about undercutting the film's theatrical audience. She even requested where the film would play--at downtown venues, as opposed to the fest's mid and upper Manhattan theaters.

"You have to know your film, do your research and talk to everyone," says Robinson. "But I have to admit I almost cried when I turned down L.A." Rachel Rosen's early support of the film at its rough cut stage meant a lot to Robinson. "It was heartbreaking to not reward that crucial psychological support with my premiere."

"But a far more difficult and painful question," adds Robinson, "is what does this mean for most movies where the festivals are their release strategy? Premieres or no premieres, what the system needs is fewer film festivals and those that survive to be better funded so they can pay rentals, because for the bulk of these films that will be their only source of income."