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by Anthony Kaufman
April 23, 2007 5:50 AM
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IN DEPTH | The Premieres Race; Rival Fests (Tribeca, SXSW, LAFF) Put Pinch on Filmmakers and Regiona

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."

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4 Comments

  • filmhawk | April 25, 2007 6:42 AMReply

    Thanks for this much need article -- airing issues surrounding what I think is an increasingly distressing disease I call "premiere-itis."



    Having consulted with many hundreds of filmmakers for over 20 years, I can only add my growing concern and frustration. Frankly, it's a pain in the butt -- and I think counterproductive to what festivals should be about -- to experience the sometimes gut-wrenching anguish/angst/anxiety that filmmakers go through in dealing with this premiere stuff. I'm not King Solomon, and I'm tired of soothing worried brows and holding hands that might be more productively occupied in getting their film out into the world.



    The only thing in Dan Mirvish's post that I might take issue with is his feeling that "the only people who care about premieres are other festival programmers." Actually, I think that some? / many? PROGRAMMERS don't actually care that much (I know firsthand that some are not happy with the general situation and are just doing the job they're told to do). It's THEIR bosses that often are the ones who are pushing for it -- whether execs, board members, funders or "founders."



    I honestly believe that very few people on this earth give a flying you-know-what whether a film has already shown on another coast or halfway around the world. It's also been clear that if a festival REALLY wants to show a film, they'll bend any rule in their regulations.



    As Dan said, and I've said it many, many times myself: if you're not in competition you can't lose. (And one good thing that some festivals do is make so many non-competition films eligible for the Audience Award -- which, to me, is the best award you can win anyway.)



    Again, IndieWire and Anthony Kaufman, thanks for opening up a dialogue and providing a forum for what I hope is a continuing exploration of an important issue. Bottom line, I think 99.9999999% of us -- no matter what role we are playing in the festival/indie world -- love, care about, and are passionate about what we do.



    Onward!

  • briannewman | April 24, 2007 8:01 AMReply

    Great article, and responses. I have to second Dan - this was caused by Toronto and Sundance, but its also caused by some fest directors (and their bosses) that have aspirations much beyond their reality - wanting to be Toronto. I think filmmakers should actually care about their premiere - its crucial to how the film is received. For some films, SXSW might be the perfect launch, while for others its Tribeca. Sorry, but for regional fests you just have to accept that you won't usually get the film - so show it the next year when no one in your community has seen it yet. It's only old to you and other programmers (unless its one of the 5% that get a distributor). I also think some fests will have to consider moving (again). A few years ago, IndieWire ran an article noting that all the competition was in June. Now its April.

    The smartest person in this story is Esther Robinson - filmmakers have to be like her and carefully plan your release beyond which fest it premieres at, all the way to how many tickets you get, the screening time and location, press commitments, etc.

  • dan mirvish | April 24, 2007 7:04 AMReply

    Thanks to IndieWire for doing an in-depth story on this! I remember when it was just the European festivals who had premiere battles, and it's disturbing that it's becoming more pervasive here in the States. This is a really big country, and the press, distributors and audiences who attend Tribeca are different from the ones who go to Austin, and they in turn are not the ones going to Park City or LA. Even within regions, I think it's really out of hand. The Hamptons audience is different from Tribeca's, and in LA, the LA Film Fest crowd is now on the West-side and the AFI crowd is East-side. World's apart! And to say nothing of having an American Cinematheque screening eliminate you from consideration for either of those LA festivals (another absurdity that I've personally been caught in with my own films).



    I think the real problem is still with distributors. If they actually went to screenings at these festivals and picked up films, then it might make a difference. But by and large they don't. They may go to the parties, but then they go home and watch the films on DVD. So for festival programmers to cater to them thinking that they'll only come to premieres is more often than not doing a disservice to the filmmakers. The one good thing is at least this discussion and most of these premiere policies are out in the open. That gives the filmmaker a bit of a leg up to play the festivals off against each other. But ultimately these policies really inhibit a filmmaker's ability to gain momentum for a festival film and actually have fun on the festival circuit. Remember, people, they're called "festivals" not "markets." Serve your audiences and your filmmakers - not some self-delusional view of what distributors or the press think. I've long said that the only people who care about premieres are other festival programmers.



    These are all great festivals and programmers you quote in the story (and many are friends of mine), but you're largely ignoring the elephants in the room that started this mess: Sundance and Toronto. These festivals started their premiere policies years ago, and remain incredibly inflexible. It's forced a large number of festivals to all fight for those few spring months because they don't even have the option of running in fall or winter.



    Our own experience at Slamdance (the festival I co-founded), proves that when you take a chance on a film that maybe did technically premiere at a different festival, but didn't get a lot of recognition there, you can give a filmmaker a tremendous second chance to shine. Some of our past grand jury winners (Hybrid, The Holy Land, etc.) were films that had previously played at festivals like LA or the Hamptons. And as one fiilmmaker talking to others, I'd say don't worry if you're playing at your second big festival out of competition - just be grateful you're there, make the most of it, and remember that when you're out of competition, you can't lose!

  • genartjeff | April 24, 2007 5:24 AMReply

    I agree with Sean Farnel. The filmmakers must be firm. They have done this with projection formats (despite increasing projection costs for festivals) and they can do this with premiere status as well. It is understandable if a fest wants a certain premiere status for a particular category or if it is a city, or sometimes region-specific premiere (for the sake of audience) but world and domestic premiere status shouldn't be a requirement for any fest, it can be a criteria that might influence decisions but not a requirement.