Talking About The Modern Film Festival, at a Conference in NYC
by Eugene Hernandez
Reps from a handful of the more than 600 film festivals in the U.S. kicked off the inaugural International Film Festival Summit in Manhattan on Tuesday, chatting about some of the issues facing festivals, from audience development, rental fees, and sponsorship, to open bars and gift bags. There is no denying that festivals have become an important part of the film business, serving a growing audience of alternative-minded moviegoers and film aficionados, now the people behind this first summit are hoping to offer an annual gathering spot for festival organizers.
"There really is a generation of film festival-minded people -- we just consume and become consumed by the film festival world," explained Matt Dentler, producer of SXSW in Austin, speaking on the morning's first panel about the state of the industry. "Film festivals are an incredibly vital part of the film industry right now and I don't think people realize that wasn't always the case."
"And I think it really is an alternate distribution system now," added Brit Withey, program director of the Denver Film Festival, "Its become a route for a lot of filmmaker (who's films) aren't going to get bought."
Among the hottest topics at Tuesday's opening session were dealing with the film industry and film rental fees for filmmakers.
Thom Cardwell, Managing Director of the Philadelphia Festival of World Cinema and the Philly International Gay & Lesbian Film Festival, noted that filmmakers and producers are now much more strategic about their festival planning, some now charging fees to fests for film screenings. Film rental fees at festivals, which can range from a few hundred to up to $1,000 per title, are a hot topic among fest organizers, with planners concerned about the move by filmmakers (and some distributors) towards charging such rates. Dentler, from Austin, noted that for a festival like his, which delivers filmmakers a high-profile industry and media audience, the lack of a fee could be a positive trade off. Other fest organizers noted that in order to secure key titles festivals are forced to make rental monies part of their operating budgets. Cardwell said that while many established film distributors don't always charge a fee, some filmmakers do.
Tapping into the marketing goals of a particular film distributor is the best way to secure higher profile movies for a fest, reiterated many of the organizers in attendance. Matt Dentler noted that in his case, with regard to films that already have distribution, his own festival either fits into a company's marketing plan for a release, or it doesn't. "There is no reason to haggle or negotiate," Dentler said plainly, "Either they want to play in your festival, or they don't." Other organizers in attendance noted there can be a downside -- when screening a surprise showing of a film at a regional festival, often distributors will restrict fest planners from publicizing a screening, leaving festival organizers with a quandary, wanting to tout high-profile fest titles, but stuck with keeping come showings confidential.
One fest planner, who was at first reluctant to name a notable film from a leading Indiewood distribution company that was shown quietly at her festival, quipped, "Its tough, because we are a marketing tool, but we're not a marketing tool, your greatest strength is your greatest weakness." The company got the word-of-mouth screening that it sought, but the festival was forced to remain tight-lipped about the showing. Meanwhile at SXSW, the festival screened a surprise showing of Jim Jarmusch's "Coffee & Cigarettes" earlier this year, but when the film got significant attention, it left a competing fest, the San Francisco International Film Festival, apparently frustrated since that was their opening night film just a few weeks later.
"You are a marketing tool," reminded on festival planner in the audience, "We use them as much as they use us," she said, referring to the film distribution companies.
Austin's vibrant film scene was a major point of discussion, with planners from other cities craving a local audience as receptive to independent, foreign and documentary films. Seated in the audience, Barbara Morgan of the Austin Film Festival noted that developing that audience has taken years, saying that a decade ago the Austin crowd was less receptive to festival and repertory programming.
"How do I educated my audience to be as smart as the Austin audience?" asked on attendee. Other attendees advised year-round programming, money spent on marketing, and finding ways cater to a growing audience.
"All year you have to work," Morgan explained, " All year long you program -- you have to do stuff constantly. Some of it is niche marketing.
Wrapping up SXSW's Dentler offered some words of advice to organizers in attendance, encouraging planners not to follow too closely in the footsteps of other film festivals.
"What we did that really helped was that we stopped trying to be Sundance," explained Dentler, "Everybody (said that we were) the next Sundance, but you never hear us say it," Dentler told attendees. "There is never going to be a next Sundance, (there might be) things that come close, things that remind people of that, but that's like saying 'we are the next Beatles' -- be your own fest and stay true to what makes your festival strong and people will take notice."