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First Person: Christian Gaines on Film Festivals

First Person: Christian Gaines on Film Festivals

[This is the second in a new regular series of “First Person” articles written by members of the film community. It is meant to showcase the opinions of our readers. indieWIRE readers interested in contributing a future “First Person” column should contact us by email: office AT indiewire DOT com.]

[The following includes excerpts from a keynote address at the International Film Festival Summit in New York City earlier this month.]

Like most businesses, film festivals are at the mercy of all sorts of market forces – the economy, the evolution, growth or diminishment of countless forces regionally and globally that are often beyond the control of their organizers. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that too many people in your hometown understand or are aware of these forces. Your board just wants to know how many years before your festival becomes the ‘Sundance of the Pacific’, or the ‘Cannes of the Antarctic’.

During the past century, movies and the movie-going experience have evolved into a social and cultural phenomenon. Movies can offer transformational experiences, providing a means for people to connect with others as well as offer an enriched perspective of the world. Now, these ideals are more important than ever in our ever-fragmenting world.

And yet statistically, movie-going in the United States is declining. In 1950, a total population of approximately 200 million Americans bought 4.5 billion movie tickets to see movies presented on around 18,000 screens. In 2003, approximately 285 million Americans bought only 1.5 billion tickets to see movies presented on around 34,000 screens. An incremental increase in box office gross ticket sales year-to-year is attributed almost entirely to the steady increase in ticket prices.

However, the future of movie-going as we know it today – as a shared, out-of-home experience – seems uncertain. Movie-going over the past five decades has eroded dramatically. Since 1950, admissions in the United States have declined by over 55% while the population of the country has increased by over 200%. This represents an annual average decline in attendance of around 1.1% per year. At this rate of movie-going, the out-of-home experience could be nearly extinct by the year 2036, possibly becoming yet another mere relic of American nostalgia.

While there are many explanations offered for this decline, the generally accepted root cause is the widespread introduction of television in the early 1950’s. The advent of television not only had an immediate effect on movie going but also created numerous platforms for future in-home entertainment alternatives.

In recent years, advanced in-home technology (home theatre systems, digital sound systems, plasma screens, etc.) has become significantly better, more compact and increasingly affordable. In-home content (Cable, DVD’s, Pay Per View, etc.) has become more accessible and affordable and now offers exhaustive choice. Lastly, ever-increasing demands on diminishing leisure time are making in-home alternatives much more appealing Rapidly developing digital distractions – video games, cell phone content, the Internet – as distractions, have also recently started playing an important part in the general shift in entertainment habits.

While existing generations of Americans still hold the communal, celebratory experience of “going to the movies” in a sacred place – an American past time and an integral part of growing up – the activity itself, although not imminently threatened with extinction like old movie-palaces, has not yet been properly defined in our society as a sacred activity, worthy of definition and preservation.

Quite simply, when the loyalty to movie-going no longer exists, what is the motivation to go to the movies especially to the newer generations, who grew up with all kinds of other entertainment options?

That’s where film festivals come in.

For it is in this environment that we are seeing a rapid growth in the number of film festivals – five times more of them than ten years ago, by some accounts. Not just that, but most film festivals are actually reporting a steady INCREASE in overall attendance.

Film festivals, it seems, are now on the front line of this issue and can actually play a critical role in helping to define it. As a collective force in national and international film exhibition, film festivals have here an unprecedented opportunity – and responsibility.

Film festivals, it seems, are doing two critical things:

Sum Providing a satisfying experience to current generations who have a special place in their hearts for the communal experience of movie-going;

Sum Introducing the NEXT generation of filmgoers to the special encounter between a film, a filmmaker and an audience in the festival environment.

In our day-to-day management of film festivals, and in the important, extremely complex management of the expectations of your constituents – filmmakers, audiences, the film industry, the press, the sponsors, your community supporters, staff and volunteers – it’s easy to forget that the work you are doing is having a transformational effect, not just on the constituents mentioned above, but also on the behavior and the habits of people who love movies, and people who may yet love movies – the storytelling medium that started it all.

Your work is critical in preserving and creating lovers of movie-going, and celebrating the sacred cultural activity of going to the movies. Your work isn’t just creating a pleasant social diversion for your community – it’s transformational and actually has a direct effect on our society as a whole.

[Christian Gaines is Director of AFI FEST presented by Audi, a program of the American Film Institute. Prior to that, he was Director of the Hawaii International Film Festival, Film Programmer at the Sundance Film Festival and helped to start the American Pavilion in Cannes. He lives in Los Angeles with his gorgeous wife and kids.]

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