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DISPATCH FROM LAS VEGAS: Festival Summit Acknowledges Sector’s Growth and Challenges

DISPATCH FROM LAS VEGAS: Festival Summit Acknowledges Sector's Growth and Challenges

Representatives from over 60 film events from the U.S. and abroad converged in this city of glitz, Las Vegas, for the third installment of the International Film Festival Summit—basically a three-day pow-wow for film fests both big and small to schmooze, trade war stories, and assess the health of their “industry,” which by most accounts, has grown rather spectacularly in terms of numbers in the past three decades. Perhaps 200 people converged in a large meeting room at the Luxor Hotel on the Vegas Strip for the IFFS’s first panel Monday morning at what a few attendees joked was a “very un-festival” like 9 a.m. for the summit’s first full panel, “What We Wish We’d Known Ten Years Ago…”

Before introducing the panel, moderator David Straus, co-founder and CEO of filmmaker resource site, Withoutabox asked attendees to raise their hands if they were organizers of a festival, which unsurprisingly, resulted in a sea of hands. He then asked those to put their hands down if their festivals were less than five years old, resulting in a large drop of arms… then six years, seven years, eight years etc. More than half of the hands had dropped by the time the decade mark had been reached, illuminating the massive proliferation of festivals. While festivals have increased in numbers, the panelists, who touched on topics ranging from technology to programming and even how organizing festivals can be a challenge to one’s personal life, seemed to agree that reaching out and gaining audience attention has become more challenging.

“One of the [key] goals for a film festival is to find an audience based on interest or ethnicity etc.,” commented the American Film Institute‘s director of festivals, Christian Gaines Monday morning. “The audience has changed… I think now [one] has to work harder,” added Mill Valley Film Festival founder/director Mark Fishkin. “Even though our membership has grown, [we] still need to reach out [more aggressively] to niche areas.

In this era of distribution upheaval as technology and personal tastes have challenged traditional exhibition rules, the panel of event heads seemed to concur that festivals are vanguards of the group moviegoing experience. “What film festivals are preserving is the communal experience of seeing a movie,” said Gaines. “Film festivals are gatekeepers of that experience, so it’s important [to safeguard] the quality of the experience… a little love, or a lot of love goes a long way.” The panel, which included the SXSW Film Festival producer, Matt Dentler and the Seattle International Film Festival and Palm Springs International Film Festival‘s Carl Spence, talked about the need to adapt to the evolution of technology, while touting the festival experience.

“People like the spectacle [of a festival],” said Dentler. “People want to feel like they’re interacting and participating. That’s why people love coming to a festival as opposed to [a benign] experience going to a multiplex.”

The subject of attracting galas and luring celebs to enhance that “spectacle” was raised by one audience member in comments addressed to the panel. “[The] opening night film creates a tone. [And] if you can create a ‘gala experience’ that is done right, you don’t [necessarily] need to have Nicole Kidman there,” said Spence. While Fishkin added, “If you can have an ‘Amelie‘ without talent vs. a film that’s not good, but with talent [present], you’re probably better off to have ‘Amelie’ because people are going to come away happier.”

The International Film Festival Summit continues through Wednesday in Las Vegas.

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