In his recent (and much-linked to) piece on GreenCine Daily, Jonathan Marlow takes aim at the current climate of change and looks for answers to the dilemma of modern day film distribution. I have some major problems with this piece and I think a response is in order. First, a few of Jonathan’s thoughts:
“Since the beginning of the independent ‘common era’ (circa 1989), the traditional Grail-quest of acquisition-derived-from-festival-screenings was a relative uncertainty. Now, nearly 30 years later, such good fortunes are approaching the level of impossibility.
The festival circuit has instead become an ersatz distribution system unto itself that, for the most part, keeps money away from the makers. The ten or 20 dollars you spend on a ticket (or the $50 to $500 you spend on a pass) rarely finds its way into the hands of the folks behind the camera. For all of those folks that were frustrated by the late-1990s business model of mere exposure-driven outcomes, these same folks generally have little complaint when festivals routinely screw them the same way. If you’re going to prostitute yourself and your work, wouldn’t you want to at least be treated with a little respect? To stretch the analogy, isn’t the distance between ‘street-walker’ and ‘call girl’ really a matter perspective?”
Let me begin by taking exception to Marlow’s straw man, one that I have seen being built over and over again on panels and in discussions among filmmakers and programmers over the past few years; Film festivals are not, in fact, an ersatz distribution system for films. I know that with the decrease in screen space and the incredibly competitive marketplace for films among the distribution companies, film festivals have become the only way for many films to be projected in a theater in front of an audience. That said, we’ve had film festivals around for literally decades; What has changed about film festivals? How have they evolved from being showcases for independent and foreign films to being equated with the institutional pimping of filmmakers? In reality, aside from their wider proliferation, there has been no change. Instead, the business of actual film distribution has changed and audience access to independent and foreign films has changed. Festivals have remained, for the most part, non-profit organizations committed to curating film programs for audiences who want to see hard-to-see films on the big screen, meet the filmmakers and actors, and have an environment where film is taken seriously, presented reverently, in the spirit of a shared cultural event. In addition, there is no collective network of festivals that collaborates to set up a national distribution path for films. Festivals don’t cooperate with one another on programming beyond a friendly exchange of information; most of the time, we’re competing for films. Each event stands alone and should be weighed on its individual merits, benefits and shortcomings. This is not some form of institutionalized distribution unless the filmmaker decides he or she wants to pretend it is so. In which case, they are wrong. What film festivals share with distributors is that they both screen films in a theater. But does that make them the same thing?
I really take exception to this article (and Marlow’s later claim that any one who says otherwise has a vested interest in the exploitation of filmmakers) and the idea that somehow low-ball , “exposure-driven outcome” deals by for-profit distributors are the same as non-profit festivals building word of mouth with one or two screenings of a film for a paying audience. The cost of renting theaters, equipping them with video and film projection, staffing the booth, organizing travel and accommodations for the filmmakers, staffing for programming, marketing and press for the films in both the national and local press? That cost FAR OUTWEIGHS the income generated by single ticket and pass sales at most film festivals. So, with festivals essentially subsidizing film screenings (which generally operate at a loss) with sponsorship dollars, I am not sure how the festival is prostituting the filmmaker. In fact, the whole argument is bullshit. Non-profit arts organizations are not structured as a replacement for traditional for-profit distribution models. Film festivals are not theater operators or exhibitors, take no money from the concession stand, and use the revenue generated by film tickets to help offset the cost of showing the films. We are not distributors, do not share in a national distribution plan, do not exhibit a film more than once or twice, and generally don’t turn a profit on ticket sales. I’ve never met a rich film festival employee in my life.
Marlow goes on to show his love of undistributed films and his empathy for the lack of screen space by equating the quality of a film festival with the relative size of their programs; while films can’t find an audience because screens are not available, Marlow argues that film festivals can truly show their quality and commitment to these artists by showing fewer films. I guess he’s saving the poor filmmakers from being exploited by the cash-generating festival machine. I think this is one of the most condescending ideas I have ever read; our festival featured over 220 films this year and I was proud to show each title among them. Marlow expands his straw man by arguing that the future of festivals should be to set up revenue-sharing models, moving the festival experience on-line in conjunction with VOD and DVD strategies. I have no beef with festivals that set up post-event revenue packages that include multiple platforms for filmmakers, but to claim that anything else is exploitation, to say that festivals are better for featuring fewer films and then to hold up Telluride, the most venerated of American festivals, as proof that brevity equals quality (despite the fact that Telluride programs films from Cannes and American independent distributors and rarely ever features undistributed American independent films) shows me that, like so many folks who feel free to saddle film festivals with the economic burden of replacing distribution in a movie theater, Marlow doesn’t seem to know much about how film festivals work.
Each paragraph of the piece contradicts the previous one, exception taken and then used to bolster a later argument; Is this a strategy? A philosophy? Is the future of independent filmmaking, marketing and audience building really limited to a set top box and DVD? Of course not. What Marlow is really rejecting here is community, and I don’t mean virtual spaces and networks, but cities and towns, physical communities across the country that want to share in the art of cinema. There is a presumption of access here, a presumption that people everywhere want to watch films online, want to pay for set top boxes so they can rent films, that seeing films at all is more important than how they are seen. Thankfully, both are important. The reality is that festivals are integral to the development of those audiences, building them by way of grassroots marketing in the real world.
Sure, festivals continue to build on-line community and word of mouth, but local, regional and national audiences for films still matter; the people at the screenings matter. Festivals continue to be showcases for filmmakers to share their work and serve an important purpose for countless communities around the country to explore the state of cinema in a way they otherwise could not. As the frustration grows at the fact that distribution has become more ruthless, as independent distributors gauge the relative success of their films against the numbers that are put up by so-called crossover films that bring in previously unheard of box office, there is a clear tendency for the marketplace to look for other revenue streams. But why punish and bad-mouth festivals and their purpose? Festivals want to grow and develop to meet the needs of filmmakers and audiences, but if festivals are being forced to become a mere subset of the theatrical distribution model, something valuable is lost in the process. Square pegs, round holes and nobody wins.