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DISPATCH FROM LAS VEGAS | Fest Organizers Look to Online Options While Anticipating Recession

DISPATCH FROM LAS VEGAS | Fest Organizers Look to Online Options While Anticipating Recession

The International Film Festival Summit wrapped its 5th edition earlier this week, having returned to Las Vegas proper after a detour last year in Henderson, NV, and perhaps as a result boasted a significant increase in registered attendees. The three-day event drew festival organizers from all over the U.S., as well as a few international colleagues as a professional forum to discuss a wide range of issues relevant to this small but specialized subset of the film industry, from practical considerations of sponsorship, marketing, ticketing, board development, and programming, to more far-reaching philosophical explorations of the role of film festivals for audiences and for the film industry as a whole.

Anticipating the concerns many of the attendees have no doubt been feeling about the current state of the economy, organizers started the IFFS with a YouTube clip from the 1968 Cannes Film Festival, which ultimately decided to end prematurely in a show of solidarity with striking students and workers. In showcasing the debate and discussions the ’68 Cannes makers went through, the clip in a way represented an ancestor to the work being done at IFFS, and by doing so through the medium of streaming online video, it also fittingly served as an introduction to this year’s keynote speaker, Rick Allen, CEO of SnagFilms. Allen laid out what he called a “Change Agenda” for film festivals and for the film industry as a whole as a response to Mark Gill’s recent pronouncement that “the sky is falling.”

Recognizing the vital role that festivals play in supporting the work of filmmakers, Allen spoke of the necessity of festivals establishing a web presence to ensure their sustainability. Citing SnagFilms’ recent successful partnership with the Hamptons International Film Festival, where two films, “Haze” and “The End of America,” were simultaneously premiered at the festival and online, creating further exposure for both the festival and the films, Allen revealed plans to expand this type of relationship in 2009 to create branded channels for the various festivals taking part in the IFFS this year, allowing festivals to stream select films from past and current editions online as a means to increase festival branding, ticket sales, year round presence, and to create new revenue streams, with further plans to potentially explore national sponsorship opportunities in 2010.

DISCLAIMER: Snagfilms is the parent company of indieWIRE.

This focus on the web was felt throughout the summit, which included two web-based companies, Withoutabox and b-side, out of its three primary sponsors. Directly following Rick Allen’s keynote, Chris Hyams of b-side spoke on a panel entitled “Festivals: Distribution Revolution or Evolution,” which explored the basic question of the role festivals serve as a kind of hybrid between specialized one-off exhibitors and de facto distributors. Noting the failure of the traditional theatrical distribution model, Hyams related the success story of “Super High Me,” which b-side partnered with Netflix to release in alternative exhibition spaces, often directly financially benefiting festivals, as a means to generate awareness for DVD sales. In a later panel, Christian Gaines and Andrej Gregov of Withoutabox and its parent company, IMDB, laid out an ambitious plan to better integrate film festivals into IMDB and essentially move festival programming online through Withoutabox, including streaming full-length submissions to make for a more streamlined selection and judging process.

Other fest veterans, such as the San Francisco Film Society’s Graham Leggat, speaking on the “indie 2.0” panel, expressed different views on the roles festivals can play in partnering with such online entities. Rather than embracing a model whereby festivals become specialized film distributors, and expect financial salvation to come forth in added revenue streams, he opined instead that such explorations of non-traditional distribution models instead be viewed as part of the festival’s filmmaker services role – a means to continue and foster relationships with participating filmmakers and their films, and to help them achieve larger audiences outside the confines of the physical festival event.

Underscoring this web presence and discussions of alternate distribution and exhibition, some summit attendees, such as the Atlanta Film Festival’s Executive Director, Gabe Wardell, noted the absence of traditional distributors as participants at IFFS, with the notable exception of Koch Lorber’s Richard Lorber. Though some attendees noted time and again the essential partnerships festivals should have with distributors, the former’s lack of participation suggests that such partnerships might not be entirely equitable or reciprocal.

Overall, and despite the presence of representatives from higher profile events such as Sundance, SXSW, San Francisco International Film Festival, LAFF, and Tribeca, the IFFS seems to continue to best serve the needs of smaller and regional festivals seeking practical advice, such as that offered by participants on panels entitled “Recession-Proofing Your Fest to Survive and Prosper” or “Marketing Strategies That Work!” In this regard, the IFFS does a capable job of offering expertise and networking opportunities that would otherwise be hard to find elsewhere.

[ABOUT THE WRITER: Basil Tsiokos left the position of Artistic Director for NewFest: The NY LGBT Film Festival at the end of October 2008. Since 2005, he has also been a Programming Associate for the Sundance Film Festival, focusing on U.S. Documentary Features.]

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