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On The Future of Fests: Thoughts From The Top

On The Future of Fests: Thoughts From The Top

Geoff Gilmore, Cameron Bailey, Janet Pierson, and Sky Sitney – four of the biggest names in North American film festivals – gathered in Toronto last week to share their thoughts on the future of that world.

With independent film, from the way it’s produced to the way it’s distributed, in the midst of significant transition, it’s clear film festivals are going to have to shift to new paradigms as well. Sean Farnel, Director Programing at Hot Docs (who hosted the panel), moderated a discussion with Bailey (Co-Director of the Toronto International Film Festival), Gilmore (Chief Creative Officer, Tribeca Enterprises), Pierson (Producer of SXSW Film Conference and Festival), and Sitney (Artistic Director, SILVERDOCS) that considered just that. Their conversations ranged in topic from the relationship between festivals and markets to the importance of audiences to the granddaddy of all festivals, Cannes. Here are eleven choice quotes:

1. Geoff Gilmore: On Festivals and Markets

“You really have to think about the idea of festivals and markets. Which, by the way, are different things. And to blend them as if they are the same is a big mistake… Some festivals are markets, and most aren’t. A lot of festivals think they’re markets that aren’t. The question of how in fact one sees what festivals have evolved into, and what they’re going to become in this next decade has a great deal to do with the fact they changed so dramatically in terms of their relationship to the industry over the last couple years.

I fear that I’m responsible for this, which I hate: That idea that you evaluate a festival by how many films sold at that festival. It’s simply absurd. And yet, you have to fight against that in order to take that message out. You cannot see yourself as using that kind of scoreboard mentality as a way of evaluating what it is you do.”

2. Cameron Bailey: On The Decline of the Art House & Film Critic

“I think what we’ve seen as our festivals have grown up is the decline of the art house cinema – you used to be able to see a lot of films you see at festivals at art house cinemas. And there’s the decline of the film critic at the same time. Certainly in the last five years or so, and definitely in North America – and I think it’s probably going to expand internationally. Film critics are losing their positions. Significant film critics at major newspapers and magazines are losing their jobs. These papers and magazines are going other ways in informing their audience and creating taste. And festivals I think are having to pick up some of [these roles].”

3. Geoff Gilmore: On Not Forgetting Audiences

“You really have to try and rethink what it is your motivations are in terms of how you program. And what you program. And what you see your relationship with filmmakers and companies as. And audiences. Let’s not forget audiences. Have the audiences almost become the forgotten aspect of what festivals are? As if festivals can somehow almost happen in box in which audiences are just the outside observers looking in. And all of the interconnected activity going on with media and industry and filmmakers becomes kind of like a play in which the audience gets to look in from the outside. Which is not the way I think it should be.”

4. Sky Sitney: On Programming For The Filmmaking Community

“I do believe that I largely program for the audience, but also for the filmmaking community. That might sound odd, but when I think about what SILVERDOCS offers, it’s a very easily navigable, very intimate festival that has a concurrent conference where filmmakers and audiences are able to very easily see each other’s work and engage in meaningful conversations that are both spontaneous, but are also set up by the festival, like this panel, for instance… In order to satisfy these filmmakers we need to bring people in that are viable in terms of how their work’s heard. And people that come – you know, these are busy people that have to get something out of the experience. They don’t necessarily want to see the same film that’s been at five previous festivals.”

5. Janet Pierson: On Joe Swanberg and Working With Distributors

“Joe Swanberg, a guy who has made five films in the past five years – all of which have premiered at SXSW and have been super low budget, his first film was made for $1200. It wasn’t great, but it was actually kind of interesting. I noticed it, and thought ‘this is a lot cheaper than film school.’ And he came back the next year with a film – ‘Lol’ – that was really exciting. It had great ideas in it – once again, not perfectly realized – but I was like, ‘I’m gonna pay attention to this guy.’ He’s figured a way to work in a extremely limited budget frame, and each film has been leaps ahead of the next one.

Last year, he had a film called ‘Nights and Weekends’ that premiered in March – at SXSW in a limited way because IFC [the distributor] was trying to find a way to preserve eyeballs for box office. Six months later, the film opened in one theater in New York and went on VOD. And it was just like, who cares, and who knew? It’s like, all this excitement was created in March around him at SXSW and it petered out.

[So when he showed me his new film, ‘Alexander the Last,] and I always dread – is this the year I’m gonna hate Joe’s movie? It’s not like, oh, check off the Joe movie at SXSW. He has to earn his spot, especially since this was the first year I was programming the festival. But I really thought it was strong and great. And he was going to be showing it to IFC because he had a relationship with them. And I was like, ‘talk to them about what they’re doing.’ And it became something that was completely organic. To have the world premiere of this film at SXSW, and to world premiere the film day and date on VOD [with IFC].

It wasn’t something that – as far as I was concerned – I imposed on him as a filmmaker. It came from his relationships and his models that he’d already been involved in. Which is kind of how I see our role. I’m not going to be able to solve these issues, but I’m trying to create an event where talented and interesting people will innovate… I’m not going to have a ‘SXSW on Demand Experience’ in total for the festival. It has to actually come from the filmmakers in terms of what they think is going to work for them.”

Sean Farnel, Janet Pierson and Geoff Gilmore after a panel at the 2009 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival in Toronto. Photo by Ondi Timoner, director of “We Live in Public,” from her twitter feed @onditimoner.

6. Geoff Gilmore: On Filmmakers Profiting

“I’m not worried about distributors existing. I’m worried about filmmakers profiting. And I know way too many filmmakers who are angry as all hell right now. Because they have made their films, they have invested their lives into these films, they come to festivals and get terrific responses, and then they have IFC say, ‘here’s $25,000.’ And they go, ‘what?’ And it’s a take it or leave it deal.

I’m not criticizing IFC – I mean, talk about a distributor with a lot of different ways of putting thing out. The question is if the filmmaker feels exploited at that point. Because they don’t quite know what the alternatives are.”

7. Cameron Bailey: On The Festival as a Channel To Success

“Look at filmmakers like Peter Jackson, Christopher Nolan, Jon Favreau… These all started out as festival discoveries. The previous generation went straight from film school to the studios. People like Coppola or Spielberg. But now, going to a festival and being discovered at a festival for certainly your first and maybe your second feature is almost a rite of passage. That’s the channel through which you become known. And you become known not just because your discovered by the press and industry at a festival, but by the audience. So for us it’s really important that the audience really tells us what our important films are. The audience, for instance, last year told us that ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ was the most popular film at the festival…”

8. Sky Sitney and Cameron Bailey: On The Festival Cycle of a Film

SS: “There’s this perception that people in the industry – distributors, broadcasts – who have been to a number of different festivals, that they have necessarily seen all the films… Many times in a relaxed festival where they’re not necessarily having to take one meeting after another, they can catch up on, say, the award-winning films from Sundance or Tribeca… I think there’s a false sense of exhaustion of a particular film throughout a cycle.

I think a festival can, in some ways, offer to help films with momentum. By going to a variety of festivals it can actually do a great deal of good for that film. Instead of only being focused on having every festival launch a brand new slate.”

CB: “This goes back to Geoff’s point that’s only really an issue if we’re concerned about buyers and press. Because they do thrive, as we do, on novelty… Or some sort of premiere status. So I think if we are thinking about our local audiences, who haven’t had the opportunity to see that film before, it really doesn’t matter…”

9. Janet Pierson: On Conversation, Noise and Economic Viability

“South By Southwest is very, very different from Sundance, and also Toronto or SILVERDOCS… There’s a completely different flavor to it, and that’s great. To me one of the sad things that happened over the years, was that the [indie film] world was defined by three films that popped at Sundance. Which was heartbreaking, because there were like hundreds of films that were showing that all needed attention. And there were films that we were showing, that were kind of amazing. It was just such a small conversation.

So to me, this idea of different people looking at the wealth of experience and range of films that [each festival can have], it’s richer for everybody. There is all this different media going on and all these different ways of disseminating the work… [And] there’s more conversation, there’s more noise, but yes, there’s actually less money exchanging hands for most people. Which is definitely a problem when you think about the life of festivals. There is this economic viability that is important in terms of the evolution of festivals. Festivals cost filmmakers money, and they need to get something out of it.”

Sean Farnel, Cameron Bailey and Geoff Gilmore chat during the 2009 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival in Toronto. Photo by Peter Knegt.

10. Geoff Gilmore: On Today’s Twentysomething Filmgoers

“I think that twentysomethings these days – as filmgoers – are more sophisticated than when I was twenty. They know a lot more about international cinema. They know a lot more about cinema in its broader sense. And they care about it a lot less. And that’s significant. That’s a generational shift. That’s something that’s going on in a different way than simply a question of ‘how do we make festivals different.’ That’s a question of ‘what is it that a twentysomething audience that is interested in cinema think about?’

I didn’t see all of Hitchcock in a weekend. I saw all of Hitchcock over fifteen, twenty years. You can take home your DVD set now, set it up and watch every film in a row. And that’s your appreciation of Hitchcock. That’s a different way of understanding films. That’s a different way of relating to cinema. So when you ask what direction we’re going, I think I’m trying to assess the range of directions that audiences are going in. Clearly we want to talk about how to reach audiences in different ways. But you really want to also talk about is how you deal with that range of different ways in which films will be consumed, and perhaps produced, and for us to service as a platform in a number of different ways.”

11. Cameron Bailey and Geoff Gilmore: On Cannes

GG: “There was an interesting thing going on when the Cannes Film Festival announced it’s program this year, [Cannes President] Gilles Jacob attached a letter to the announcement. It was a letter defending the auteur cinema. Saying this is the cinema that ‘we as a festival are interested in, and program’. And this is not the cinema that the West – those U.S. critics – are picking at right now… You should read this letter it’s an enormously interesting – in some sense – statement of that importance for [Gilles] of what a festival is in relationship to the community that Cannes focuses on.”

CB: “That’s interesting to me because I think what Cannes is doing now and maybe has always done, is try to create a kind of curatorial authority…”

GG: “Last year, Gary actually said they weren’t going to do that anymore. Gary said, ‘next year we’re going to reinvent Cannes were going to have a whole new generation of filmmakers. And [this year] every single filmmaker in competiton is someone we know. Every single one.”

CB: “Cannes is still trying to tell the film world what’s important. Who are the major auteurs, and why? And they are trying to set curatorial taste, and set the taste generally. And I think what we do as festivals – and maybe this is more of a North American thing – we have a different sense. It’s not so much top down. I think what we need to do is to look at what our audiences are into… And kind of follow that.”

GG: “And in defense of Cannes, and I’m not sure they need one… They are the gorilla of the film world. They have two aspects going on in Cannes: The have the official program of Cannes, the auteur definition; and also the biggest market place in the world. 6,000, 8,000 people come to the film market at Cannes… And Cannes is still the dealmaking festival of the world. Nobody else comes close. People used to say, ‘Sundance is like Cannes’ and I’d say you’ve obviously never been to Cannes.”

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