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A New World Order? Looking at AFI and Doha Tribeca Fests

A New World Order? Looking at AFI and Doha Tribeca Fests

I traveled to two festivals on opposite ends of the globe last week and saw two vastly different approaches to adapting large film events to the new economic realities.

My flight from New York to Doha, the capital of Qatar, was clearly a flight of choice for many attending the inaugural Doha Tribeca Film Festival, with Tribeca Film Festival co-founders Jane Rosenthal and Craig Hatkoff on board, along with “Amelia” director Mira Nair – whose film “Amelia” opened the festival – Patricia Clarkson and director Ruba Nadda from “Cairo Time,” which closed the festival, as well as a number of other invited directors and actors including Jeffrey Wright. After a long weekend in the Middle East, I flew to Los Angeles for the second half of the AFI Fest. Although it was the event’s 23rd outing, this year’s edition marked a “reinvention,” as actress Angela Bassett, who chaired the festival’s inaugural “New Lights Competition,” called it. Although both festivals live on either side of the earth and their roots reflect vastly different approaches, the festivals reflect today’s economic challenges. Some may suggest it is a hint of an emerging world order. Just a symptom of a general rise of an emerging East, though I personally am not quite ready to agree – yet.

Apparently coming together in less than a year, the Doha Tribeca Film Festival has joined nearby Dubai and the Middle East Film Festivals (Abu Dhabi) as the premiere film events in the Gulf region. To bring it together, the daughter of the ruling Emir of Qatar, Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani solicited Rosenthal and the Tribeca team to bring launch an event in her native country. Sheikha Mayassa had interned with Rosenthal and the film festival was her idea. It made sense because Tribeca has its roots in producing a new festival in relatively short time, creating its own inaugural event in 2002 in the wake of the 9/11 attacks right in its own backyard.

“Tribeca began after 9/11, and now Tribeca is coming to the Arab world,” Jeffrey Wright said during the opening night film in the capital’s beautiful I.M. Pei-designed Museum of Islamic Art. Earlier in the day, Al Jazeera entertainment editor, Amanda Palmer – who is the festival’s executive director – said that she would’ve never expected to be welcoming people to a film festival she was overseeing just six months before. Yet, the will – and clearly the resources – were in place. 30 features screened in very nice venues both at the Pei-designed museum and in the capital’s downtown-area mall, complete with stadium-style comfort.

“I invite film enthusiasts from every country to share their passion for this art by visiting the Doha Tribeca Film Festival,” said the Sheikha as quoted on the Tribeca website. “In today’s increasingly globalized world, creative initiatives like this Festival can play a truly inspirational role by bringing cultures closer together.”

Although there were definitely people from various parts of the world visiting – with excellent accommodations at either the local Four Seasons or the new W Hotel Doha – with work from the region naturally taking a prominent position at the event, it was probably not a shock to see that no films from Israel screened in the festival. This is one clue of the downside of a “top – down” festival spearheaded by a governmental unit. The policies of that institution are to some degree implemented.

While its important to recognize the downside, it’s encouraging to see official support for film and all of the arts. As the festival closed, DTFF announced plans to expand its educational efforts with two initiatives that include screenwriting and directing labs as well as a Doha-New York exchange program for aspiring filmmakers anchored at both DTFF and Tribeca.

“Education is the centerpiece of our partnership,” said Geoff Gilmore, chief creative officer of Tribeca Enterprises about the program. “We are excited to work with Doha to support their cultural vision to inspire and educate their local community through film and create opportunities for voices to emerge from Qatar.”

During the festival, Gilmore moderated a number of the event’s signature “Doha Talks,” including a panel on international distribution. In Doha as in practically every other festival that has addressed the topic, Gilmore described the industry as “in a moment of change,” adding that it’s “maybe the greatest change we’ve seen in thiry years.” But he also said it’s “one of the greatest times to be an entrepreneur,” though it’s “one of the most difficult times to be a studio or incumbent.”

The discussion continued immediately afterward with the topic ostensibly focusing on financing. In a clear contrast to how American filmmakers get their projects off the ground, Tunisian-born producer Tarak Ben Ammar called for regional governments to spend their money on local filmmakers and said the key to getting local work in production was to turn to the government.

“The real question here, is why are we in Qatar? It’s not because they have a developed film industry because they don’t. The question here is, will that money go to Arab culture, or will it go to Hollywood?” Ammar encouraged aspiring filmmakers to turn to their Ministers of Culture who have momentum from area governments to create a local industry. This is certainly the case in fellow Gulf state, the U.A.E., and it’s fueled by the influx of increased petro-dollars in the past few years. It also seems to reflect a friendly rivalry among the Gulf governments as reflected in their exploding skylines, national airlines and subsidized industry.

Doha Tribeca Fest best picture winner Liz Mermin (“Team Qatar”) receives her $50,000 prize from Robert De Niro and fest organizers in Doha last week. Photo courtesy of DTFF.

Again, it is a welcome development to see official support for culture, but it is also crucial to recognize when that official support comes with detrimental strings. Former StudioCanal head said that European Union subsidies had sometimes hurt films because they were pressured to embrace a non-organic “pan-European” sentimentality, which simply came off as forced and trite.

In the United States, even with a new Administration that has indicated its desire to increase arts funding through the N.E.A. and the N.E.H., festivals such as AFI Fest and many others across the country have reeled from the long blistering recession and its subsequent decline in corporate sponsorship and audiences with less discretionary spending. This year, AFI Fest had to take on its 23rd edition as an entirely new festival, drastically reducing its roster, changing venues, completely re-working its competitions and even rolling the dice with offering free tickets.

“If we knew what it was going to take back in January, I wonder if we would’ve taken the leap – I would compare it to birthing,” AFI Fest’s Artistic Director Rose Kuo told indieWIRE on Friday. “There were a lot of things we had to anticipate, but we didn’t fully know we were going to have to build the festival from the ground up.” Kuo said nearly every facet of AFI Fest was reinvented, even its programming philosophy.

The former favoritism given to world and U.S. premieres gave way this year to programming what organizers believed would be films that received well locally. However, certainly a number of its galas, including the opening film “Fantastic Mr. Fox” by Wes Anderson was a North American debut, while Tom Ford’s “A Single Man” screened as a U.S. premiere.

“At the beginning of the year, we knew it would be an economically challenging year,” said Kuo. “We were concerned about sponsorship and even who would buy passes or even individual tickets to see a film they may consider risky. But we were lucky that Audi (its presenting sponsor) came through, so we decided we’d program the festival in January based on what revenue we knew would be there, so we thought, ‘at the end of a tough year, come in and see a film for free…'”

So, AFI Fest headed in for a massive re-do, taking on 57 films instead of last year’s 100. They moved to the Mann Chinese theaters in the Hollywood and Highland Center from the ArcLight Theaters just to the south and did away with its shorts, audience and doc competitions in favor of one award spotlighting a first or second-time filmmaker. “This was a year we took the festival down to its essentials. In a way, it’s sort of a reflection of many people’s own lives right now. [AFI Fest] is definitely a product of the time, but I think it also created a much tighter festival.”

Kuo praised the attendance this year, with people clearly responding to free tickets. She said screenings that might have normally been sparsely attended were full, even films that had no stars that were screening at off times.

And though free screenings certainly brought in the audience, it is not something that can necessarily work everywhere. The fact of the matter is, ticket sales are an essential component of most festivals’ budgets, and even AFI Fest may not maintain almost entirely free screenings going forward, though Kuo hopes it can be sustained in some form.

“I love the free model and would love to see it remain in a meaningful way, [though] I don’t know if it’s completely sustainable,” Kuo said. “This relies entirely on corporate sponsorship and private donations, so is this attractive in the long term? Or maybe there will be a hybrid model. But everyone on staff agreed that it was so exciting to see the enthusiasm of the public around some of these films.”

Kuo said that the team had worried that the 20 ticket limit would encourage people to only request Gala screenings or that people might even try to take large blocks for popular films and try to profit off scalping.

“Within 48 hours of their availability, all but three films were sold out. Once the tickets were gone we were worried about people trying to sell them, but we went into the system and saw that people were careful with their selections. There weren’t ticket grabs. It was sort of a renewed faith in mankind.”

Kuo went on to say that AFI Fest’s reinvention was typical of many in the festival industry, even if not entirely a welcome one, and she compared their restructuring with the recent upheavals with distributors.

“I think a lot of festivals are having to re-think their model just like the indie distributors before us, we have to think about how to insure that we’ll survive,” Rose Kuo told indieWIRE, “We can’t wait, or we’ll go the way of music and a lot of these indie film companies. But I think festivals will become more important in the future for allowing filmmakers to have the theatrical release experience.”

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