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Festival Programming: Last Refuge Of The Critic

Festival Programming: Last Refuge Of The Critic

In reading the reaction to today’s announcement that Newsweek film critic David Ansen has joined the Los Angeles Film Festival as its Artistic Director (congrats to David, and to my friend and colleague Doug Jones, who received a much-deserved promotion, and to the LAFF for finding their man), a number of lights switched on for me, most of which have been flickering for weeks now. It’s been a tough couple of years for print critics and film criticism in general, and with Ansen’s appointment and the recent wrap of the AFI Fest (programmed by film critic Robert Koehler), it seems like critics are finding refuge among the ranks of professional film programmers like, well, me. Anne Thompson makes a case for the change in her analysis of Ansen’s move when she writes:

“Who better than a critic to make the final picks on the LAFF?…As journalism becomes more and more inhospitable to film critics, film festivals become a viable alternative. Ansen landed at LAFF. And there’s still a position open at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, which mounts the New York Film Festival and books the Walter Reade Theatre, for a full-time programmer to replace Kent Jones, who left to work with Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation. Several critics are in contention for that slot, including LA Weekly survivor Scott Foundas. I’d argue for Foundas to keep doing what he does so well. But what future can he reasonably count on…?”

Which, you know, makes the idea of film programming sound a little bit, well, like a bomb shelter; a place to hide out while the world collapses around you and hopefully you can get back to normal once all of the madness dies away. What it doesn’t do, really, is advocate for the reality of film programming, the meaning and importance of the job to a festival, an audience, a community and, probably most importantly, festival colleagues who will be called upon to execute the million details involved in putting on a large event. Which is not to say that David Ansen or Robert Koehler aren’t great programmers, but I think the perception and the reality of the press in addressing this new wave of critics-turned-programmers misses one of the great chasms between the two jobs: No one has begun to describe the dissonance between thinking and acting like a film critic, which entails giving an honest, personal assessment of a film (good or bad), and the constant compromises required by festival programming. In one job, you serve an audience of anonymous readers who seek out your opinion (which you give in a relatively unfettered form, if you’re any good) and in the other, you’re serving both your audience and the industry, the very same filmmakers, actors and distributors you may have taken to task as a critic.

It is interesting that Anne mentions Scott Foundas, an excellent film writer who serves on the NYFF selection committee, as Scott recently talked with Robert Koehler as part of his coverage of the AFI Fest;

“Our first conversations about this [job] really began almost at this time last year,” Koehler adds. “From my end, I just wanted to get much more involved with programming. Not programming film series, which I’ve been doing, or coming up with a juicy little wish list and then phoning it off to the folks who really do the spade work in terms of getting the films. What I wanted to do was blend the conceptual side of it with the spade work.”

Koehler’s appointment was not without its share of raised eyebrows. Writing about the hire last April, Cinematical blogger Peter Martin (himself a former AFI Fest employee) deemed it an “odd move” while quoting at length from a Koehler essay in the Canadian film quarterly Cinema Scope that chided North American festival programmers for their laziness and herd mentality: “The essence of interesting, vital festival programming is an intelligent argument for a certain kind of cinema — this kind, not that kind.” With his new job, Martin surmised, Koehler would get a chance “to put his money where his mouth is.”

Implicit in Martin’s provocation was the bane of every film programmer’s existence: how to challenge an audience without alienating them? How, in Koehler’s case, for a passionate champion of radical and avant-garde filmmaking (his “certain kind of cinema” in a nutshell) to program a festival with movies that Joe the Plumber might also want to see? As Koehler himself puts it, it all comes down to “finding a balance of tendencies, of kinds of films. You certainly want to avoid both a vanilla drift toward the middle on the one hand, and you also want to avoid an ideological purity that veers on the obnoxious on the other.”

First of all, I love Koehler for understanding and articulating the idea of “spade work”, because for me, that’s right on. But maybe it is the privilege of criticism, the ability to look at work from an idealistic distance, that makes the second part of his statement ring as, let’s just say, diplomatic. I’ll say what he can’t say; When you’re dealing with a sponsor driven, non-profit event, you can’t show all the movies you love and you have to show a few you don’t like. Unlike the process of developing a critical corpus and a theoretical vision for “a certain type of film”, the job of festival programming is not about having great taste (which, by the way, everyone thinks they have). It is about, as Koehler rightly states, “finding a balance” between a complex set of interests that do not exist in the critical world.*

For most of us in the world of film programming, life is a series of qualifiers; we like to think that by assembling a program from the available, relevant films in our festival window that will agree to play the festival, we’ve worked hard to bring the very best that we can to our audiences, given the unique circumstances of each event. There are a few out there who, because of their size and status in the festival marketplace, have the unique privilege of saying no far more often than they hear it from others. Depending on the demands of the festival mission (i.e. whether or not you’re going to play the “premieres” game– it is duly noted that AFI dumped their premiere status requirements this year, as I did too in my first year in charge of a film program), most of us in the film festival world are, let’s be honest, not in a position where high profile, high quality projects are beating down the door to be a part of our event. So, when your festival is looking to hire someone to take over the film program, finding a professional with name recognition and a long history of quality relationships in the world of film PR makes a LOT of sense. I totally get it.

But, in welcoming my critic friends into the community of programmers, I offer a little bit of hard-won wisdom; film programming is a harbor for constant disappointment. We’re told “no” constantly, we have to tell other people “no” all the time, we do our best in negotiating all sorts of tricky problems between a multitude of interests. Now, obviously, people as gifted as David Ansen and Robert Koehler are amazing film scholars and have proven through their criticism and programming work, time and again, that they are excellent at what they do. I have no doubts that their work will be superior to my own in every way. But I do find it curious that so many festival directors seem to be looking to the world of criticism to find their programmers, and more importantly, that an honest discussion about what that means for programmers and critics alike hasn’t really started. So, maybe we can start now? Honest opinions welcome.

* By the way, Robert Koehler also has a huge advantage that most programmers can only dream about; he’s going to pack the house every time because his festival gives away all of their tickets for free. Which begets a note on the recent press regarding AFI’s free film tickets: They were paid for. By Audi. Who then gave them away. Putting that model out there as the next big idea in film festival management is a little bit like hitting the Mega Millions and then advocating that the lottery is the best new model for obtaining personal wealth. AFI was great in their acknowledgement of this incredibly special, generous sponsorship, but the press needs a reminder; let’s not trend “insanely good fortune” as being a reasonable approach to the business.

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