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Festival Circus: Should Film Festivals Care About World Premieres?

Festival Circus: Should Film Festivals Care About World Premieres?

The impact of film festivals on current cinema around the world is undeniable. But the rules, logistics, politics and factors that govern the way festivals highlight movies worth your time are often mysterious to anyone outside of the industry. In this new column, festival veteran and critic Robert Koehler will delve into many of the pluses and minuses of film festivals today.

Sometimes, it’s what film festivals don’t do that counts.

Take AFI Fest (running through Thursday in Los Angeles), which doesn’t do world premieres — at least, 99% of the time. In this year’s lineup of 89 features, only two are world premieres, both red-carpet galas at the recently restored and gracefully IMAXed Chinese Theatre: “Out of the Furnace” and “Lone Survivor.”

This isn’t a new trend for AFI. Just before and during the time I served as director of programming for the festival, we developed a mission to minimize world premieres. Current festival director Jacqueline Lyanga has aggressively and wisely continued this practice, noting, “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”

Here’s why more festivals — especially American festivals — should pick up on this bit of wisdom.


Like Homer’s voyagers captured by the sound of beautiful sirens, the lure of world premieres can be irresistibly attractive, but a trap for both programmers and the audiences they’re serving.

The attractions are natural. Any given festival’s development/fundraising department likes how world premieres draw sponsors’ excitement for being on the red carpet shoulder to shoulder with stars. The publicity department likes how world premieres exponentially increase ad impressions and raise the likelihood of national and international press attending. Press beyond the local kind amps up a festival’s global visibility, especially on the web. The festival’s board of directors likes all of the above.

And a festival director needs to listen to the board — and sometimes not.

In this case, it’s best to ignore the siren call, especially when thinking of the audience.

Unless a festival is Cannes, Berlin, Sundance, Locarno, Toronto or Busan, the chances of getting a world premiere that also happens to be a good movie is slim to none. The only festival that’s recently cracked this hard line — and minimally at best — is South by Southwest. Locarno is also a special case, a festival that deliberately goes after the best but more radical movies that most of the other relatively conservative festivals ignore or turn down.

The basic fact of life in the festival world is that sales companies and producers representing their movie or movie slate hold out for the biggest and most powerful festivals to unveil their goods. They want the biggest bang for their buck since — as James Schamus explains in his unique manner in the recent book “Coming Soon to a Festival Near You” — opening a new movie at a big festival can cost well north of $1 million.

This leaves 99.99% of festivals with the prospect that any world premiering movies will be at most second-tier, and probably worse. Programmers are forced to compromise in areas that shouldn’t be compromised, festivals find themselves putting lipstick on pigs and audiences may feel deceived at the end of the day.

Worse, festivals that compromise in this way become easy prey in the future for more siren calls from sales companies, needing to drop their also-ran titles in their slates somewhere, somehow. Festival X is easy. We’ll go there.


Not all world premieres are made equal. Studios time their prestige adult movies for Oscar season. So filmmakers, producers and their partnering companies (think, for example, of sales heavyweight The Match Factory) time their new movie for the festival circuit, and the right moment in that circuit. They know if it’s not ready with finished sound by early November, it’ll be too late for the early-year Sundance-Rotterdam-Berlin roundelay. OK, they figure, we’ll get it ready for Cannes in May. Or maybe they know it won’t be ready by spring. Timing then shifts to the early fall rush of Telluride-Venice-Toronto.

This is the schedule for the movies and the moviemakers that make a splash during the festival year, the ones that fill the needs of indie distributors from Sony Classics to Strand, Adopt to Zeitgeist.

For the rest, it’s anything goes, and anyone who’s interested. Now this doesn’t mean that the rest are automatically bad movies. In fact, far too many fine movies world premiering at festivals abroad are missed entirely by American festivals. 

But what tends to spark these U.S. festivals’ attention for red carpet events are less the movie than the stars attached to them. Even better if it’s a star of a certain age that older audiences (still the core demographic of most festivals) fondly remember and haven’t seen in a while. Sadly, in ageist Hollywood, these formerly big but lovingly recalled stars aren’t getting the best projects and scripts anymore; despite their best acting efforts, their turkey movie wouldn’t exist without their presence.

Just as bad are the Sundance and SXSW rejects available to American festivals down the road. Rather than these festivals engaging in more curating of worthy movies that have already premiered, they tend to get drawn in to show a whole slate of instantly forgettable indies, most of which never see the light of day again.

These are the kind of world premieres that a festival’s market-driven departments, patrons and the filmmakers’ pals and relatives care about — and literally nobody else in the world.


Festivals lusting for first-in-world red carpets might feel lucky. Their logic goes something like this: “Well, who made Cannes God? They can’t show every good movie. Maybe we can get one.”

In one way, they’re right. Not only does Cannes not show every good movie in a year, it shows a lot of bad ones. Just look at this year’s main competition.

So there are always some diamonds out there, maybe in the rough. Maybe they were missed.

Do ya feel lucky punk? Don’t. Just because a major festival movie of note such as “Ida” wasn’t programmed by Cannes doesn’t mean that the festival down the block is going to get it. Without Cannes, the game plan shifted to Toronto, where “Ida” world premiered at its proper stature and profile (after a sneak peek at Telluride), given the status of co-writer and director Pawel Pawlikowski.

AFI got lucky this year with its world premieres, proof there are exceptions to every rule, but also that the exception proves the rule. Both are significant Oscar season titles. “Out of the Furnace” is Relativity’s big number for this time of year, with straight-out-of-the-Robert-Mitchum playbook performances from a macho cast of Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, Casey Affleck, Forest Whitaker, Willem Dafoe and Sam Shepard. “Lone Survivor” is one of Universal’s Oscar hopes, with another studly cast led by Mark Wahlberg, Emile Hirsch, Taylor Kitsch, Eric Bana, Ben Foster and Jerry Ferrara.

Maybe these movies got the pass from Telluride/Venice/Toronto. Maybe they weren’t ready. It doesn’t matter. They don’t feel like the leftovers or rejects that scar most world premieres. They’re major movies tackling important subjects (Iraq and Afghanistan, war vets back home, the recession, the forgotten working class) that feature big stars. They rate red carpets. They’re big enough to fill the huge Chinese.

AFI’s example also illustrates where world premieres should go. If a festival has a few program sections (AFI has 10), the few world premieres are best in the red carpet zone. The audience for these events isn’t the normal festival crowd, and a lot of them are there mostly to schmooze and grab some free post-screening chow. The accompanying movie is just gravy.

Everyone attending Cannes knows (or should know) that the closing night gala is usually a dog, slotted to check off some political points with a given filmmaker/producer/studio/company/country. That’s also usually the case in Berlin and Toronto. But it’s also why this year’s Toronto closer, “Life of Crime,” the smart adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s “The Switch,” was such a surprise. It was actually good.

The Toronto braintrust knows it was lucky with that one. World premieres, they know, can be worse than a life of crime.

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