When attending American film festivals, I’ve often felt a twinge of envy for the Cannes Film Festival’s competition section: Here, a festival’s competition slot is a rite of passage, where filmmakers establish themselves before moving on; there, it’s a permanent destination. Cannes’ competition houses few rookies and implies only a select few films deserve consideration for the venerable Palme d’Or, reflecting elitist standards specific to Gallic culture. While a little elitism can go a long way, it has the power to drive international debates and create grand discussions about the medium. At a moment of extreme uncertainty about the future of the movies, that comes in handy.
So why are there no major American film festivals celebrating homegrown auteurs? Among the major North American film festivals, only a handful of feature competition sections carry a measure of prestige, but the Sundance Grand Jury Prize stands as the only major festival competition prize in the U.S.
In the past two decades, competitions at SXSW and Tribeca (which begins its 17th edition this week) have generated a measure of attention, in part because landing a competition prize anywhere can help a smaller, non-commercial movie find a distributor. A few years ago, the Toronto International Film Festival launched Platform, a competitive section for filmmakers a few films into their careers. But North America has no recurring competition designed to repeatedly attract established directors, increasing their statures with each return.
In light of recent debates about Cannes, this has struck me as a missed opportunity, a key distinction between the American and the European relationships to the movies, as well as the nations’ cultures as a whole. In America, competition has a different resonance: It’s merciless, capitalistic, and the essence of the social order — but anathema to the warmth of creative communities. In the intellectual havens of Europe, competition yields substantial debate. And so American festivals’ competitions invert Cannes’ standards: They favor discovery over established talent.
Many programmers aren’t terribly comfortable with competition. “I find it a bit reductive,” said SXSW producer Janet Pierson, “and I struggle with it. But it’s a system that was here when I arrived and I understand how it benefits filmmakers.” The SXSW competition has increased from eight to 10 films, and tends to favor newcomers.
Notable grand jury prize winners include Lena Dunham’s breakout “Tiny Furniture,” Trey Shults’ “Krisha” (which led a deal for his next film), and Adam Leon’s “Gimme the Loot” (which later played Cannes). The 2018 winner, “Thunder Road” is the feature-length debut from Jim Cummings, whose shorts generated acclaim on the festival circuit. “We look for filmmakers in early stages of their careers, world premieres, with real points of view,” Pierson said. “It’s very subjective.”
She acknowledged that filmmakers often push for competition slots, but she doesn’t commit to telling them which sections they’re in. “Our feeling is that people should be happy to be here. They should want to be here regardless,” she said. “It’s one element of a really strong program.”
Sundance tells filmmakers which sections they’re in, but otherwise takes a similar approach. Filmmakers such as the Coen brothers (“Blood Simple”) and Todd Haynes (“Poison”) have won the festival’s grand jury prize, never returning to the section. Sundance director John Cooper said he focuses on first, second, and third features, but once they’ve played in competition, they usually graduate to the Premieres section. “This is for people ready to be discovered,” he told me. “It’s kind of about launching a career, too — here’s a piece of work that represents an artist you might not have heard about before.”
When he took over the festival from predecessor Geoff Gilmore, Cooper added a “Documentary Premieres” section to avoid the tendency for established documentarians to return to competition each time out. “I felt like we weren’t allowing the next wave in,” he said, citing previous competition regulars like Alex Gibney, Morgan Spurlock, and Liz Garbus. “It’s funny how people want to compete, especially documentary filmmakers. They like to go after the prize. If you win, it gives you a leg up. People are calling instead of you calling them.”
He acknowledged some pushback from Premieres filmmakers who previously played in competition. “Sometimes, they’re afraid to step up into premieres because they’ll be judged with less forgiveness,” he said. “But people judge your film no matter what.”
Occasionally, a filmmaker returns to competition: Dee Rees first played in the section with “Pariah,” and returned with “Mudbound,” but Cooper said that decision could have gone either way. “We don’t like them to stay in competition,” he said. “Dee Rees was right on the edge. We were concerned that the film would look really big in a competition for first and second features.”
As the youngest of the three prominent American festivals taking place before Cannes, the Tribeca Film Festival reflects a similar sensibility, albeit with fewer hard-and-fast rules aside from a requirement for world premieres.
“Often, it’s something we decide later, after we invite the films,” director of programming Cara Cusumato said. “Once we have a critical mass of films, we start to look at what makes sense where. We just want things to be as successful as possible.” Beyond that, “we want them to be new films — things people are discovering here for the first time.” The 2018 Tribeca competition includes “Diane,” the directorial debut by veteran critic and New York Film Festival head Kent Jones, and “Duck Butter,” from a very established filmmaker, Miguel Arteta (though it does sport a first-time screenwriting credit for star Alia Shawkat).
No matter its standards, competitions also lead to a numbers game. It’s the easiest focal point to examine a festival’s ability to maintain diversity. Cannes tries to circumnavigate this by proclaiming that quality transcends any progressive agenda. “There will never be a selection made by positive discrimination,” Cannes artistic director Thierry Fremaux said at the festival’s annual press conference, a seemingly passionate mandate that sounds rather clumsy to English-speaking ears.
“What is ‘positive discrimination’?” Cooper asked when presented with the quote. “It’s true, you still program for the films. There are so many kinds of diversity, diverse experiences, that drive a film more than the person in the director’s chair.” Still, he acknowledged that Sundance programmers discuss diversity as one factor in the competition selection process. “It comes into play, during the eleventh hour,” he said. “We don’t let it drive the selection. I have a very diverse staff, so I know that helps. But we let the film drive things.” (Five of the 16 films in Sundance’s U.S. narrative competition were directed by women.)
It’s unlikely that an American equivalent to Cannes competition will emerge anytime soon, but it’s nice to imagine what one might look like; as a Cannes veteran looking at some highlights among U.S. cinema in 2018, I can’t help but envision the potential.
Sibling directors David and Nathan Zellner have distinguished themselves by producing outré melancholic comedies for 20 years. If they were French, it’s safe to assume they might be Cannes regulars. Instead, Sundance played the Zellners’ “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter” in the 2014 competition, so in 2018 the satiric feminist western “Damsel” played in Premieres. Lynn Shelton’s “Humpday” played in Sundance competition 10 years ago. Her latest movie, “Outside In,” could have used the boost. Yen Tan has made acclaimed queer films for 20 years, but his recent drama “1985” played in SXSW’s Visions section. The list goes on.
If there were a major U.S. competition for veteran filmmakers, it could pair these directors alongside the likes of the Coens or Todd Haynes, elevating some names while confirming the mastery of others, ensuring the continued canonization of American directing as an art form discrete from the Hollywood production machine.
It might sound idealistic, but the notion of graduating to competition and staying there has yielded a far more powerful status for cinema in France — and throughout Europe — than anything on this side of the Atlantic. It also creates a useful narrative arc; the drama folds into the framework of media coverage. Every day at Cannes, the competition increases twofold, and the betting odds deepen. It’s debatable whether the Palme d’Or makes a difference in the long run, but it does bring global prestige. Announcing this year’s lineup, Fremaux compared the competition to a sports game, the cinematic equivalent of the Olympics.
Of course, the Olympics tend to favor newcomers, too. This year’s Cannes competition hosts plenty of younger directors, such as Eva Husson and David Robert Mitchell, but it’s still dominated by veterans (even if they’re lesser-known than previous editions). “One time, Thierry Fremaux joked to me, ‘You’re ruining everything by putting films people have never heard about in competition,’” Sundance’s Cooper said. “It’s harder work to discover than to continue.” At SXSW, Pierson finds debate about the competition to be a distraction. “If people are too hopped up on competition,” she said, “then maybe we’re not the right place for them.”