American Film Festivals Have a Future If They’re Willing to Change (Almost) Everything

IndieWire at 25: Even before the pandemic, film festivals faced an uphill battle in America. Here's how they can adapt to the future.
From left, Deadline Hollywood's Pete Hammond, Chris Cooper, and Margo Martindale attend AARP's Movies for Grownups Film Festival on Sunday, Nov. 17, 2013 at Regal Cinemas at L.A. LIVE in Los Angeles. (Photo by Vince Bucci/Invision for AARP/AP Images)
The film festival scene faces an uncertain future.
Vince Bucci/Invision/AP

IndieWire turns 25 this year. To mark the occasion, we’re running a series of essays about the future of everything we cover.

Halfway through the Cannes Film Festival, the streets erupted with activity. Drunken revelers crammed the bars just outside the Palais des Festival. Some took to mopeds, honking in unison and waving three-color flags as they belted out a triumphant cry: “Italia!”

That wasn’t a movie, of course. The European soccer championship provided yet another reminder of how little space the movies occupy in the broader cultural conversation, even at the world’s most prominent film festival.

And that was in France, where the government subsidizes the art form and cinema is celebrated as a key aspect of the nation’s history. Across the Atlantic, the situation is much more dire.

American film festivals faced an identity crisis even before the pandemic. An impenetrably dense media landscape, the proliferation of on-demand content, and market instability created a mounting sense of uncertainty: What exactly should festivals be doing — and how they can possibly keep doing it?

Festivals celebrate the movies, support their existence, and those of us invested in that goal champion their survival even when it’s a tough case to make. Festivals have shaped my own career as a journalist and critic; I have relied on their community to develop stories and track the ongoing challenges faced by films and filmmakers.

And yet the film-festival mythology that Sundance rode to prominence in the ‘90s has run its course. Sundance and other festivals still curate new voices and exciting work, but we’re a long way from the starry-eyed days of the Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez origin stories or even the transgressive shock of New Queer Cinema. Those voices and others are still present and accounted for, but in some ways it’s a mature market. Most festival titles go to streamers, where they can reach the broadest audience but are unlikely to see much life in theaters, much less the cultural zeitgeist moments once experienced by “Sex, Lies, and Videotape” or “Clerks.”

Today, most American cities have film festivals, but many struggle to sort out their purpose. The pandemic forced the bulk of the circuit to embrace hybrid festivals, a welcome push outside their comfort zones. Sundance’s pivot to streaming allowed it to explore methods of expanding its brand to audiences nationwide, but it also has resources that few other festivals can match.

The following 11 ideas are an attempt to find solutions that benefit all festivals as well as the people they serve: filmmakers, audiences, and the industry. Their future depends on recognizing that there are parts of this system that don’t work, and being open to radical maneuvers that could address them. Moving forward means film festivals must adapt to new models, with some ideas requiring a level of collaboration that might seem like an anathema. Brace yourself and read on.

Build a universal distribution platform.

Festivals reflect the crisis in distribution. Every year, major films and filmmakers are hailed as breakthroughs inside the festival bubble, but that usually pops long before the movie can be seen by the public. Major companies pick up programming highlights, with many other films ignored once they become more widely available.

“This is urgent,” said Sundance Institute’s outgoing CEO Keri Putnam, who has run the festival for over a decade. “It’s urgent that we all come together and think about how festivals can play a role in the way not only artists are getting their work seen, but how festivals are engaging with the full scope of their releases.”

Sundance experimented with distribution through its Creative Distribution Fellowship, which gives filmmakers resources to help navigate self-distribution, while San Francisco’s SFFILM created its Launch section to connect undistributed films with buyers. These initiatives and a few others yielded sturdy case studies, but they don’t capture the potential of festival hype. More than one person in the festival community told me — often off the record, to avoid backlash from peers — that there needs to be a robust way for America’s network of arthouse cinemas and festivals to create a release strategy around its programming, including a streaming-VOD component.

Easier said than done. Last summer, distribution veteran Ira Deutchman took issue with virtual cinema releases for their fragmented approach: “Since no platform currently offers an end-to-end solution that is adaptable to everyone’s needs, the technology is jerry-rigged,” he wrote. “It requires building specialized links for each theater. In some cases, distributors must upload the films multiple times. Not exactly scalable.”

That extends to festivals. “Through more robust collaboration, film festivals could build a system that aggregates, curates and brings audiences to these films on an ongoing basis while making sure filmmakers get a fair cut of the revenue,” film consultant Brian Newman told me. “Not that we need another streaming service right now, but I know many audiences would love a system that brings trusted curation of quality films to their living rooms, and in person at theaters, year-round. Get together and build it.”

Which leads us to the next item…

A film’s release starts at the festival. Reporting should reflect that.

A film’s success is historically judged by box office, but that measurement should start at the film festival. “Festival box office should be counted towards a regular box office,” said Barbara Twist, associate director of the Film Festival Alliance. “Maybe a movie bombed because it played two cinemas on opening weekend so it could fulfill a contractual obligation to go onto HBO Max or somewhere else — when it reality, it fucking blew the door down at festivals with sold-out screenings.”

As festivals began looking toward virtual presentations last March, the FFA began hosting weekly strategy calls and learned that there was no system to show success. Sundance reported 251,331 views of its features, shorts, and indie series in 2021 — but that figure was based in part by Sundance’s decision assume that most films had at least two viewers. Not every festival did that.

“Festivals are still figuring out how to count eyeballs,” said FFA executive director Lela Meadow-Conner. “Everybody does it differently. Some people are counting half an eyeball.”

Netflix reduced its definition of a single view to two minutes; how do those metrics apply to festival films? With a universal system for reporting views, festivals can identify popular films and drive interest from the rest of the circuit. All of this will be increasingly valuable to support festival films, because…

The festival market isn’t sustainable. Let it go.

Buyers and sellers broke from the festival ecosystem and adapted to an online market over the past year. It should stay that way. At Cannes, market screenings were mostly empty since most sales took place weeks in advance of the festival. The drama of festival premieres that inspire multimillion-dollar deals makes for good copy, but they create terrible expectations.

Back in the day, Miramax and October Films drove many acquisitions to commercial and critical success. In 2006, Searchlight spent $10 million on “Little Miss Sunshine,” which ultimately grossed over $100 million and won two Oscars. It topped its own buying record by nabbing “The Birth of a Nation” in 2016 for $17.5 million, which Neon and Hulu beat out by mere cents with its cheeky 2020 deal for “Palm Springs.” In the midst of this year’s virtual Sundance, Apple broke that record with its $25 million spend on opening-night selection “CODA.”

These sales don’t reflect a market. They’re discrete entities — specific buyers with their own reasons to  make an impact, often with limited consideration for financial returns. When the largest company in the world throws crazy money for a movie it will release on its platform months down the line, it’s not a testament to the power of the festival machine; it’s a corporate power move.

This issue long preceded streaming. I attended my first Sundance in 2007 with dog-eared copies of “Down and Dirty Pictures” and “Spike, Mike, Slackers and Dykes,” eager to watch the dealmaking take shape. That was the year everyone wanted “the next ‘Little Miss Sunshine.'” Buyers went on to spend $50 million on 15 deals, from John Carney’s lo-fi musical “Once” (Searchlight, again) to the frumpy John Cusack Iraq war drama “Grace is Gone” (Miramax). “’Little Miss Sunshine’ seems to have penetrated all the studios’ consciousness,” Roadside Attractions’ Howard Cohen told IndieWire at the time. “I guess only one has to work and it will all happen again in ’08.”

What I found most notable that year was the dramatic gulf between the endless conversations about “the next ‘Little Miss Sunshine'” and the most exciting movies I saw: The subversive body-horror humor of “Teeth,” Craig Zobel’s absorbing doc-fiction hybrid “Great World of Sound,” and Jason Kohn’s astounding real-life kidnapping saga “Manda Bala.” These films needed the festival far more than the movies that scored the biggest deals.

Hybrid doesn’t go far enough.

A whole industry of B2B services sprung up as companies like Shift72, Eventive, and Cinesend provided front- and back-end services to migrate programming online. Encouraging results suggest the trend will continue, but not at the expense of physical events that corporate sponsors favor. “Most value festivals deliver can only be experienced in person,” said Cinesend’s Eric Rossett. “At the same time, we believe festivals will continue to offer a virtual component.”

He cited the June 2021 Tribeca Festival as a success, in which 53 feature films screened at sold-out shows in all five boroughs of New York City with a smaller selection available for home viewing. A similar strategy appears to be in play for Toronto, New York, and Sundance.

Online festivals also create the potential for collaborations to reach wider audiences. Last October, the Boston Underground Film Festival, Brooklyn Horror Film Festival, North Bend Film Festival, and Overlook Film Festival created online horror festival Nightstream. Each festival contributed its own audience and sensibilities, but together they created a national event that appealed to more fans than any could have reached on its own.

Once you start going hybrid, you have to realize that fests like the Nightstream are likely the future of festivals,” Newman said. “In the future, the most successful film festivals won’t be tied to a physical location. Audiences aggregate online by fandoms, genre and what they love, not by geography.”

Film is not the only future.

Episodic programming appears in many festival lineups, as do video games and XR content. Tribeca has programmed games for a decade, and Sundance started including VR in its lineup for almost as long. These programs have not gained nearly as much traction as feature films, which still dominate submissions. However, any festival that doesn’t acknowledge impactful storytelling beyond film risks irrelevance.

Tribeca irked the film community when it dropped “film” from its name this year, but other festivals could benefit from doing considering the logic in play. Sundance’s New Frontier section has been ahead of the curve for years and online availability proved to be a massive signal boost: Attendance in 2021 jumped from 2,000 to a whopping 33,000. “I want to champion film as a focus for festivals, but there’s plenty of room for other forms as well,” Putnam said.

Expanding the film-festival purview allows it to take advantage of the expansive nature of storytelling — whether or not the festivals have “film” in their names. This year’s Cannes XR was a joint production with Tribeca and the Paris-based NewImages Festival. SXSW created an astonishing VR version of its festival, where anyone with a consumer-grade headset could sample its XR programming. There are many more opportunities for festivals to create sustainable new-media showcases.

As long as there are content creators and hungry audiences, film festivals have a job to do,” said Janet Pierson, whose SXSW Film section also showcases TV and VR. “The task is to curate with an eye towards what’s vital now, keeping attuned to the shifting needs and tides.” (Note: IndieWire parent company Penske Media bought a controlling stake in SXSW earlier this year.)

Exclusivity is not the point.

There are two festivals capable of attracting major world premieres in the U.S.: Sundance, with its formidable media presence and first-to-market timing; and Telluride, which can launch Oscar films. New York Film Festival has a handful of slots that studios find attractive for world premieres (though it doesn’t chase them), and international festivals like Cannes, TIFF, and Venice will continue to battle over who gets to play what first. That’s it. Audiences want to see good or at least memorable movies; they don’t care about internecine battles.

Yes, there will always be the pressure to deliver catchy events that generate media attention and please demanding board members. But these can be addressed with a range of additive programming: Think lifetime achievement awards, panel discussions, live performances, etc.

Not everyone has to go national.

Virtual festivals created a new opportunity for regional festivals: Rather than nationalize their audiences, they can expand local reach. You can be a festival in Seattle and attract audiences in Miami, but I don’t see that as a strong draw for festivals,” FFA’s Meadow-Conner said. “Marketing for regional festivals are so rooted in their communities that their benefit is to attract more audiences already in their regions. Virtual opens up opportunities to new audiences who are maybe not interested in attending an in-person event or can’t for any number of reasons.”

Diversify at every level.

Sundance, SXSW, SFFILM, New York, TIFF, and Telluride are all run by women or people of color. Most American festivals put considerable effort into diversifying their lineups and creating gender parity, but many regional festivals continue to be programmed by and for white audiences. “If we don’t want to go the way of opera and classical music, we need to spend serious energy on making sure that festivals are bringing in a younger and more diverse audience, and that starts with the staff programming the festivals,” Newman said. That also requires a better approach to fostering long-term programming staff, which means…

Curators need better benefits.

If a festival has programmers, it’s already based on cooperative productions. Even the most prominent American festivals tend to rely on regional staffers who cobble together a career by working for multiple festivals as freelancers. This is complicated when they must determine allegiances as they consider films for different players. It also means participating in an underground economy that creates recurring financial hardship and few opportunities to advance, which means they often don’t stay in the field.

Acknowledge the truth — no festival would exist without shared resources —  and use it as a step toward broader collaboration. “Seasonal staffers are not technically employees and don’t receive health insurance,” Meadow-Conner said. “What if you had a couple of festivals in California band together and hire a freelancer for a specific point in time and find some way to make them employees? We’ve seen several festivals show interest in coming together on this.”

Online festivals create democracy. Make them affordable.

Film festivals are accessible only to those who can afford them. “Attending in person has become an exclusive experience,” said Nicole Guillaumet, who worked as Sundance’s co-director from its early days in 1985 all the way through 2002. “It is very expensive and excludes many, many young people who cannot afford to pay for travel, lodging and passes.”

As a festival consultant who works with clients ranging from Costa Rica to Egypt, Guillaumet sees the move toward hybrid festivals as a shift toward democratized access. “The impact on future audiences and future filmmakers will be enormous,” she said. “We need both virtual and in-person festivals.”

Festivals must prioritize discovery over celebrity.

Film festivals are full of legends, but this one squares with the truth: They launch careers. Tarantino, “The Blair Witch Project,” Taika Waititi, Ryan Coogler, the late Lynn Shelton, Ana Lily Amirpour, Shaka King, the Duplass brothers, Lena Dunham, Steven Soderbergh… the list goes on. Virtually every filmmaker of note was once a festival discovery, whether or not their films found commercial success.

“Festivals are set up to sort through submissions of new voices. It’s a core of their expertise,” Putnam said. “The massive amount of incoming early-phase work is really the lifeblood of festivals. Networks and studios tend to look at work at later stages.”

Festivals can showcase established talent, but maintaining relevance means doubling down on discovery. Formulas like the “Sundance road trip movie” has no place in the future of film festivals. Rom-coms work on streaming, but studios can take care of that. Daring auteurs can stimulate surprise successes and encourage the industry to move in different directions. Consider movies like “Mandy,” “The Witch,” “Zola,” or “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” as good examples. Ditto for docs like “Honeyland,” “Time,” “Hale County, This Morning This Evening,” or “Exit Through the Gift Shop.” These visionary works and so many others inspire conversations and create excitement around their creators as a direct result of their festival launches, even if they sounded like hard sells on paper.

“It would be a mistake, in such a fast-changing environment, for festivals to constantly dance around the changes in the business instead of trying to find their own north stars,” Putnam said. “If a festival knows its purpose, it is likely to transcend some of the shifts in how the business is executed.”

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