Cannes and Other Film Festivals Don’t Know How to Celebrate TV — Here’s How to Fix That 

As Cannes embraces binge-viewing for the new season of "Top of the Lake," here's an alternate proposal for how film festivals might embrace the power of television. 
Nicole Kidman in Top of the Lake: China Girl
"Top of the Lake: China Girl"
Sally Bongers/SundanceTV

After a long legacy of resistance, this year the Cannes Film Festival is embracing the revolution that is modern television with a few special presentations. This includes the full second season of “Top of the Lake,” directed by Jane Campion (“The Piano”) and Ariel Kleiman.

READ MORE: The 2017 IndieWire Cannes Bible: Every Review, Interview and News Item Posted During the Festival

On May 23, Cannes attendees will be able to screen all six episodes of the season subtitled “China Girl,” starting at 1 p.m. France time following an introduction by Campion. It’s set to end at around 8 p.m. that evening.

This, frankly, sounds like a bad way to spend a day of your life.

It’s not because “China Girl” will be bad — indeed, it will likely be as moving, intimate and intense as the first season, which ran in 2013 on the Sundance Channel (and also screened in its entirety at the Sundance Film Festival that year).

Campion’s return to Cannes, as the only female winner of the Palme d’Or, would be notable on its own merits, but the fact that she and Kleiman are getting TV into the mix at perhaps the most snobby film festival around is a powerful statement for both the quality of the work as well as Campion’s legacy as a filmmaker.

Elisabeth Moss as Detective Robin Griffin - Top of the Lake _ Season 2, Episode 1 - Photo Credit: Lisa Tomasetti/See-Saw Films/SundanceTV
Elisabeth Moss as Detective Robin Griffin in “Top of the Lake.”Lisa Tomasetti/See-Saw Films/SundanceTV

Plus, star Elisabeth Moss is at the height of her powers these days, currently turning in exemplary work on “The Handmaid’s Tale” every week, and Nicole Kidman is also on a hot streak following this spring’s “Big Little Lies.”

In short, “Top of the Lake” very much deserves the opportunity to screen at Cannes. But a day-long binge is maybe not the way to present it.

Typically, I’m not one to argue against binge viewing — 90 percent of the time, thanks to looking to the future with screeners or desperately catching up on what I’ve missed, I consume multiple episodes of a show in one sitting. (And I’m not alone in this.) And there’s no doubt in my mind that “China Girl” will be an intensely emotional and beautiful series — one that might be best enjoyed with a bit more time and space.

Festivals have the advantage of creating viewing experiences beyond what you might find in your living room. So here’s the idea: Don’t show an entire season of television in one day. Instead, actually serialize it. Create a regular timeslot for a week of the festival’s run — maybe first thing in the morning, accompanied by breakfast, so that attendees can then devote the rest of the day to other screenings.

This would ultimately end up recreating the experience that made television so engrossing during the rise of peak TV in the late ’90s and early 2000s. You’d have a little time between episodes to really process the events that occurred. The anticipation would build. And it seems more than likely that after a few episodes, those in that screening room would form a community built around the show — it would become a bonding experience, an instant fandom.

Plus, those who committed would get to experience the entire season without losing an entire day to it. Currently, the standard move when it comes to screening TV at festivals is to simply show one or two episodes (two is pretty standard for half-hour series, while hour-long series will often just stick to one). What this means is that attendees will get an opportunity to sample the series, but won’t get the full scope of the season’s narrative. It’s nice to get a taste of a show, but sometimes you really want the full meal.

OJ Made In America

This is technically an idea I had last year, after participating in a day-long binge of Ezra Edelman’s “O.J.: Made in America” at the Tribeca Film Festival. The actual experience was pretty incredible, due to the intense subject matter and Edelman’s masterful approach to creating an experience that captured so much about the politics and culture of the years being chronicled. “Made in America” might have technically been a miniseries, but in a movie theater, it did play like a (very long) film.

But that sort of screening isn’t exactly a sustainable concept — it’s much more a special case for a special sort of series. And if festivals are truly going to embrace television, including the serialized nature of the format, finding a optimum methodology to present them is essential.

Even Cannes has caved to showing TV. Festivals can no longer avoid it. And this might be the best way to embrace it.

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