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Cannes Doesn't Want You: Are Film Festivals Dead?

Picture by Alan Light, used under Creative Commons licence —

I got my ‘Dear John’ email last week from a film festival, telling me that, well, with just so many films to programme, and not enough hours in the schedule etc, unfortunately this time, we were not going to be part of their fancy gig.

A hundred-fifty bucks down, and this was just festival number one.

Every filmmaker who has ever sent their film off with a check and a heart full of hopes will know the the pain of the dreaded rejection email. It’s kind of par for the course when you tip everything you have (and almost everything you earn) into festivaling a movie. And despite the amount of knockbacks you’ll get, it always sucks. Death by a thousand cuts and other truisms.

But of course, I’ve been on that other side, writing just those emails, trying my damndest to let people down as gently as possible. It’s not easy.

But when I looked back at that email, I wondered to myself, are film festivals really worth the money?

At the time I’m tapping this out, my Facebook feed is literally awash with photos and status updates from my friends on the croisette in Cannes. I get it. Hanging out with celebrities, drinking your weight in champagne and partying so hard you almost fall off the yacht, that shit is awesome.

But if you think you’re going to be a player out there in the South of France, it’s bogus. Just look at the brilliant Seduced and Abandoned from Alec Baldwin and James Toback for a dose or reality. Or TLDR — unless you’re a relevant somebody, you’re still going to leave Cannes as a relative nobody (except maybe with a bigger hangover).

Sure, there might be some talks and a vapor of hope, but most people who hang out there that can make something happen for your film are doing it just for the suntan and the free drinks, or to announce a deal they actually made about a month ago, because the press-beat is easy pickings.

The simple fact is, it sure ain't what it used to be.

And that’s the same for most cream-of-the-crop film festivals; they are a great excuse for the gilded elite to be seen and feel like the somebodys the world tells them they are — but you? What about you?

You’re not famous, you’re definitely not rich and you don’t have blistering-hot A-listers in your movie, so the chances are you are not going beyond the velvet rope.

So if this is you, the big festivals (you know, the ones the mainstream press actually attend and tweet about) are off limits. In effect, they are dead to you.

Of course, I was already fully aware of it before I wrote up that check, before I posted out the DVDs and before I let my wildest dreams scuttle to the forefront of my mind. But I still sent the film out anyways, thinking, ‘Just maybe…’

But the fact is, at this time, I’m not the Hollywood player the festivals want me to be. I’m an outsider. And there are actually a lot of us out here. So why are we trying so badly to get in a club that doesn’t want us?

Film festivals have been around for more than eighty years, with The Venice Film Festival dating back to 1932. Traditionally, they have embodied glitz, glamor, controversy and change. They’ve given us red carpet moments and shone a silver light back at us on the things we didn’t always know we cared about. From Berlin to Toronto, Edinburgh to Sundance it’s been an illustrious eighty-something years for the prestigious festivals.

But there are now almost than 3,000 recognized active film festivals — 1,735 of which took place in 2012-2013.

Let that last number sit for a moment. Chew on it. 1,735 in one year alone. And these numbers are pulled from Stephen Follows’ brilliant (and exhaustive) study on festivals (of which I was a contributor to his data). When you sift through the readings, you’ll see just how tangled up and messy the whole situation has gotten since Venice screened it’s first film.

Let’s break the numbers down a little more for context: 1,735 film festivals gives us a rough average of thirty-three film festivals happening in any given week. Somewhere in the world, there are a whole bunch of people showing up to feel like million-dollar movie stars. Thirty-three. And when you realize that most of these festivals will not be attended by rich investors, the Weinsteins or even journalists with a following, you do have to take stock of whether it’s all worth the money you’re spending to get your rejections (and a few acceptances of course).

I mean, with thirty-three festivals a week, surely we should all be playing a film festival every other month, right?

Of course, I’m being a provocative bringing this ugly truth up — I am, after all, somebody who ran a festival. But I recognized that it was all becoming stagnant. That the big reasons for hosting a festival were quickly being eroded by the realities of the modern era. That mostly, I didn’t know what we were doing it for — entering or running festivals.

Back in 1932, just about the best way was to show of your celluloid classic via a red carpet and a silver screen. And indeed, the festival was good for the big winner that year, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, which took two awards (Most Original Story and Most Favorite Actor for Frederic March ). It heaped esteem and shine on that film, and many more since. That's the power of a festival, and the shine remained for decades.

But this was an era before Twitter and YouTube. And the simple truth is, more people will hear about your film via the web than will ever see it at a film festival. Even if you were to be screened at one of these thirty-three festivals each week, they can never compete for awareness in the same way the internet can.

The cool festivals have (mostly) gone exclusive (I’m looking at you 90's era Sundance), or they’ve multiplied to such a number as to almost be meaningless — at least in terms of what they can do for you as a filmmaker.

I know, I know - harbinger of doom and all that. But no. I think rather than this being a suck-ass situation, it’s actually one of opportunity. Festivals as they were may be dead, but what if they could be rethought? What if they could be modernized? Made cool and relevant again? Made less, erm, exclusive? And costly…

Of course, there are already many festivals shaking things up. Some have gone for the online-model, some dropped their entry-fees entirely, and even I’m trying something fresh with Cinema Zero.

The honest truth is, I don’t know what the answer is, eight decades after Venice started. But maybe there isn’t just one answer (or even 1,735). Maybe making a film, scatter-gunning it to as many film festivals as you can (or cannot) afford works for you, but for me, I think I’m done. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still sending it out to (mostly) free-to-enter festivals, or low cost ones, recognizing that they are just as valuable as (most) of the expensive-ass ones. After all, unless I get the movies I’m making in front of large numbers of people (or at least, press), I’m not making much money anyways.

But I'm not kidding myself that a film festival is the only way to launch a film. Instead, I’m trying to figure out how to leverage the reality that, as warm and fuzzy as it feels to make it into a festival, they really are no longer the elixir of a movie's long life.

The fact is, with just so many festivals, I fear we’ve all gotten a little glamor-blind, and it’s probably good to stop paying for the rejections.

Instead, my thinking is maybe it’s distribution we need to resurrect… But that’s another story, and I’ve got some ‘Dear John’ emails to drag to the trash folder.