By Saskia Wilson-Brown, April 14th, 2010

How small festivals can be the future of meatspace film distribution

In the past several years I’ve had the opportunity to participate in and listen to a lot of conversations about the shifting role of film festivals, particularly as those shifts apply to mid to high level independent festivals. There are a number of conflicting opinions on the role of film festivals – from ‘they’re useless and will die’ to ‘they are the future of theatrical’. In truth, all theorizing aside, nobody knows the role film festivals will take over the course of the next few years because nobody know how time-based media will evolve. I do, nonetheless, believe that they can retain their relevance… if they adapt.

What follows here are several thoughts that came to me about the functionality of film festivals, in four parts and in no particular discursive order.

Thought 1.

For small festivals, the ‘shifting’ purpose of film festivals is actually not shifting at all.

People seem to concur that the primary purpose of film festivals is (was?) akin to that of an art gallery: To sell art.

Festivals have long acted as the gatekeepers to commercial distribution. As such, the ideal and well-trodden path for an independent filmmaker was a simple one: Make a film; get into a good fest; get the film acquired for distribution. Done.

This was an apt trajectory when dealing with a festival like Sundance, one of several festivals which were indeed the most functional gateways through which films could join ‘the system’. For the smaller festivals catering to independent or local film (and for the indie filmmakers whose work was typically programmed there), however, this was never a relevant model. The reason for that is simple: Distributors tended not to attend those festivals.

This ‘festival-as-marketplace’ raison d’etre , then, has only ever been a functional purpose for the bigger festivals. Further to that, this is sort of inherently understood by the film community: Not many filmmakers ever submitted their film, for instance, to the Tulsa Overground Film Festival, Nevada City Film Festival or Cucalorus with the intention of selling to HBO.

The obvious deduction? We’re assigning and bemoaning a dwindling commercial purpose to small festivals retro-actively in light of a perceived dearth of distribution deals – a dearth which, again, is only really relevant to festivals that were the hosting space for sales in the first place, and entirely irrelevant to the continued purpose of the small festivals who saw no such activity in their lounges and meeting rooms. Most annoyingly perhaps, small festivals gamely play along, trotting out their one or two success stories as bait for a system that never functioned for them or their filmmakers in the first place.

With the advent of digital media and the burgeoning (but hopeful) success stories around online/DIY distribution strategies, the purpose of the festival as a sales agent becomes even more obviously questionable.
We’ll look at that in the next post, but for now, I leave you with a recent tweet from Ted Hope: David Brown’s Secret To His Success: “I never lived beyond my means, & therefore, I never had to be a slave to Hollywood.”

Thought 2.

Money-making should not a successful small festival make. Culture-defining should.

In my time running the Silver Lake Film Festival in Los Angeles (alongside my partners Greg Ptacek and Kate Marciniak), we rarely hosted any distributors at the screenings. Those that did attend never cut a deal with any of the festival’s filmmakers.

I’m pretty sure that the Cucalorus Film Fest in North Carolina has never immediately helped filmmakers pay off their credit card debts, either.

In these two instances, the festival hosts no commerce: No one involved is making any money to speak of. Are these festivals, then, to be seen as failures?

The answer, of course, lies in how one defines the purpose of a cultural event. I believe that if we put aside commercial functionalities for a minute, we see that though the utility (and success) of smaller festivals becomes inherently value-based, it is nonetheless inherently of value.

Here are some points, then, on the value and purpose of film festivals, above and beyond commerce:

• To curate, provide imprimatur and thus help shape culture;
• To create access to independent voices and new stories within specific, underserved geographic communities;
• To educate filmmakers;
• To grow independent film communities and foster creative collaboration;
• To help create de facto four-wall releases for filmmakers through festival-run programs and partnerships above and beyond the event itself;
• To assist with DIY distribution by offering access to distribution tools through festival-run partnerships with emerging content platforms

These last two functionalities are becoming more important as filmmakers and festivals realize that- scary as it may be- the ‘old’ system is falling apart. It thus becomes incumbent upon a festival to help build up a new system through an increased focus on helping filmmakers sustain and exhibit their work. This can be achieved by brokering and supporting digital distribution deals for filmmakers, or simply by providing education in self-distribution. Further still, festivals can create four-wall programs and partnerships that allow greater visibility for the participating films beyond the festival itself (a traveling screening series, for instance).

Acknowledging an alienation from the mainstream film industry has big repercussions for festivals and filmmakers alike. Silver Lake Film Festival, for instance, with all its focus on working outside the system was unable to harness the sponsorships that festivals so drastically need for survival, and died a fiery financial death in 2007 (the results of which I am feeling to this day).

With that said… it still felt successful. It spoke to several of the points I believe to the inherent in a fruitful arts organization- points that have nothing at all to do with (immediate) economic exchange. The organization focused- largely- on what we thought should be its primary goals: Empowering a community and its artists through coherent promotion; leveraging the festival name to garner publicity and opportunity for its participants; facilitating radness in general– Art for art’s sake, as it were. The efforts of the core team, then, were mostly spent on promoting and advocating for micro-communities through programming decisions, and fostering creativity and creative collaboration in our neighborhood and beyond. Mainly, though, Silver Lake FF focused on curating a very cool and forward-thinking festival (under the benevolent expertise of programming director Roger Mayer, as well as a plethora of guest curators), the results of which are still bearing fruit in the continued existence of some of its former programs and ongoing collaboration.

So do these artsy, community-driven, low-budget, no-commerce festivals like the still-thriving Cucalorus, Nevada City, or even Slamdance still have value? My conclusion would be that yes, they do. These festivals’ value (and purpose) lies in providing an imprimatur – an edge – for its filmmakers, and a strong platform for community-empowerment. This value, for a filmmaker, supercedes the worth of some horrid exploitative distribution deal, and lasts longer. At the end of the day, sometimes being part of something amazing and cultural is worth more than being paid a grand to have your documentary air once or twice on TV.

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Saskia Wilson-Brown has a background in fine art, curation, film festivals, TV and production design. She works as a producer, strategist and advocate; supporting initiatives such as DIY Days and Slamdance Film Festival (among others) while running a guerilla screening series called Cinema Speakeasy. She is currently in production on her first feature doc.


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