Film festivals may not be cheap to attend but, on a cultural level, they still have an important role to play in screening ambitious and challenging films that struggle to find mainstream distribution.
I missed Sundance this year for the first time in 13 years. It sounded like a superb festival with a wide range of well-received films, rather than one or two stand-outs, and some good business done that bodes well for EFM in Berlin.
I didn’t, however, miss Park City, the mountain resort in Utah where the event takes place. Situated at 6,900 feet - a fact which always causes me to struggle with fundamentals such as breathing - the town is a classic ski resort. Accommodation is expensive, good restaurants few and far between and weather challenging.
Of course, Sundance founder Robert Redford knew that by bringing the industry to an isolated mountain-top, all eyes would be on the independent films he wanted to showcase. His ploy worked and the annual trek to Park City saw a robust corps of movie decision-makers pay rapt attention to new and unheard of film-makers.
The same policy applies to some of the other key festivals. What is Cannes, after all, but a small seaside town or the Lido in Venice, a sleepy island.
They are both isolated (and scenic) locations where the industry flocks to see the season’s best new films and film-makers, sans distraction.
But do these festivals really have to be so isolated, and therefore expensive? Berlin and Toronto are two large, bustling and exciting cities offering guests myriad distractions, but their festivals still function as unmissable events for any buyer, seller or critic worth their salt. Not that these festivals are super-cheap to attend, but at least visitors on a budget can find a wider range of accommodation.
The festival conundrum is a tough one, and many in the industry are questioning whether they need to attend them, especially with their travel budgets in tatters. Free flights and hotels are not as abundant as they used to be, as festival sponsorship gets harder to pin down. Some festivals are struggling to maintain quality levels. The entire senior management at AFI FEST in Los Angeles quit recently after a 2009 event which saw its slashed budget stretched to the very limit.
But on a cultural level, festivals have never been more significant as a theatrical showcase for ambitious and challenging movies. Many titles will struggle to find big-screen bookings outside the festival circuit and sales agents have built a tidy business out of charging festival fees, often to make up for a dearth of theatrical deals.
Furthermore, the line between festival programmer and acquisitions executive is blurring. When Sundance directed some of its titles to a simultaneous release on VoD this year, following on from day-and-date experiments by IFC during South By Southwest in the last couple of years, the future was being drawn. Why not maximise the value of the publicity surrounding your festival screening by making the movie available to wider audiences simultaneously?
Maybe in a decade, we will be able to watch the Cannes Competition line-up at home on a global VoD channel at the same time as the films screen in the Palais. Maybe at that point buyers in Japan can close deals with sellers in London via iPad.
]For the time being, we need to be in the thick of the action, schmoozing, deal-making, seeing all the films on site, testing audience reactions. And, at the end of the day, falling into bed in our overpriced hotel rooms.