The buzz about the films turned down by festivals is becoming as loud as the buzz about the films which are accepted. Ahead of Cannes, the biggest festival of them all, Patrick Z McGavin looks at why rejections are the talk of the town.
At the 2004 Venice film festival, director Mike Leigh's sombre period drama Vera Drake achieved a triumphant dual honour with the best actress award for Imelda Staunton and the Golden Lion for best film. In his acceptance remarks, Leigh made a public admission of a fact well known to sales agents, distributors and journalists.
The film was being launched at Venice only because Cannes had passed on the film several months earlier. The fact that Leigh earned the rare distinction of winning both the Palme d'Or at Cannes for Secrets & Lies in 1996, and now possessed a Golden Lion, appeared insufficient to compensate for the sting of the Cannes rejection.
This intricate fusion of art, commerce, style and politics is palpable on the eve of the 60th anniversary of the Cannes film festival. The Vera Drake example underlines a recent phenomenon of rejected titles whose exclusion has provoked discussions that question the very foundation of how festivals operate, what measures they take to ensure secrecy about such sensitive details, and the economic fallout on the rejected films.
The Coen brothers' Fargo, Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain, Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Amelie, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's The Lives Of Others, David Gordon Green's George Washington, Hou Hsiao-hsien's Cafe Lumiere, Hong Sang-soo's Woman On The Beach and Pascale Ferran's Lady Chatterley are linked by a strange and even perverse circumstance. These critically admired, in several cases Academy Award-winning, arthouse titles were rejected by at least one prominent festival.
'Every curator at a top level of the festival world has passed on an incredible film,' says Noah Cowan, co-director of the Toronto festival. 'Normally it has happened because the film is not done. All of us are tainted when it comes to rejecting great films. The fact Cannes or Toronto turns down a film doesn't make us idiots or bad curators. It just means we didn't respond to the work.'
'A film could get damaged in the marketplace'
The advent of the internet, the explosion of digital media and the commercial and business conflicts of sales agents, producers, distributors and film-makers have turned a very secretive and mysterious act - the selection process of the top festivals - into an increasingly contentious public event.
Leigh's comments, sarcastically thanking Cannes for turning his film down, was a public rebuke similar to that of French sales and distribution outfit Wild Bunch, whose displeasure with the Berlinale for the manner in which it passed over Laurent Tirard's Moliere factored into the company's boycott of the European Film Market earlier this year.
By contrast, at the height of cultural and artistic debate swirling around the success of Brokeback Mountain, neither director Lee nor producer James Schamus ever commented about the film's widely reported Cannes rejection.
It is not just about bruised egos or damaged reputations. Festivals have evolved into a sophisticated alternate exhibition and distribution network, particularly for difficult or specialised titles, and the inability of the producers or sales agents to secure a position in their preferred festival can potentially create long-term problems.
'It is possible that a film could get damaged in the marketplace depending on whether there's another festival that is close behind it in the calendar that it could actually end up getting in,' says Ira Deutchman, former US distribution executive and now independent producer.
'There's no doubt that festivals have become the funnel through which certain films have to be able to flow in order to make it into the marketplace. It is a particularly big blow when a high-profile film ends up not getting into the festival it was counting on, particularly if it was anticipated.'
Cowan says it is bad form for a top festival to make public the films it has turned down. 'We're not in the business of hurting artists. When I don't connect to a work of art that has some ambition, that's a sad day for me. It's nothing I like to talk about at length with the world. It's something you have to deal with privately.'
If anything, Cowan argues, several producers and distributors have capitalised on the publicity and controversy of a rejected title to stage the film's publicity campaign.
'I was devastated when our film was getting turned down'
Irish film-maker John Carney discovered first-hand the cruel and unambiguously harsh lessons of festival rejection. He was crushed after his third feature, the low-budget musical Once, about the relationship between a street musician and a beautiful Czech emigre, was turned down by the Edinburgh, Toronto and London festivals.
'I think the more film-makers there are in the world and the more competition, the more you realise there's an agenda with each festival,' Carney says.
'I was personally devastated when our film was beginning to get turned down by a few festivals that I thought we'd be contenders to get into. It's a capitalist industry and it's based on a marketplace and how that works and plays. I could certainly imagine that films that don't get picked up or don't get the hype of festivals are left out in the cold.'
Fortunately for Carney, he found his guardian angel in John Nein, a programmer at Sundance who saw Once at the Galway film festival in Ireland last summer. Nein became a strong advocate for the film, and sang its praises to Sundance festival director Geoff Gilmore. The movie resonated with audiences and critics at Sundance, and won a World Cinema Audience Award. During the festival, Summit Entertainment bought international rights and, after the festival, Fox Searchlight acquired the movie for a reported $1m. It is opening this month in the US.
Once demonstrated how a small and unheralded movie rejected by other festivals has other means of getting recognition, but also how perilous the process sometimes is. 'I would say the Sundance experience was completely necessary to get a deal,' says Carney.
'I think the people at Searchlight love the film, and they back it, but I just don't know how they'd have had the chance to see it given the amount of stuff they see. I just don't know how we'd have gotten it to them.'
The festival selection process is a very complicated chess game, says Marcus Hu, a principal with the Santa Monica-based arthouse distributor Strand Releasing. Most distributors are savvy and confident enough in their beliefs to not allow a festival to determine its reaction to a film.
'It's all personal taste and that's the beauty of the system. One programmer might love it, another might not. When a film gets submitted to a festival, nobody knows who's going to actually be watching it and putting it through the ranks,' says Hu. 'I'm close to sales agents and I know what they're submitting, and if I hear something gets rejected by Cannes, I just shrug my shoulders.'
'All this illustrates how very complicated it is to evaluate film'
A film's commercial viability is built on multiple factors, and Cowan argues that even festival-approved titles are not guaranteed to find an appreciative audience. 'There are a million ways for a film to enter the marketplace and for a film to find its way. Festivals have become a very convenient way, but all of us have championed films that we could not help (commercially) to the degree that we wanted,' he says.
While festivals are being put on the defensive, Sundance's Geoff Gilmore warns against the rush to judgment. All the major festivals are confronted by a staggering discrepancy between the number of submissions and the finite number of slots.
'It is very easy to practice a kind of 20/20 hindsight, and say of a film like The Lives Of Others, 'This is obviously a film that everybody should like.' It is not always that clear. It is not just that there are different sensibilities and aesthetic responses. You're making choices.
'If you don't take a film, you're not saying, 'This film sucks.' You're saying, 'I'm making a choice. I'm choosing this film over that.' I think what all of this illustrates is how very complicated it is to evaluate film.'
Additionally, Gilmore says all major festivals have to cope with high-profile titles that have been politically pressured into the festival. 'Do we get the same course of influence' Of course we do. You have to try and resist it. Are there occasions when we haven't' I think so, but you have to deal with it and try to think it through,' he says.
The spectre of a rejected title blossoming under different circumstances no doubt haunts every director and programmer of a major festival. If festivals by their very nature run the risk of alienating film-makers, producers and sales agents, they always offer the chance of renewal and the opportunity to come home.
Even so most festival directors do not have the luxury to mourn lost opportunities. 'We've passed over films that turned out to be pretty commercial, and I'm not very troubled by that,' Gilmore says. 'It bothers me more if I've missed a film that we should have taken. There is a film or two that I've regretted, where I don't think our process worked as well as it should have.'