At an unprecedented meeting of selectors and officials in Berlin, top film festival directors from three continents bemoaned the industrialisation of festivals and the increasing difficulty of getting press coverage they feel their events deserve.
Toronto's Piers Handling described how both Europe's major state-founded festivals and North America's private-backed events had sought media attention in order to expand and flourish. Both kinds have since added market functions and all are now engaged in "ruthless competition" to attract the hot films and maintain their status.
But Venice's Alberto Barbera quickly pointed out some of the limits to the industrialisation of festivals' and described how "the Hollywood majors and some European companies have stopped planning the releases of their films to fit in with festival dates."
Many speakers described festivals adopting the role of an alternative system to the mainstream distribution and exhibition channels, which they felt were dominated by Hollywood sensibilities and multiplex mentalities. Sandra Den Hamer described how the Rotterdam festival became a rights buyer and distributor in order to support some of the films it had championed during the ten day main event.
Handling detailed how Toronto festival films had gone on to gross over $1m when taken on a tour of over 90 Canadian towns and cities. And Sundance's Geoff Gilmore said that the Sundance name had become a brand influencing distribution and even which films get made. Stefano Della Casa, representative of the European Co-ordination of Festivals, said that the festivals' role grew as problems in distribution increased. He highlighted the new life given to the documentary feature format since more festivals programmed them seriously.
But it was not clear whether the directors relished the role of distribution circuit for films judged not viable as commercial propositions. Only Den Hamer and Handling touched on the sensitive issues of whether festivals should pay screening fees and rentals, and Den Hamer warned that festivals "should not take over the real world."
The specialist regional role of festivals was championed by Karlovy Vary's Eva Zaoralova and Pusan's Kim Dong-ho. Kim said that festivals in Asia have helped expose the different national cinemas within the Asian region and have helped promote co-productions. Zaoralova, who denied that she sought to promote any individual national cinema, is left showcasing East European cinema as the number of Eastern films selected by Western festivals has decreased. "East European artists today have many more opportunities, but are using them less. While Films from East Europe have ceased to interest the West since they stopped being a radical choice," she said.
While there were a couple of gently teasing comments about which festival had poached films destined for another event, much the most bile was saved up and dished out on the press.
Locarno's Irene Bignardi, until recently a critic on Italy's La Repubblica, said that "the press is no longer interested in criticism, only colour." She added: "interviews have replaced criticism and set visits do not permit criticism." Barbera, who recently changed the shape of Venice in order to widen press coverage, said that he was stunned by the different approaches to the same film taken by newspapers during festivals and at the time of release. "Critics are much more negative during festivals."
Journalist, Derek Malcolm helped pin the blame on editors rather than the long-suffering reviewers. He said: "it is hard to be a critic with one hand, usually your writing hand, tied behind your back." But Handling suggested a greater place for internet- and web-based critics as they are more likely to be knowledgeable and enthusiastic fans.
The get-together was organised by the European Film Academy and the Filmboard Berlin-Brandenburg and also included San Sebastian's Mikel Olaciregui, and Berlin's Dieter Kosslick. Cannes was noticeable by its absence, but it is understood that the scheduled attendance by its artistic director Thierry Fremaux was cancelled for pressing personal reasons, rather than a boycott of the event.