It is one the aggravating paradoxes of the cinema business that even as internationally flavoured film festivals keep growing in popularity in every corner of this globe, the films they show are finding it ever harder to secure a distribution toehold in even the most adventurous of commercial theatres. The entire economic model for releasing films has become so skewed in favour of mass-market entertainments, where success can be calibrated in sheer advertising dollars, that even confirmed festival favourites and critically adored award-winners are being elbowed aside. The same Korean knock-out you loved last night and recommended to a friend might never find foot in a local multiplex near you again.
Fortunately, there are enough innovators out there who see in the popularity of events like Toronto all the proof they need that audiences do indeed crave cinematic novelty. It is just a question of finding a cost-efficient method of reaching them. A number of ingenious alternatives are now being explored for getting films of even the most marginal appeal in front of paying audiences. In regional Australia, for example, a low-budget film called Dalkeith has been enjoying highly successful runs at independent theatres using technology little more complicated than that found in many homes - a Panasonic projector with a DVD as the source. Exhibitors there report that most of their customers have no idea that this is not a projected 35mm print as long as the film is shown in theatre houses with fewer than 250 seats.
Closer to home, two enterprising New York start-ups are also experimenting. One of them, Emerging Pictures, is busy creating an alternative chain of theatres in the US by stringing together some of the 5,000 identified cultural institutions, performing art centres and other community complexes that already show films to their local memberships on a periodic basis. Digital projection equipment is being supplied to these establishments for free in return for programming their theatres with satellite-fed first-run movies. The other initiative, dubbed Film Movement, is creating the cinematic equivalent of a bookclub, shipping DVD copies of overlooked gems to a subscriber base of film fans whose selections will be curated by a panel of festival programmers.
Both schemes were devised by seasoned executives who had previously run art-house distribution companies; they came to know only too well the perils of buying the distribution rights to choice films at Toronto and then vainly trying to play the blockbusters at their own multiplex game - a battle, it should be said, that faces many Festival titles, whether the critics love them or not.