An Honest Look at Film Festivals
“Nobody goes to that restaurant anymore
because it’s too crowded."
Among filmmakers, opinions about film festivals are like cell phones – everyone
has one. And, quite honestly, if my first feature had been selected for Cannes or
Sundance I’m sure I’d have a much different point of view than I have now. But
my first feature wasn’t selected for one of the biggies.
Lets face it, we all know of films that made it into the Berlin or Toronto
fests that were outright pieces of crap. They selected this or that awful film
and bypassed your own. I did some post work on a film selected for Sundance
2003 and I’m telling you it was one of the worst pieces of crap I’ve ever seen!
I saw more than a few real stinkers at the 2004 Cannes festival. I
also saw some wonderful flicks which never had a chance. There are others who
believe that film festivals can do no wrong. One filmmaker said that the festivals
were “…one of the last hopes for democracy.” Go figure.
From what I can determine, the first film festival took place in Venice, and
required a special concession from Mussolini in order to remain uncensored.
Over the years, of course, things changed. What was once considered a clever
hotel room-filler by your local chamber of commerce has mushroomed into the
thousands of so-called “festivals” we see today.
So what’s going on here? Why does it seem that all of the festivals are
so obviously compromised? Are all of them playing us average filmmakers
I’m not a big festival person - I’ve had just two actual “festival experiences.”
Somehow or another my first feature, “Tin Man,” made it to the San Sebastian
festival, (Imagine that!). And my next-to-last film (“Healer”), was the opening
night selection at the Santa Barbara Film Festival. In the first case I believe
it was somehow arranged that “Tin Man” would screen in the Spanish resort
town’s homage to film. It was a long time ago, but I seem to remember a distributor-type
person saying “we’re gonna put it in San Sebastian.” And it was, “put in,” that
is. (I didn't go, couldn't afford the airplane ticket!) Although the Santa Barbara
folks had very early on expressed mild interest in “Healer,” it was only chosen as
the opening night film because “Universal Pictures changed their mind at the last minute,”
and withdrew their film. “Healer,” became the designated hitter even though
I’d never actually entered it in the festival in the first place…or any other
festival. Look, I’m not complaining! It was a wonderful experience. Free hotels,
food, drinks and babes. I may have been "Mister Second Choice" but it was a
beautiful evening, a sold out 2,000 seat theater, movie stars and fun post-screening
parties. But I’ll never forget that a certain person at Universal Pictures seemed
to be able to play the Santa Barbara festival honchos like his personal piano.
What makes me very angry is that while the festivals gleefully deposit your check, they
already know your film will not be selected. And here’s a real shocker: they
may not even look at your film at all! In most cases they may not have
even seen the films which were pre-selected over your own entry. A neighbor
of mine who is also a filmmaker had an interesting experience with the Sundance
festival. He already had suspicions that Sundance had been bought and sold
years ago. But just to test them, he purposely left his videotape entry cued
at a certain spot with a permanent mark on the back side of the tape where it couldn't
be seen. When the tape was returned, it was cued at exactly the same spot. They never even
looked at his film! To them, we are…for lack of a better term…SUCKERS.
EVERY film festival does this.
It would be a fun experiment to re-title a copy of “Citizen Kane,” and enter
it in a bunch of festivals. We could call it “Citizen Bob.”
I wonder how many rejections we would get? Out
of ten festivals how many do you think would reject our masterpiece? I’m thinking…nine.
Do you think Venice would pick it up? Cannes? Humm? What’s interesting is that
most of ‘em will just reject our little B&W film with this Orson Welles guy.
It was good enough to make everybody’s top ten list, but “not good enough for
our (fill in festival name here) festival.” Fact is, 98% of all film festivals
are bought and sold. I say 98% because I know of a very few that don’t seem to
play the usual games.
I was a judge for a smallish documentary competition and we DID look at every
film that was entered. Now, we didn’t look at the whole film if
it was bad, but it WAS threaded up and screened. We all began by assuming that
the next film would be great. If anyone personally knew the filmmaker, they
would declare this openly and they didn’t vote on that entry, (Exactly the opposite
for today’s film festivals). Unfortunately, most of these are smaller festivals
that nobody goes to anyhow. Of course, sooner or later, if they're lucky, they’ll appear on the
radar screen and become like all the others.
I would love to hear from a film festival that has just a bit of integrity.
Write to me and tell me that you look at every film equally. Tell me that when
so-and-so calls you from Hollywood and whispers, “Stars!,” in your ear, you’ll
tell them “You’ve got to get in line like everyone else.” If you run a film
festival and disagree with me, let me know. Prove me wrong! Please!
Why not be brave and show all the other festivals that you are for real,
and all the others are a bunch of crap?
Well, I’m not gonna hold my breath.