Each month, Media Impact will look at how a certain film or aspect of the industry and how it affects our daily existence. Since it’s September (or as we like to call it, TIFF-tember) TFS looks at what a film festival debut can do for a film’s future.
Any cinephile worth his or her salt can easily identify the signifier that a film has played at a film festival. The infamous festival laurel leaves (pictured above) can appear on posters, DVD covers and in trailers and are usually meant as an indication that the film already has elite status, having been accepted over countless other entries to make it into a carefully programmed movie showcase – never mind that not all film festivals around the world are quite as discerning as the TIFFs, Sundances or Cannes of the festival world. Regardless, those two tiny leaves are used to help sell the film, catering to the movie-going public’s belief that if it’s played at a film festival, it must be good. It’s a small thing but in a crowded marketplace every little bit helps.
Film festivals have existed since the ’30s, but they really came of age in the early ’80s when Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute transformed the Utah Film Festival into the most successful promo tool for low-budget films. Virtually every indie film that was a hit in the late ’80s to the mid-’90s gained its intial buzz from Sundance. The Oscar-winning juggernaut Miramax virtually built its empire on films that screened there, and the movie world may have been deprived of talents like Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, Steven Soderbergh, Kevin Smith, Darren Aronofsky, and Robert Rodriguez if film festivals hadn’t played a key role in exhibiting their earliest projects to the industry.
Over the years, film festivals have increasingly become more important to the film industry, but in a slightly different way than in Sundance’s heyday. In the past, festivals served a pretty simple purpose for filmmakers: make a movie, get it into a good festival and sell it to someone who will get it into theatres. But now, with the increasing sophistication and variation of film distribution using different platforms, it’s no longer true that films reap most of their financial reward from a theatrical release. In fact, cable distribution packages and DVD sales are much more lucrative and finding a way to get a film in front of international buyers can help ensure that audiences around the world will be able to enjoy someone’s searing portrait of one man’s struggle to overcome <insert addiction/disability/relationship issue here> on late night TV or on their expensive home theatre system.
Even if a film doesn’t get picked up right away, a little critical acclaim can go a long way to not only securing future deals — especially if the film continues to play the festival circuit, and even better, wins some awards — but also in getting an unknown filmmaker’s name out there both to film industry types and rabid movie fans eager to find their next favourite filmmaker.
The movie fan favourite angle is especially true at a festival like TIFF, which unlike other prominent festivals like Cannes, Venice or Berlin, is a non-competitive. There’s no jury that selects winners from the films that are screening and in fact, the most coveted prize given out is the People’s Choice Award, chosen by audience vote. As a result, TIFF is considered to be the “festival of the people” which ultimately resonates pretty strongly with distributors looking for a film that the public will embrace and support with their hard-earned dollars. In other words, film festivals build a centralized buzz in a way that a bunch of disconnected people watching around the world can’t.
And that’s pretty cool when you think about it. At film festivals like TIFF, it’s the audience that has the power. Intial raves or rants about a film that’s just screened may be a deciding factor in what gets picked up and ultimately that may translate into what audiences around the world will be watching over the next couple years and which films we may see celebrated come awards season.
So the next time you’re standing in an extra long line outside Ryerson Theatre, waiting for a midnight film to start, think about the fact that you’re participating in an important and integral part of the filmmaking process. That’s a lot of power you wield my cinephile friend, use it wisely.
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