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Debating Festivals

This is the week we ramp up for the fall festival season. Venice opens on Wednesday, Telluride happens over the weekend, followed shortly thereafter by Toronto, then San Sebastian, Fantastic Fest, and of course, New York, which'll carry us over into October. In short, it's the perfect time for Girish Shambu to strike up the conversation he has; he's "been wondering: How have film festivals slowly changed in the last decade or two? And what are things that a good film festival ought to be doing?"

Toronto, for example, remains "the one week of the year that I look forward to the most. Nevertheless, there's no denying that the changes at TIFF have, over the years, weakened the festival in certain crucial ways." He explains in that kickoff entry and, as always at Girish's place, an engaging discussion ensues. In particular, Gabe Klinger offers a few of his long-gestating thoughts on the qualities that define some of the world's best film festivals. Meanwhile, via Twitter, TIFF co-director Cameron Bailey raises a few questions regarding Girish's assessment of the festival's evolution.

As it happens, either by odd coincidence or sinister calculation, three European festivals have just announced the names of their jury presidents for their next editions. So it'll be Frank Langella for the Zurich Film Festival (September 23 through October 3), Holly Hunter for Stockholm (November 17 through 28) and Isabella Rossellini for the Berlinale (February 10 through 20).

Image: Saverio Costanzo's The Solitude of Prime Numbers with Isabella Rossellini will compete in Venice before screening in Toronto. For news and tips throughout the day every day, follow The Daily Notebook on Twitter and/or the RSS feed.

All the different problems stem from the same place: basic economics. Festivals should be about art and discovery. But you can’t afford to run a festival (in America anyway) unless you invite commerce and known-commodities into the fold. Thereby removing most of the art and discovery elements of your fest. When push comes to shove, they will choose the Hollywood pet project that will pack the theater and sell to Miramax over Nobody McGee’s brilliant experimental labor of love that draws a crowd of twenty and plays at AFA. For a week. A given festival might have one or two exceptions of this rule — max. And you better have insider connections or zeitgeist on your side to get them. That said, I do empathize with festival programmers — it’s long, fairly thankless work in which the filmmakers get all the credit and you don’t make much money. If nothing else, you just want your fest well-attended and hosting celeb-filled parties. Just look at Cinevegas — they attempted to show at least some adventurous content (Loren Cass, Frownland) and now they’re defunct.
I disagree about the ‘one or two exceptions.’ On the one hand festivals are, indeed, preview screenings for the art house crowd with some Hollywood-indie films thrown in to keep the crowds paying big bucks happy. But on the other there are plenty of straight-up art films to be discovered. Take a look at the Toronto Film Festival Film book from last year and you’ll see a good number of films that never made it to the multiplex. Many are no doubt great films. Sure, I too would like to see more festivals show films that do not cater to the mainstream art house crowd. Then again, it seems to me most art house audiences like the films that Sony Pictures Classics releases. So a festival that maybe only wants to give us Bela Tarr or Nina Menkes probably won’t ever get to be too big. However their films do get shown at plenty of festivals.

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