Film Festivals as Cultural Contact Zones – Potential for Sector and Cinemas

© Skadi Loist

The text is based on a keynote at the Industry Rendezvous with Dresden-based Film Institutes and the Regional Competition as part of FILMFEST DRESDEN on 15. July 2021.


Speaking about the importance of film festivals at a media industry event being held during a film festival almost seems like preaching to the converted. And beyond doubt, everyone here are already convinced about the importance of film festivals for the sector and the cinemas, otherwise they would certainly not have come along today. Yet for a while now, there has and continues to be a murmuring within the industry. And that not least in these uncertain times during – and forecast for after – the corona pandemic. What should and indeed will happen with film, cinema and the festivals in the future?

Already prior to this rupture caused by the pandemic-related lockdown, various interest and working groups had formed to initiate a broad discussion about the film scene and cinematic industry. These discussions were driven, among others, by the forthcoming amendments to the German Film Funding Act (FFG). But equally so by far-reaching changes within the industry. They include the digital transformation especially, which is impacting on all parts from production through to exploitation. One area here consists of the so-called streaming wars and the changed production conditions resulting from this for new formats and new content, as indeed the disputes about phased or staggered exploitation windows.

In addition to those groups active here for several years, such as the AG Kurzfilm and AG DOK short film and documentary associations in Germany, as well as industry associations like the Bundesverband Regie (BVR) federal German association of directors, since 2019 two new associations have entered the fray with a broader definition and perception of film culture, one that also accords a prominent space and status to film festivals. In April 2019, the German Hauptverband Cinephilie (HVC, main cinephilia association)[1] was formed, bringing together groups of film critics, cinema operators, festival organisers, distributors and film educators in an interdisciplinary structure. In July 2019, AG Filmfestival, Germany’s film festival association – whose members now consist of 120 German film festivals – met for the first time. The association’s aim is to work together with the intention of achieving a diverse and flourishing film culture.

As AG Filmfestival has ascertained, film festivals “in Germany represent, in terms of their reach and impact, a credible marketing and exploitation for German films in cinemas, and their share of the cinematic exploitation of German productions will continues to increase over the years to come. Unlike the diminishing audience numbers in the cinemas, film festivals are recording a steadily increasing demand. And film festivals are gaining central importance in the efforts to make the cinematic exploitation of German films more attractive.”[2]


What is it exactly that constitutes a film festival? And how are they embedded or integrated within the larger film industry and film culture?

Film-related industry events are as old as the medium itself. Film fairs, showcase exhibitions and conferences on film aesthetics have been around for more than 100 years. The format adopted by film festivals, which we still see today, has existed since the establishment of the film festival in Venice as part of the 1932 Biennale Art Exhibition. During the post-war era, film festivals as cultural events were of equal interest for intercultural understanding as well as market purposes. At the end of the 1960s during the period of political upheavals and social movements, alternative curatorial programmes aligned to political and aesthetic aspects confronted the market or diplomacy-driven film selections of the A festivals. At the same time, greater differentiation occurred within the festival scene and smaller specialised events emerged.

Mostra di Venezia al Palazzo Ducale 1947/ Italian Wikipedia., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


Both then and now, film festivals were not merely a glamorous advertising space for the studios and commercial theatrical exploitation, instead they were establishing their position as cultural contact zones. And that on several levels. Festivals serve as a showcase for a global art form that cinematographers from across the world present to local audiences. Their themes, content, stars and styles enter into an exchange with each other – in a kind of Olympic Games of film art.

This contact zone is equally important for the filmmakers, permitting them to have artistic and cultural exchanges with their international colleagues at these festivals. Historically speaking, the exchanges on cultural systems with opposing positions between the East and the West have also not been negligible.

Outside the blockbuster theatrical industry, the festival sector represents an important contact zone for a film culture beyond the commercial mainstream movies. The festival industry works with symbolic capital, with selection processes, allocations to specific programme slots, with juries and awards, and with a targeted attention economy. Red carpets, press reports and film awards generate attention beyond marketing budgets running to the millions.

Festivals are places for exchanges. The exchanges between filmmakers and their audiences. They provide a specific, tailored setting for films with direct addressing of the target group via the programme booklet, and with film discussions. In this regard, they also perform a kind of film education.

For a long time now, film festivals have also provided a platform for young talents. In terms of the viewers, this is achieved by having special events for young audiences with children and youth programme slots, or even via dedicated festivals. And on the part of the filmmakers, by providing screening options for debut films. The range here extends from a kind of international film academy, such as the Berlinale Talents, to student film festivals, like the Sehsüchte International Student Film Festival at the Film University Babelsberg, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, through to events such as FiSH, the film festival in the Rostock city harbour, or the Werkstatt des Jungen Films young film workshop event that supports and networks both autodidact young people and film students up to 26 years old.

From a sector perspective, by now film festivals are assuming ever-increasing networking and educational functions. With the industry meeting here for exchanges. Festivals provide an occasion to come together, speak, negotiate about the status of film culture and the industry, and develop future plans. Many festivals have professionalised these contact zones in industry get-togethers, panel discussions or presentations and to some extent also in a targeted manner with specific formats along the production and exploitation chain: At script labs, project pitches, co-production markets, commissioning-editor brunches, producer events, working-group meetings, and so on. Festivals have become important dates in the industry calendar.

Compared to the much-described death of cinema and the various “demise-of-cinema” waves this involves, the festival scene continues to grow. This is related to a differentiation in terms of their formats, content and target groups, but also to them serving a film culture. The primary task of film festivals consists of their curatorial work. The word curate comes from the Latin curare, “to take care of, or to care for”. During the curatorial process, films are carefully selected, positioned and framed in order to unfold and develop their impact to the best extent possible. And this framing is also part of a targeted addressing of the audiences.

In this way, film festivals present an array of films, generate attention and lure cinephiles into the cinemas. This often succeeds – at least in Germany – through a mixture of cultural support, frequently in the form of short-term project funding, and precarious (self-)exploitation of the festival workers on seasonal contracts. (More information about the conditions of work at German film festivals is provided in the recently released evaluation of the Fair Festival Award survey[3], in which festival workers were asked about their conditions of work and to provide an evaluation of their employers last year.) These precarious conditions do – paradoxically – permit a diverse and versatile film culture that is not primarily dependent on the logic of the market and exploitation numbers. In this way, cumbersome, experimental, political, unhurried, short, documentary, queer and other important films can be screened that are denied (commercial) potential by cinema operators or distributors. And through this, festivals help to facilitate a broad film culture and a discourse on film.

Furthermore, film festivals function and act as their own exploitation window by now. As the pressure of the market increases on the cinemas, which are permitted to conduct little curatorial work as their screening programmes are dictated by the majors, or they do not have sufficient unused cinema screens available, film festivals constitute an essential component of film culture as a contact zone between films, filmmakers and audiences. By paying screening fees, festivals have now become a real factor in the financial exploitation when cinemas and distributors do not (or are not able to) conduct curatorial programme work and book films anymore.

One of my research projects is investigating the circulation of films in festival networks.[4] Doing so, we are looking at the festival runs of films from the programmes of six start festivals: Three A festivals (Berlin, Cannes and Toronto) and three specialised festivals (Clermont-Ferrand for short film, IDFA for documentaries and Frameline for queer cinema). 2013 is our research observation year und we are surveying the runs of 1,727 films (of each length and genre).[5] This is not the place to provide a detailed evaluation of our research. But I would like to include several tendencies here that we have been able to glean from the data – and that are also explicitly related to short film.

For the films in our 2013 sample that are retrievable on IMDb, festivals represent the sole exploitation option for 1% of the feature-length films and for 55% of the short films. According to our survey, in which exploitation via digital platforms was also included, still 13% of the short films were solely exploited via festivals.[6]

On average, films spent 14 months travelling through the festival network, with this run being shortened to 11 months for short films.[7] Our films travelled through an average of 10 festivals and 5 countries, with the average for short films clearly below this at 4 festivals and 3 countries. (Please note that a distortion in the data due to the structure of the IMDb may not be excluded here.)

In addition to the length of time and geographic distribution of the festival runs, the gender distribution of the filmmakers is also interesting. Fundamentally, the share of films made and produced by a female team is clearly higher in the short film area. In the programmes of our sample festivals, about 30% of the short films running were from women, while this varied powerfully to some extent in the feature-length film area, depending on the festival (13% Cannes, 31% Frameline, and about 22% overall). Likewise for aspects such as diversity on the cinema screens and behind the camera, short films and the festivals constitute important drivers of innovation.

Over the last year, also due to and intensified by the corona-pandemic related standstill in the festival rounds and the temporary closures of cinemas, various players have begun to reconsider and rethink the structures. At a time when the demise of the cinemas and the victory of the streaming platforms is being foretold, during this enforced break film festivals must analyse exactly once more what their actual form and format is.

It can be seen through the establishment of online events that an audience can also be generated for these works as streamed films. In the spring of both 2020 and 2021, the Oberhausen and DOK.fest Munich festivals were able to record high access numbers and announce new visitor groups. Other festivals have set up solidarity forms of cooperative work with cinemas, filmmakers and distributors. Be that through a cap on the film tickets in line with the cinema capacities in order that the complete audience numbers have not been exhausted prior to any subsequent exploitation (Filmfest Hamburg). Or via new participation and profit-sharing models with filmmakers and distributors in the context of the festival streaming exploitation.

Despite such successful online usage, the limitations on online forms of exchanges have become visible and are frequently painful. Part of the usual festival discourse consists of the simultaneous and incidental exchanges we have with others. Typical festival questions such as, “What have you already seen? Did you like the film or the programme? Can you recommend anything?” are hard to pose in an online environment. And while the previously recorded film talks and discussions are certainly informative for the audience, a genuine discourse and exchange between filmmakers, films and audiences does not arise in this way. The filmmakers receive no feedback on their works, and the audience has little or no sense of it being a live event, with exclusivity, or of the spatiotemporal specificalities of the programme and performances.

However, in line with the report on cinema usage released two weeks ago by the German Federal Film Board (FFA)[8], I am optimistic that the audiences will return to the cinemas – and to the festivals as well, may I add. Even after the pandemic and with their funding presumably tight, the festival sector itself and its financial supporters should continue to take film festivals seriously in their role as cultural contact zones between the filmmakers, the films and the audiences.





[3] The report on the survey is available at

[4] The German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF)-supported project entitled “Film Circulation in International Festival Networks and the Impact on the Global Film Culture” is running until early 2022 and has already released its first findings on the project homepage:

[5] We are currently extending our sample to the 2011-2017 period and thus surveying 10,146 films on their route through the festival network. The data are being generated from the evaluation of IMDb release data, as well as from an online survey of producers and licence holders for our films.

[6] Cf.

[7] Although short films at the explicitly short film festival at Clermont-Ferrand also have 14-month runs. When viewed in terms of the genre, documentaries had the shortest runs (11 months) and animated films the longest ones (15).

[8] German Federal Film Board (FFA). 2021. Cinema visitors 2020. Structures and developments on the basis of the GfK consumer research institute panel. Berlin.