Film festivals, cinemas and the crisis


The upswing in short film production continues unbroken worldwide. Festivals such as the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen are already taking measures to stem the onslaught of submissions, having long since reached the limits of their capacity for previewing and selection. For the same reason, some feature-film festivals are taking short film off the programme or are forced to supplement their staffs. This demonstrates that the growing rate of short film production cannot be attributed only to rising demand and the distribution possibilities offered by the Internet. After all, the onrush is aiming for the big screen.

At the same time, however, a short film’s chances of making it to the cinema are dwindling. There are many different reasons for this, but still, the situation does raise some basic questions. How and where do films reach the big screen today? What are the obstacles? How is the cinema scene evolving? How are the festivals reacting? In order to answer these questions, we must approach the topic from various directions …


Cinema died on 31 September 1983

In his provocative talks on the future of cinema, Peter Greenaway likes to say: „Cinema died on the 31st September 1983 when the zapper, or the remote control, was introduced into the living-rooms of the world.” (Lettre International 72, 2006). This can’t be right (September only has 30 days :-), but he is in fact placing his finger on an open wound. Problems are rampant!

By now, everyone is talking about the death of the cinema. Is it true? According to the yearbook Media Salles published in 2007, the number of cinemas in Western Europe on average at least remained stable last year, even rising slightly in Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean region. So it’s really not that bad then?

Well yes, it is, because if we take a closer look and observe the shifts and reweighting in the distribution of various cinema types, it is clear that we are not out of the woods yet. These are changes relevant especially for the short film, but also for all other forms of film beyond the mainstream, changes that could have disastrous effects.

For example, the Media Salles study discovered that only the number of multiplex cinemas rose in 2007 over the previous year, by an over-average rate of 4.3%. We thought the wave of multiplex openings had already washed over us, but in fact it is the number of film theatres that is now stagnating overall. So the death of cinema is taking place in a different sector: film theatres with few screens and in particular those with only one. An alarming trend, because it is usually these smaller theatres that nurture film culture. Short films rarely see the light of a multiplex screen.


Cinema programmes – what’s on …

In his provocative statement on the death of the cinema, Greenaway tied his argument to the judgement that the classic entertainment film is dead and that narrative, illusionist cinema had already seen better days anyway. But what kinds of films are currently enjoying success on the big screens of this world?

The ten top-selling films of 2007 were „Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End“, „Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix“, „Spider-Man 3“, „Shrek the Third“, „Transformers“, „Ratatouille“, „I Am Legend“, „The Simpsons Movie“, „300“ and „National Treasure: Book of Secrets“.

The first thing one notices here is that cinemas all over the world seem to be playing the same programme. One look at what’s on tonight at the cinema in any city, no matter what continent, would surely show an overlap of at least five films, of which one or the other has a chance to make the list of top films of 2008 – a monoculture that significantly contributes to the death of cinema, although it is certainly profitable.

Conspicuous as well is the high proportion of sequels among the box office hits. The advantages of this kind of assembly-line, serial production are obvious. Once a concept has proven successful, it can be trotted out again and again. This saves costs – in both production and advertising – and strengthens the branding. Series have always been a key feature of the television programme and have in the meantime also proliferated on the Internet. In the long run, they cause cinema to forfeit one of its unique selling points and to suffer an image downgrade.


Widespread fallacy no. 1: Cinemas earn their money by selling admission tickets, i.e. with films

Certainly the turnover earned with the top hits is not inconsiderable. But the fact is that almost everywhere in the world the ten most-seen films bring more sales than all the others released simultaneously put together, most of which don’t even break even. This is joined by the fact that, of gross box office takings, less than 60% is left over for the cinema, and for some blockbusters the distributors grab more than 50% of the net take.

This is why a substantial share of the revenues made by the film theatres that are still profitable today has long since come not from selling tickets, but instead from the concessions counter, i.e. from popcorn, sweets and beverages. The profit margin at the concessions stand is much higher than in the cinemas’ supposed core business. „Popcorn is 1,000% profit made out of hot air“, Edgar Reitz once said. This isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, but Reitz rightly warned of the consequences for the culture of the cinema: more and more films are being produced with the sole aim of stimulating snack consumption. Popcorn and cinema are thus inextricably tied for many a viewer (but not for all of them!). The specific ambience of the old-time cinema is irretrievably lost, as is the quality of the film-going experience itself (think of all the rustling packaging and munching sounds all around).

Cinemas without thriving snack counters that do not want to, or are unable to, play the top 10 films because they can’t obtain them from the distributor fall by the wayside. And with them not only cinema culture but also film culture as a whole – including short films of course!


Widespread fallacy no. 2: The film industry earns its money at the cinema

For the big studios and media enterprises, distributing films to cinemas makes up only a small part of a mixed calculation. The cinema screening has the task of arousing interest in products that can then be sold after an ever-shorter interval on DVD, television or the Internet. The merchandising business as well hardly needs the cinema anymore.

In this business environment, players under a certain size – whether producers, distributors or screeners – don’t stand a chance of making a place for themselves in the market or grabbing the attention of the audience. So is cinema digging its own grave? In a sense, yes, but of course there is cinema and cinema. Monocultural mainstream cinema is killing off film culture. Long-term, the former is undermining its own foundations as well, but in the meantime the money is good. And above all, long before publicly traded multiplex chains invest in other sectors and leave behind hulking abandoned ruins in the inner city, the more culturally demanding theatres, small film distributors and independent producers will have vanished without a trace …


Cultural impoverishment

Our film culture heritage is for the most part only still upheld these days in capital cities – in a kind of cinema museum. In the talk cited above, Greenaway pointed out that, „It is easier for me to see a minor painting by Caravaggio in a small Umbrian town than it is for me to see Kubrick’s “2001” in any cinema that would represent that film in the way it was manufactured to be presented.” This cultural impoverishment has far-reaching ramifications, since it both weans society from high culture, leading people by the hand to the popcorn cinema, and because it narrows our horizons of experience, paving the way, pedagogically speaking, for an appalling educational deficit. This deficit in knowledge of audiovisual culture has long since made inroads into the educational institutions themselves from the elementary school classroom to the university seminar.

There are no doubt media education and didactic initiatives that are trying to reverse this trend. But most of the time film itself – which is after all a leading medium of our century – gets short shrift. Media education measures focus far too often on how to deal with the so-called New Media and are usually nothing more than technical workshops. The responsible educational policy-makers are likewise not immune to the latest technological hype. It is easier to obtain funding for workshops on blogging, something most pupils are already more adept at than their teachers, than to publicly finance true media expertise in terms of content and aesthetic education.

What’s more, no matter how praiseworthy the scattered film-oriented initiatives may be – for example, those trying to connect school and cinema – their value is still doubtful when they achieve nothing more than taking a school class to a blockbuster and then afterward, as highlight on a tour of the cinema, treating them to a view of the inner workings of the popcorn machine.

It is thus no wonder that even in university film curricula shocking gaps in film culture education can be found. In an interview at this year’s Berlinale, such diverse filmmakers as Rosa von Praunheim, Doris Dörrie and Luigi Farloni lamented in unison the shortcomings of today’s generation of film students. Asked whether her students knew Fellini’s films, Doris Dörrie answered: “I no longer ask that question. I don’t dare ask it, because the answer is so depressing that I immediately start to cry.” (“You have to pull them by the hair to the cinema”, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 7 February 2008)


Film festivals as saviours of film culture?

In many regions, and more and more often in big cities as well, film culture is present, if at all, only as an occasional event, while lasting, sustainable film culture offerings are nowhere to be found. International film culture – addressing current aesthetic and thematic developments, but also surveying film history, for example in retrospectives – is usually available to the public only at film festivals that take place but once a year.

But film festivals are actually meant to be events hosted by and for the industry. Under commercial aspects they are comparable with industrial trade fairs and under cultural aspects with forums and platforms for discussion and exchange between creative players. In the short film sector, few festivals, perhaps a dozen worldwide, fulfil these criteria. Most short film festivals are pure audience events. Even the major feature-film festivals are today audience festivals, but not exclusively. As such, festivals are filling the breach left by the lack of a local film culture infrastructure.

Festivals also act as substitutes in places in which film culture institutions or high-level film theatres still exist, but are underfinanced. Cinemas that can no longer afford to show certain kinds of films in their everyday programmes are establishing their own festivals, because many organizers have made the unfortunate discovery that it’s easier to obtain funding for one-off events than for ongoing cultural activities.

In the meantime, though, the massive increase in such events has so overstretched public budgets that policy-makers are stepping in with restrictive measures. The strategy they’ve adopted, one that is now leading to closings or counterproductive event fusions, is known as „Lighthouse Policy“. The aim is to concentrate promotion efforts on a few big events that will act as shining beacons, rather than to distribute monies evenly amongst a large number of smaller events (the „watering can policy“). The lighthouse policy calls for evaluating events according to what are doubtful criteria, wholly unrelated to content. Key factors are the degree of media attention an event can attract or the financial heft it wields by drawing in third-party resources (e.g. sponsoring).

For small, local film screeners this is a vicious circle. All that is left to them is to advertise their programmes as „festivals“, even though they have no nationwide pertinence or professional visitors – in other words, they are fakes!

For short-film makers, the many small festivals, 80 or so in Germany alone, are usually their only hope of showing their films on the big screen. The problem is that the economic benefits of such events are practically nil. The only attraction is the possibility of winning what is usually a minimally funded award. In many countries filmmakers even have to pay a registration fee to take part.

Nor do film festivals pay any rental fees – a system that can hardly be changed as it is an important part of the inherent economic structure of in particular the smaller events. These events exist because it is the only way the organizers can put together programmes and obtain films that they otherwise could not afford. Here we witness the reciprocal conditions under which this economy of scarcity takes place, because if the institutions in question would dispose over a sufficient budget, it would not be necessary to cloak the whole event in the guise of a festival.

This system has unfortunately given birth to some utterly unacceptable outgrowths. Many verge on fraud, the organizers taking advantage of the free content to cash in on the take and use it to finance their own structure. This racket can be found more frequently in Internet competitions than in those taking place “in real life”…


Festival films = shelf films?

“It is a fact that there are more and more film festivals instituted every year, programming greater and greater numbers of festival films which are never seen again, films which have no hope of any cinema distribution”, Peter Greenaway maintains. In the feature-film sector Greenaway is talking about, though, at least there is still hope of finding a distributor. Things look different for short film, because with few exceptions – such as France and Germany – there simply are no short film distributors.

Festivals for short film are therefore often the only possibility of getting onto the cinema screen at all. Most short film festivals, i.e. the small local events, actually fulfil the function of making available a parallel screening structure.

Looking at the festival careers of a few successful short films, one notices that festival hopping can give films an astounding geographic reach and impressive viewer numbers. Unlike feature films in theatrical distribution, they have one to two years time to make the rounds. By contrast, on the cinema market most films are dropped from the programme after just one week. And even the successful titles are only on screen for a few weeks. They either have to make way for the new releases or they are taken out of circulation because the window of time until they come out on DVD or are shown on TV is becoming shorter and shorter. Unlike the festival films, the prints then end up not on the shelf but at the latest one year after release in the shredder – unfortunately including those films that might be of interest to posterity or as part of our cultural heritage …

But ersatz screening at festivals is not really a profitable prospect for short films either. For this to be true, the organizers must be so well financed that they can afford to pay rental fees. And of course there would have to be even more festivals than there are now …


Can Bayreuth replace the opera houses?

It is hardly conceivable that film festivals could form a sustainable substitute for a cinema structure that makes room for culturally demanding films, or offer any lasting promise for the preservation of film culture. Film festivals are certainly an indispensable part of this film culture, but it is clear that they cannot replace cinemas already for the banal reason that they need cinemas to take place at all. And in the short film field many film festivals exist only because they have been initiated and are organized by cinemas.

If the basic supply of theatres that focus on cultural aspects in their programming dwindles, the bottom will fall out from under the film festivals, and film culture as a whole. If Bayreuth didn’t have any singers, there would be no city opera houses. Not only that: there would in the long run no longer be an audience if to keep to the same metaphor musical training were to vanish from the curriculum and public funding were to be withdrawn everywhere from institutions for music culture.

If there is a crisis of cinema and film culture, then it is not a crisis in the film industry, but rather a crisis in cultural policy. All over the country, public funding is being cut Рnot only for cultural cinemas, but also for film festivals. Even in the erstwhile wonderland for cin̩philes, France, there are signs of stormy weather ahead now that the new regime has begun liquidating acquisitions from the era of Jack Lang.

Adversity is also threatening from a completely different quarter: How are film theatres and film festivals to face the far-reaching changes in media technology and make the requisite investments?
Conceptually speaking, it is not necessary to believe Greenaway’s thesis, which we are again using here somewhat unfairly as punching bag, that cinema must become interactive and “see itself as only part of a multimedia cultural adventure”.

There is not even an acceptable solution yet for changing over to E-cinema or D-cinema, let alone for presenting digital Net media or Greenaway’s multimedia adventure. This is another problem that affects cinema and film festivals in equal measure. But that’s another, suspenseful, story!

Already today it’s a problem if a film student with MPEG file in tow knocks on the door of a festival or cinema and wonders why his short film can’t be shown. If this is the same student who in the above quote doesn’t know who Fellini is and thinks acetyl cellulose is the name of a disease, perhaps one might recommend – to be sarcastic – that he buy a bag of popcorn and a case of beer and then watch the film with a few buddies on Home Cinema 5.1. If only it were that easy!