New Festival Types Exploiting Deluge of Films

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Filmfestivals in every day cinema / Pixabay CC0 (edited)

 

The first two articles on the subject of film festivals focused on rip-off, pseudo festivals, as well as on a new type of festival being held in city-centre cinemas. The third part of the series is exploring the consequences of this development for the existing film and festival landscape, which is characterised by a deluge of films and a glut of festivals. Conclusions must be drawn from this that challenge all those involved to find new approaches: The filmmakers, festival organisers and cinema operators, as well as those on the film funding and support policy level.

 

 

Current Debate on Festival Themes

 

It seems that the film festival issue is a virulent one at present. Discussions on the subject have been held at almost all film festivals over the last few months – most recently in Berlin, Dresden, Frankfurt, Oberhausen, Hamburg and Munich. The film industry trade magazine Blickpunkt:Film published a special issue on the subject of festivals in May. And academic publications or articles on the subject have circulated for at least ten years, such as on the platform Filmfestivalresearch.org[1].

 

At universities the specialist field of ‘festival studies’ is becoming established as a subject in itself. The focus of the studies to date has been on major events, such as the festivals in Cannes, Berlin or Sundance – with topics that do not affect short film as such, as they are specific to feature-length movies. And especially, the findings on investigations into commercial aspects are not applicable to the short film sector. A further aspect currently being examined and which is of limited relevance for short film festivals is the increasing specialisation of festivals in special interest subjects and target groups. The phenomenon of the so-called audience festival and the glut of pseudo festivals have not yet been established as a research subject.

 

 

Film Festivals as a New Exploitation and Distribution Channel

 

Film festivals are increasingly assuming the role of an alternative distribution channel for auteur films, indie productions and art films. An assertion that almost everyone would concur with today. Some festival organisers have commented that they did not seek out this new role – it has been imposed on them and ultimately caused by shortcomings in the cinema structure. With this being reasoned by pointing to the decreasing cinema audience numbers and closures in the repertory and art-house cinema sector.

 

Now while this chain of arguments may sound plausible, that does not make it correct. And it is certainly worth taking a closer look at it. Yes, it is true that there are almost no repertory cinemas left in the classic sense[2], by which we mean cinemas with frequent changes to the films being screened and a regular monthly screening programme. Yet, with the exception of non-commercial local community cinemas[3], this has long been the case. And it is certainly true that the successors to the repertory cinemas of the 1970s, the art-house cinemas of today, which by contrast prolong[4] film screenings depending on their success and weekend audience figures, are under pressure economically. There are, however, an array of reasons for this, of which the most important one – the viewers switching to online media – is not only proving detrimental to the cinemas, but indeed to all event organisers.

And yet another fact is true: The audience numbers for ‘demanding’ films are in decline. This, however, is also applicable to films that are screened at festivals and achieve success there. And cinemas that operate on an economic basis with the aim of generating profits have of course noticed this and plan their screening programmes accordingly.

 

Nowadays, most of the films currently being produced only ever grace the silver screen as part of a film festival. This represents a new experience for producers of feature-length movies, one we have been aware of for a long time in the short film sector. There are the so-called festival films that rotate within the international festival circuit – and are never seen on a screen again afterwards. When they concern cinema-release productions that may have gobbled up more than €1 million in production costs, this is a bitter situation. And it is even worse when the film in question is a good one.

 

 

A Festival Every Day in Every City = Collapse of the Established Hegemony

 

Twenty years ago, you could still find festivals with an opinion-leadership capacity. They achieved a market power that extended far beyond the film critics and publicity levels right into the film production and cinema industry. And this was especially true for Cannes. Thomas Elsaesser called this “under the rule of Cannes” and spoke about a “gold standard” that the festival was able to establish for itself. With only a few festivals having the power on a global level to define what a good film is. The consequence of which was that film sales agents and distributors fought to get their hands on the competition films from these five or six major A festivals. And at that time, the winners of a Golden Palm not only achieved success in the media, but also in the cinema box offices. Today, however, there is no festival capable of setting a ‘gold standard’. With even the winners at Cannes now frequently unable to find a distributor beyond their country of production.

 

The demise of the established hegemony is not something I regret. And yet if one speaks in this connection of a crisis, then it should not be reduced to a crisis of the cinemas – and instead we have to speak about a crisis in the film art (cinéma d’art) system overall. And this embraces not only the screenings, but also the distribution, the production, the festivals and the critics, as well as the film funding and support.

 

 

Festival Films and Cinema Festivals – A New Ecosystem[5]

 

In addition to the decline in the hegemony, the collapse of the once successful circulation of films from festivals via the transmission belts of the film critics and the media into the distributors, and in turn to the cinema audiences, also requires mentioning. An important cause of this is the volume of films being produced annually and the number of film festivals, both of which have grown exponentially over the last few years.

 

As festivals increasingly have to share the attention and interest of the public with each other when competing for top premieres, no single festival is now capable of having such a trend-setting impact in the industry as was the case in the past. And likewise, no sustainable influence is resulting from the accumulation of festivals, which are tightly juxtaposed locally and held in quick succession, on the film trade, the media, the cinema market and the cinemagoers in a way that the individual festivals were once still capable of doing with their concentrated power to define – but for a manageable numbers of films.

 

The issue of quality also has to be addressed here. In their game to gain attention and exclusiveness over their rivals, too many festivals select films not on the basis of their aesthetic quality, but rather opportunistically on the status of their premiere or on having well-known names in them. This is contributing to the establishment of the festival-film-as-genre, to the enlargement in the pool of such films, and to their acquiring a negative image qualitatively speaking.

 

The consequences of this on a symbolic level are obvious. The immense number of prizes that hundreds of films gain each year at festivals (or buy at pseudo festivals) are resulting in a debasement, a devaluation. The laurels and awards printed on the movie posters and brochures, or in the trailers, are no longer regarded as being an indication of quality and are barely able to entice audiences into the cinemas anymore.

 

 

Deluge of Festivals Taking the Wind out of the Cinemas’ Sails

 

A causal connection can be found between the glut of festivals and the slump in the audience numbers for indie productions and artistic auteur films in the cinemas: When every city has a festival that, regardless of how small and insignificant it may be within the context of the overall sector, screens a dozen new films, then as a rule these films are already ‘consumed’ for the local cinemas. No cinema operator is prepared to take the risk and schedule a film title for subsequent screening in their cinema after it has participated in a festival in the same town or city. Most of the film sales agents and the distributors to an increasing extent as well view this in the exact same manner by the way, for which reason they also avoid attending the so-called audience festivals. In this context, the term audience even has a negative connotation among sales agents, as Mark Peranson[6] has noted.

 

Due to a lack of a market for their products, the short film sector is barely aware of any sales agents in it who gain profits as ‘middlemen’ from the screening income in the classic exploitation chain. And yet, middlemen do exist. In this case they are replaced by agency platforms that do not gain their income from the market, but from the filmmakers.

 

Although their lines of conflict take a different course, there are combat zones in short film comparable to those on the fiction film market. Such as when major short film open-air events draw thousands of viewers in a city, but pay either no rental fees or only those typical for the cinema sector. Individual short film events and mini festivals are similarly problematic when they make no contribution to cinema audience building and have a quality reducing impact on the reception level, such as when their programme merely serves the need for superficial, trivial entertainment.

 

Even in cases where they do screen quality, festivals can impact negatively on repertory cinemas and cultural cinemas to the extent that not only do they siphon off the audiences, but also those films that might have an opportunity in a regular cinema programme of having more than just two competition screenings at a festival.

 

 

Festivals and Cinemas – Between an Encroaching Embrace and Cooperation

 

According to a study[7] from Austria, 60% of all the film festivals there are held solely in cinemas, while the remaining 40% of the festivals occur partly but not solely in cinemas. From which the authors derive the assertion that film festivals are contributing to the preservation of cinemas. And that specifically, because festivals carry out the administrative programming work, as well as the programme promotion and advertising, they ensure there is higher capacity utilisation thanks to the higher audience figures, in addition to tapping into new audience segments. The former point is certainly only true when it comes to larger, serious festivals, while the latter one has not been proven to date.

 

While not seeking to deny that the tug of war between the cinemas and the festivals for films and audiences can also lead to win-win situations, it is essential to consider the forms that these cooperative efforts take, which require urgent work on them so that they do not have a one-sided harmful impact on the cultural cinemas that are open all year round, as well as, in the case of rip-off and pseudo festivals, that the producers and directors are not left ‘to foot the bill’.

 

Large commercial cinemas are mostly not able to afford to hold a festival over longer periods of time as, by doing so, they would harm their business relationships with the major distributors that insist on their complete season of blockbusters being screened. Interestingly, there is also some movement here, such as for instance when cinema chains found their own film festival, as is the case in Germany with the Fünf Seen Filmfestival GmbH company, a regional cinema operator.

 

This makes sense economically for companies with a vertical structure. In Australia, the cinema chain Palace Cinemas, which runs its own distribution section, holds dozens of festivals all year round at various locations in the country. As is the case with the new types of festivals here in Germany, these festivals are themed: French, German, Scandinavian, Human Rights and Arts, Young at Heart, Football, Turkish, American Essentials and Great British Film. By now, these ‘exhibitor-driven festivals’ are challenging the position of the non-commercial ‘curator-driven festivals’, as Lauren Carroll Harris describes in a study[8]. A further noteworthy aspect is how the increase in the festivals correlates with the closure of independent cinemas. And Harris is right in posing the question elsewhere[9]: »Why do we fund (Australian) films, but not the arthouse cinemas to screen them in?«

 

And in fact, the competition and rivalry for public funding and support represents a further battle zone here. It is easier to obtain funding from cities and towns in Germany for a ‘festival’ than it is for continuous film culture work (with the key term here being the ‘eventisation’ of the culture policies). Yet without the proper funding and support of institutions and cinemas that sustainably foster and preserve contemporary cinematic art and the cultural heritage, the foundations for a broad-based public film culture will collapse on an extensive scale together with the conveying of aesthetic filmic values, and that also for festivals, by the way.

 

Likewise, I would like to explore whether these festivals are still able to keep their promise in the future of generating an audience for demanding films. Many audiences, and especially younger ones, regard local and regional festival events more as an opportunity for a one-off ‘film binging’. Which is not what sustainable (cultural) engagement and commitment looks like.

 

 

… But the Stuff Has to Be Offloaded Somewhere![10]

 

The only reason why the new types of festivals consisting of one to three-day short film programmes in metropolitan cinemas are flourishing is because so many films are being produced that want to be screened (at any cost). The desire to achieve interest and notice is so great that filmmakers are prepared to spend real money for a short appearance at festivals that do not even deserve to be called that. Merely for the chance of being selected, makers of short films are prepared to pay submission fees amounting to several hundred euros per year[11]. And when it does work out, attending the festival frequently results in further costs because such events mostly do not provide any support to the filmmakers and even require them to pay for the trophies in extreme cases. They have their own name for this in the publishing industry: Vanity publishing.

 

The sheer volume of new short film productions (10,000 globally?) flocking to the festivals each year can no longer be managed and handled sensibly by ‘proper festivals’ with quality standards and the luxury of viewing and selection committees. And not only do these volumes of films burden them with higher personnel costs, they also require additional investments in their IT structures.

 

 

Vacuum-Cleaner Gigs – The Second Market

 

The beneficiaries of the glut of festivals are the commercial submission platforms and, more recently, festival agencies that act as middlemen between submission platforms and filmmakers on the one hand and event organisers on the other. And unlike just about every other player in the short film sector, these companies do earn money. In this way, a second market has emerged in the short film sector without the existence of a developed first market that would normally finance the film production and the work.

 

In this situation, agencies have assumed a similar role to that of the sales agents in the circulation of feature-length productions, and their increasing influence on the programmes of short film festivals is regarded as extremely critical[12]. In the short film sector, these middlemen have their services paid for by the filmmakers – in an underhanded manner at times, it is said, as some agencies even deduct success commissions from the prize money. These agencies are becoming increasingly ‘picky’ when it comes to their selections. Like some vacuum cleaner, the agencies suck up popular short films already capable of demonstrating success, such as from participating in festivals and winning prizes on the first market, while others remain untouched – and that in return for a fee.

 

The second market allows the organisers of audience festivals to load up their programmes using agency portfolios. And at the same time to finance their events with fees from submitters without even viewing their films apparently – which is something I feel is particularly deceitful.

 

A further consequence: Conflicts of interests are predestined here in a manner similar to that on the feature-film market, with distributors and sales organisations being almost the only ones in the barely developed first market for short films ensuring that directors and producers at least receive modest remuneration for their services.

 

 

Platform ESC

 

Commercial platforms are utilising business models based on monetisation structures that are no longer acceptable for serious festivals with a cultural direction, or which are simply unusable for them. These include portals for instance that are a submission platform, festival agency and festival organiser or VoD provider at one and the same time and whose ‘offer’ is linked to technical services, such as the DCP production[13]. Firms that should be viewed in an equally critical manner include those that offer a full service for the processing of “one-off screenings”[14] or even those that ostensively claim to be in the distribution business but are in fact solely interested in acquiring the user data.

 

When such platforms conduct dubious business practices (trading in data, cross-financing with advertising), this could cause a ‘platform escape’[15] as is currently being discussed by social-media creators and bloggers. This would, however, have the positive side effect that it would already be recognisable when selecting the platform which festival is serious and which one is not. Likewise in terms of the film quality, the wheat could be separated from the chaff.

 

Many of the larger short film festivals have already distanced themselves from submission platforms. This is partly due to having had bad experience with the manageability aspects, but also partly due to containing the deluge of submissions and being able to channel the submissions better to their programming requirements. I assume that serious short film festivals will progressively follow this example and pull back from the commercial platforms.

 

 

What to Do?

 

As a first step, it would be important to permit, advance and facilitate more analysis and research work. Reliable figures on cinema attendances in the context of film festivals and their role in the media landscape are lacking here[16]. For this reason, market research institutes, authorities and administrative bodies should survey data on film festivals, such as is already the case with cinema attendances and other media usage.

 

There will continue to be good films that seek out their audiences at international festivals. And audiences as well who want to see films together in a cinema on the silver screen, and not ‘alone together’. In this regard it is important that filmmakers and audiences are supported by film festivals in that they provide a social structure for meaningful encounters and discourses. To do so, the organisers require competencies that go far beyond the festival programming and they must learn how to foster and maintain them.

 

As the term film festival has already become watered down to a great extent, efforts should be made to reequip it with quality criteria. To do so, festivals with similar concepts and visions have to become connected, with social and cultural values highlighted as their unique features, so that they can differentiate themselves together from pseudo festivals.

 

A greater involvement and integration of filmmakers in festival structures would also be important. This is not an easy undertaking on a festival policy level, as they are unfortunately not organised within the short film sector, meaning that they cannot be addressed as an association. Filmmakers could become involved by means of participation offers that go beyond the actual festival time period. This could also include services for filmmakers that have only been provided by commercial companies to date and which would be organised together by several festivals (e.g. a portfolio platform or a film database).

 

The relationships with the festival cinemas should also be newly aligned, as well as conceived and planned differently. Instead of a short annual ‘invasion’, continuous working contexts and settings could be established with cinemas. These cooperative arrangements should be designed in such a way that, above and beyond the commercial aspects, they also provide a non-material benefit to both sides that impacts positively in the public arena. Audience building above and beyond the actual day or days of a festival would represent an important aim here, about which both the festivals and the cinemas could communicate well with each other. In this way, both of them would be able to convey their unique cultural features better together in the public area than has been the case to date.

 

Cinemas should only be rented out to serious festival organisers. Their due diligence obligations here should include checking prior to concluding any contracts whether the business practices of their partners are ethically justifiable and reputable. (In parts one and two of this series, I discussed how you recognise rip-off festivals.) Sponsors and supporters should also do this, so that no event is supported unknowingly that calls itself a film festival but does not seriously merit this designation.

 

Awareness has to increase among the cultural and economic policymakers for issues of quality, and they have to become better informed about the current structural changes within the film and festival sector. The importance of sustained film culture work – unlike with red carpet and bogus events – should receive better recognition and acknowledgement. This also includes more powerful support of local cultural cinemas. In the same way that galleries and museums are supported in the field of art and that opera houses and concert halls are built for music and theatre, the funding of spaces and institutions in the film area is also required in order to make film as art accessible.

 

The new technical possibilities of networking and the vertical integration of the film production and distribution through to the film screenings at festival and in cinemas should not be left to the mercy of some commercial start-up model. Likewise, there are alternatives for the managing and administrating of festivals that facilitate improved integration of the submission process into the viewing and selection procedure through to the managing and administrating of all areas of a festival. Online platforms available to the public in the sense of a ‘public open space’ would be required for this: With platform cooperativism[17] utilising cooperative or public-sector structures as a model – intended as an addition and compliment to the all-prevailing platform economic model at present, which turn the social and the cultural into a product.

 

Just like the film festival designation is an unprotected term, the same is true for that of filmmaker. Anyone who regards filmmaking as a hobby should of course be permitted to pay for their participation in a festival to satisfy their vanity. Everyone else, however, should make critical and conscious decisions about which players they place their trust in and to whom they entrust their work and their money.

 

[1] http://www.filmfestivalresearch.org/index.php/ffrn-bibliography/1-film-festivals-the-long-view/1-1-film-festival-studies/

[2] Cinemas with alternating programming, cycling a repertory of old and new films for a season. Often with themed programmes that are published in a printed programme brochure

[3] “Kommunale Kinos”, municipal cinemas or film clubs run by film societies

[4] Prolong (in economics): An option to extend a screening, used as a specialist term in the cinema industry to extent a film screening by a further week in the cinema

[5] See also: “Filmfestivals als neue Player auf dem Markt”/Film Festivals as a New Player on the Market, Tanja Krainhöfer: Blickpunkt:Film, August 2018

[6] »In this economy, the term ‘audience’ only matters to a sales agent as a negative: meaning, the more people have seen the film in a territory, the less they can charge to a potential distributor. (Some distributors also have this policy – the alternative argument when it comes to distributors has to do with festivals generating good word of mouth)«, Mark Peranson: First you get the power, then you get the money: Two models of film festivals; Cineaste 33, p. 31., June 2008

[7] URL: http://film-festivals.at/media/presse/Filmfestivalreport_Oesterrei.pdf

[8] Lauren Carroll Harris (2017), Theorising film festivals as distributors and investigating the post-festival distribution of Australian films, Studies in Australasian Cinema, 11:2, p. 46-58.

[9] URL: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/mar/22/why-do-we-fund-australian-films-but-not-the-arthouse-cinemas-to-screen-them-in

[10] Alluding to a singular statement uttered by a German politician in the discussion on the disposal of nuclear waste

[11] Short-of-the-Week conducted a survey among filmmakers and found that the respondents spent $1,537 on average for submission fees, Andrew Allen (July 2018)

[12] See Peranson

[13] For instance, World Film Presentation http://worldfilmpresentation.com/

[14] Also see on this subject: https://www.tribecafilm.com/stories/racking-focus-one-off-screenings-movie-theaters

[15] Based on “Platform Escape” by Bertram Gugel, talk at the re:publica 2018 https://www.gugelproductions.de/blog/2017/platform-escape.html

[16] As Tanja Krainhöfer points out in http://www.filmfestival-studien.de/marktanalyse-filmfestivals-in-deutschland/; Krainhöfer, Tanja (2017): Der deutsche Filmfestivalmarkt 2016. Eine quantitative Studie der deutschen Filmfestivals/The German 2016 Film Festival Market. A Quantitative Study of German Film Festivals

[17] “Platform Cooperativism vs. the Sharing Economy”, Trebor Scholz New School professor, NYC., Dec 5, 2014; URL: https://medium.com/@trebors/platform-cooperativism-vs-the-sharing-economy-2ea737f1b5ad

 

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