More like this, please.
It’s a sad truth that most people never see the majority of movies programmed at film festivals. Whether it’s Sundance, Toronto, Miami, Chicago or anywhere else, the kinds of films that play there aren’t the ones that are going to get 12 showtimes a day at the multiplex. In most cases even if the film gets sold to a streaming service, the marketing campaigns aren’t substantive or aggressive enough to break through the media clutter. Breakouts happen, but not often enough, and every year seems to bring at least one story of a title a studio paid tens of millions of dollars for only to see it die at the box office eight months later.
That reality is a shame because while there are certainly legitimate clunkers in most mixes, most of these movies deserve to be seen, at least by a wider audience than the handful of critics and journalists who are able to attend those festivals.
This year the calculous was altered when most every festival after Sundance in January was cancelled because of the emerging Covid-19 pandemic. Without a venue to share their dream projects, many independent filmmakers were left dangling without the big platform they were counting on to get their movies into the public conversation.
Today Amazon and SXSW announced a program whereby those filmmakers can opt to have their films added to a virtual festival that will be streamed for 10 days on Prime Video. Festival organizers had already signed a separate deal to stream some of the short features meant to be in competition on MailChimp’s platform.
In today’s announcement, various executives are quoted as saying how excited they are to be bringing these movies to audiences, that the films deserve to be seen by people who would otherwise not have had the chance.
That sentiment is wonderful and shows a willingness to help solve a problem that had emerged that was potentially devastating to the budding careers of many filmmakers.
It also blows up the foundational notion on which film festivals are built.
The basic premise of most festivals is that only a select few – those who are deemed worthy by virtue of being part of the press or some other important person – are worthy of seeing them. If you can’t make it to Park City, Telluride or another location and don’t have the proper credentials, you aren’t meant to receive that privilege.
They are exclusionary by definition. That’s how they receive attention and, importantly, make money, by trading on and selling the idea of exclusivity.
Multiple times a year, then, as every festival ramps up and through the weeks afterward, those following entertainment news are told repeatedly about movies they will likely never see. They are reminded that they aren’t worthy of partaking in the artificially created scarcity.
If film festivals, in the age of streaming, were truly committed to connecting worthwhile films with hungry audiences, they would just put them online. Make them available for a month and charge a $15 membership fee. Or find some way to partner with local theaters to screen the movies on a rotating basis for a period of time. If these are available only for a limited time, it might not significantly hurt their potential to find an audience later. And if it keeps acquisition prices more reasonable, that’s a win for the studios. Finally, they come out of these periods with much broader awareness and word of mouth already baked into the market then they currently do.
Basically, there are options. But protecting the business model of the film festival, one that seems ripe for the kind of disruption that has roiled every other industry, is more important.
I will fully take advantage of the Amazon/SXSW partnership, don’t get me wrong. It’s a great idea, but it’s one that needs to be replicated multiple times a year across a number of sites or platforms and not only when we’re all being told to social distance ourselves from our friends and families as well as the movies we love. Let people see the movies and stop hiding them behind the temple’s veil.