Festivals Boost Awards Contenders but Shouldn’t Lose Role as New Talent Launch Pads

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As we head into awards season, it’s worth considering where all these contenders are coming from and how did they get here? For most of these high-profile movies, the first time they hit the public consciousness is when they played at one of the handful of specific film festivals in the late summer and early fall. Especially this year, when Cannes was pushed two months from its normal May date, almost every Oscar contender “premiered” in the window between July and September in some combination of Cannes, Venice, Telluride, Toronto and the New York Film Festival.

All of which is great for those films, the filmmakers and their distributors. But this compressed schedule has also skewed the landscape of independent filmmaking, particularly in the eyes of the press and industry. With the class of awards-contending films taking so much oxygen out of the air, it’s left it hard to breathe (especially through our N95s) for the rest of the indie film community — filmmakers and film festivals alike.

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Those “big five” film festivals have for years used a metric of success that counted how many Oscar winners and nominees played at their festivals. In 12 of the past 13 years, the winner of the Toronto People’s Choice award went on to be an Oscar best picture nominee, with five winning the top Oscar. Telluride viciously fights with Toronto and Venice for taste-making premieres. The New York Film Festival fetishizes films that premiered in Cannes — all the better if their Oscar-bound directors come to visit. Venice loves its Hollywood stars, and even Cannes finally got a taste of Oscar glory when Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite” became the first Palme d’Or winner in 65 years to win the Academy Award for best picture. And the reality is that an “indie” film — at least an American one — won’t seriously be considered for any of those festivals unless it already has a U.S. distributor, a major international sales agent lobbying for it and/or an A-list actor in it.

“I think this was the case even before COVID happened. So many of the fall film festivals thought, probably correctly, that if they became showcases for the Oscar buzz, that would draw more press and industry attention to them,” says producer and distribution consultant Brian Newman. “This can be great for local audiences who want the thrill of seeing some celebrities, but it deprives the audiences of new discoveries, and the industry has less chance to find them as well [are they even looking?].”

Filmmaker and film historian Noel Lawrence adds, “In many cases, the autumn A-list festivals are giving up their agency. They have the opportunity to add a voice to the cultural conversation by discovering new talent. Instead, they are functioning as the marketing arm of studios and streaming juggernauts.”

Of course, if you’re a narrative feature filmmaker who didn’t have a shot at the Big Five Fests (which is to say, 95% of American indie films made each year), what you’re really looking for is a “discovery” festival. These are the kinds of festivals where distributors get in heated bidding wars and film critics breathlessly tweet hyperbolic adjectives.

Even pre-pandemic, the discovery festival schedule in the U.S. was skewed toward winter and spring festivals. If you finished your film by September, you submitted to Sundance and Slamdance. A little later, then SXSW. A month later, you applied to Tribeca, which has usually been held in late April/early May. It’s not like any of those festivals are immune to distributor pressure, salty sales agents or saucy star wattage for their selections. And especially with Sundance and Tribeca, a great many slots are taken up by alumni of their own labs. But at least a handful of films, with no juice behind them, would show up every year at those festivals and have a very slight chance to make an impression. Just enough to keep the dream alive for the next year’s crop! At least the main metric for success at these festivals wasn’t how many Oscars their films would generate, but how many films got acquired for distribution. That at least guaranteed a facade of discovery, even if many deals were made ahead of time.

There are definitely other options internationally where an American indie can premiere a film and gain some traction with press and distributors. It’s still not easy to get into the likes of Karlovy Vary, Deauville, Locarno, Tallinn, Rotterdam, San Sebastian, São Paulo, Vienna, Busan or Thessaloniki as an American film without a sales agent. Apart from anything else, some of these fests get subsidized by the E.U. or other governmental bodies and have de facto quotas keeping the U.S. numbers to a minimum. There are bright sparks though, even during the fall months. Festivals such as November’s American Film Festival in Wroclaw, Poland, and September’s Oldenburg in Germany specifically have sections devoted to American indies, even ones that haven’t yet been validated by U.S. festivals, agents or distributors.

“Oldenburg has always been dedicated to find new voices and support those who dare to explore new ground rather than those who chose the easy approach to mainstream areas of distribution,” says festival co-founder/executive director Torsten Neumann. “It is still great to see some of our choices move on towards the Oscars, but this is different from just offering a showcase for those films that already collected their festival merits and have already secured a strong distribution for their further way. There are way too few festivals left on the circuit who dare to fill these niches.”

The COVID pandemic has changed so many things in the film world, including this delicate balance between awards-pandering festivals and discovery festivals. For much of 2020 and early 2021, most festivals around the world evolved into online versions, if they survived at all. A recent survey by Dear Producer and the Film Festival Alliance of primarily U.S. festivals showed that 80% of festivals continued to have some kind of “event” during the height of the pandemic, and of those, over 80% had virtual screenings. Only about a quarter had drive-in screenings and less than 18% had in-person theatrical screenings.

Many festivals also signed a mutual-non-aggression pact (spearheaded by Seed & Spark) that put the ice on premiere-status politics that normally pit film festivals against each other with filmmakers stuck in the middle. The festival world was “all in this together” just trying to survive along with filmmakers. On the other hand, many filmmakers strategically eschewed online screenings and tried to wait out the pandemic as best they could. For some films, such as Jim Cummings and P.J. McCabe’s “The Beta Test,” that meant a few rare live festival screenings (including Berlin), a deal with IFC and then a nice theatrical run this fall. For more esoteric filmmakers including Noel Lawrence, who premiered his film “Sammy-Gate” in Rotterdam a week before the world shut down, they’ve refused all online festivals and are planning a live screening strategy similar to Neon’s approach
with “Memoria.”

Then there are all the filmmakers who spent the pandemic making new films sequestered in their apartments (such as Selina Ringel and Dan Levy Dagerman’s “Single Mother by Choice,” which skipped festivals completely and sold straight to HBO Max).

Starting last summer, festivals gingerly returned to more theatrical events, usually hybridized with online screenings, too. But there was a lot of catching up to do. Some festivals, such as Tribeca, had promised many online-only films from their 2020 editions would get in-person screenings there in 2021, thus cutting down the number of new films they could invite.

Most festivals drastically reduced the number of films they accepted in 2020 and those slots have stayed sparse into 2021. In other words, there’s arguably twice as many films jockeying for half as many festival berths this year. A film that had a snowball’s chance in hell of getting into Sundance in a normal year, now arguably has a 25% chance of being that snowball. Combine that with the travel restrictions that still make it difficult to go to festivals from South America to Asia to Europe, and it’s clear the festival world is still not back to normal, and probably won’t be until at least the summer.

So for new indie films, where does that leave us? Sundance still won’t be back to pre-pandemic “normal” this year. Not everyone can, should or wants to wait for six months to a year for a Sundance that has promised to show fewer films than normal (in an environment that’s a cauldron for viruses even in a non-pandemic year). Some filmmakers may have a variety of political reasons for avoiding Texas, so SXSW might not be a great option for everyone. And as the pandemic has shown us, time and mortality are precious: If you’ve got a finished film burning a hole in your hard drive, the inclination is to get it out, show it to festival audiences (live ones if you can find them) and try to get distribution. Quick! Before you, your investors or your audience die!

For some filmmakers, myself included, we’ve embraced the strategy of making the most of the fluctuating festival landscape. Films such as Jack Fessenden’s “Foxhole” world-premiered in Oldenburg in September, U.S. premiered at Woodstock in October and sold to Samuel Goldwyn by November — all with barely a whisper among the elite film twitterati.

My own new Watergate thriller/comedy, “18½,” world-premiered at Woodstock, won jury prizes at Tallgrass and Rome (Georgia), played top international festivals from São Paulo to Spain, and quickly earned 100% on Rotten Tomatoes.

“I have always been reared that as filmmakers you premiere your films at festivals in the spring,” says Dean Peterson, director of “Kendra and Beth,” which also premiered in Woodstock. “But with the pandemic throwing everything into disarray I ended up premiering my new film in the fall and had a really great experience that was so much more centered around audiences who were truly there to see interesting, new films.”

Meira Blaustein, Woodstock’s co-founder and executive director, concurs, “Discovering and supporting independent new talents and sharing their work with an engaged audience that is savvy and interested is something that the Woodstock Film Festival always cherishes.”

What the festival world really needs is to recalibrate its calendar and hope that the industry and press take notice. Between Tribeca and Park City, there’s an eight-month gap that could be filled by other fests focused on discovery rather than awards.

“Toronto could be that festival, but it’s primarily a premiere slot for much bigger films, to the extent that even their few solid indies get lost in the red carpet maze of the normal years [and this year, for many, it was all virtual],” says Newman. “I can think of some quality regional fests who have a handful of premieres, but none that catch the eye of the press or industry. Someone could start it, or reposition for it, but I’m honestly not sure if the press or industry would pay attention when they’re both busy keeping their minds set on the status quo.”

Even after the pandemic thinned the ranks of festivals, there are still some amazing ones all around the globe, spread across the calendar, and in every state in the union. As Newman says, it’s going to be a challenge. But now’s the time for some of them to step up their games and come out swinging as the next great discovery festival. It can’t hurt to try.

Co-founder of the Slamdance Film Festival, filmmaker Dan Mirvish’s new film, “18½,” is on the international festival circuit and is entertaining several distribution offers.

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