On Festivals, Festival Programmers and Independent Film Week

It’s September, and after a long, scorching summer, the festival season has finally gotten under way; Telluride, Venice, Toronto are in the books, the New York Film Festival is just on the horizon and my job as a film programmer and artistic director has kicked off in earnest. The screenings begin, the landscape starts to take shape; acquisitions are tracked, release schedules scrutinized, and submissions and new films begin to make their way to us. So often, I read articles about film festivals as if they were these mysterious, unknowable institutions that make random, arbitrary decisions about which films they show, but it just isn’t true; we are all looking for great films that we believe will speak to our audiences. Give or take some rules about when the film was made (and, in some cases, where it has played) and we’re all pretty much the same; an event, fixed during a specific time, that seeks to screen films for local audiences and industry professionals that we feel represent the best movies available.

Of course, the process is subjective; no two festival programmers think exactly alike and no one sees all of the same movies, which is why the Independent Feature Project’s Filmmaker’s Conference is such an important event on the calendar. The IFP event always offers programmers a chance to meet filmmakers, to see works in progress and to try to get a clear picture of some of the most interesting work on the horizon. Add in a full array of panel discussions and one-on-one meetings, and the Filmmaker’s Conference provides programmers a great array of services that help us make a map of the state of the art.

This year, the IFP is also including an afternoon get together for festival folks, allowing us the opportunity to sit down and discuss the issues facing our organizations. This is a very difficult time for non-profit arts organizations; as the economy continues to struggle, the levels of giving that used to support the arts have thinned out considerably, forcing film festivals of all sizes to reexamine their costs and priorities. At the same time, filmmakers and their representatives, facing a dwindling number of revenue opportunities in a highly competitive exhibition and ancillary landscape, are placing more and more pressure on festivals to provide revenue streams to offset costs not being picked up by traditional roll outs. Stuck between escalating costs, diminishing sponsorships and the emerging economic demands of trying to replace theatrical exhibition for filmmakers, festivals are truly living in a time of crisis. ?

So, there is plenty to discuss this week. I will be moderating a panel today at 2:30 PM at F.I.T. with the team behind Winter’s Bone, discussing their highly successful strategy of integrating festivals and a regional roll-out into their distribution plans. It should provide a great case-study for filmmakers to think about how regional and non-traditional filmmaking can be given solid footing in the marketplace. I will also be attending the Film Festival Forum on Wednesday and the Meet The Programmers event on Thursday; I hope you’ll make time to say hello and talk with me about your work. After all, the best part of this week is getting to know the artists and producers whose work provides the foundation for our community. I hope to write more as I can, but in the meantime, I hope you enjoy this special week in New York City. It’s the best time of year, everything’s changing and everything’s possible. Take full advantage of it.

Tom Hall is the Artistic Director of the Sarasota Film Festival.