Summer Movies

So, You Want To Start a Film Festival …


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If you’re thinking of running a film festival: don’t. It will ruin your life. It will clean out your bank account. It will drive away your friends. By the first fabulous day of your event you will wish you were dead. Everyone around you will be buying tickets and smiling and laughing, and all you’ll be able to think is: “Do you know how much it costs to Fed Ex a print from Seoul?”

A film festival sounds vaguely intellectual, an oasis of cinematic contemplation in the midst of the crass commercial marketplace. But a film festival is an aberration; people don’t need further encouragement to go to the movies. When the most misguided Hollywood remake of a half-remembered TV show can make $10 million in its opening weekend, it could even be argued that people go to the movies too much. There are few good reasons for film festivals to exist, and yet they proliferate like cancer clusters across the country.

Film festivals are run by stupid people like me. Five years ago, in an attempt to fight the rising tide of boring Asian art-house movies, I helped start the New York Asian Film Festival, which was devoted to pop movies from Asia, movies with Godzilla in them, movies that were like Taxi Driver only with handicapped people, and musicals with singing raccoons. We’ve programmed over a dozen festivals since then, but that still doesn’t make us smart. If we were smart, we’d just pay $10 and see a movie in a theater. Instead, we spend $3,000 to bring a print over from Taiwan and then have to convince 200 people that they are panting mad to see it, too.

A premiere, despite what US Weekly tells us, is not when the paparazzi line up on either side of a red carpet and shoot photos of Tara Reid’s breasts. A premiere is merely the first time a movie is shown in a particular location, and for a film festival, accruing premieres is like gathering experience points in Dungeons & Dragons. Accumulate enough premieres and people start taking your festival seriously. Every festival has different rules on how fresh a film must be: Cannes insists on the international premiere (first screening outside its home country). Toronto insists on the North American premiere. The Williamsburg Film Festival insists on the Brooklyn premiere.

The big film festivals prowl the waters of international cinema like megalodons, and producers and distributors with films lie there, helpless and still, hoping to be swallowed up. To premiere at Cannes is glorious. If Cannes won’t take you, then perhaps Toronto or Rotterdam will. Or maybe Venice? There’s always Sundance. Seattle? No? San Francisco, then? The Wichita International Festival of Foreign Film? Someone? Anyone?

Securing a premiere is a delicate psychological game. For distributors, there is one rule: Never commit to a festival unless all better offers have been exhausted. But each festival programmer has to announce his lineup early to boost ticket sales, and that’s hard to do when everyone is waiting to hear back from Cannes. It’s like a first date: Both distributor and festival programmer want the same thing, but neither wants to be the first one to say it. So, you wait, you e-mail a little, you play it cool.

Normally this needy dance happens by e-mail or over the phone, with you clinging to the sweaty receiver while the producer of Devil Fetus tells you that he needs to hear back from France before he can commit to your festival. But there are several events each year where the humiliation can happen in person. They’re called film markets. They spring up in convention centers all over the world, jammed with booths of distributors selling movies like Animal Sex IV and Little Shaolin Ninja. The hotshot festival programmers linger at the booths and get romanced with extravagant swag from the films: production sketches, location shots, scripts. Losers like me are told there are no screener tapes of a movie available, but aren’t I cute for asking.

If you emerge from this ritual humiliation with a few premieres in hand, then you need to get your prints. Possession is nine-tenths of a film festival. More than once a film has been promised to a festival and then, the day before the screening, a call comes from the distributor revealing that the print is in some unlikely location and, hey, why don’t you just play the DVD instead?

If and when the print arrives, either in rusty, corroded cans or in a giant, 60-pound ball of packing tape, you’re determined to get it screened no matter how dusty, dirty, scratched, or torn it is. We once programmed a retrospective of old kung fu films at a local theater and our prints looked like a collection of ex-convicts who had been trained to sneak into occupied Europe and assassinate Hitler: scarred, battered, and problematic. From inside one of the cans we occasionally heard scuttling noises. Every night we had to harden our hearts as the projectionist staggered out of the booth an hour before showtime to tell us that the evening’s print was unplayable.

“It’s too dirty. It’s missing frames. There was a rat in the can.”

“Make it play,” we’d snarl, pushing him back in the booth. “It’ll play. Everyone else can do it. Why can’t you?”

By the end of the festival, the projectionist was pale and shaking with anxiety. Prints snapped like icicles, one briefly burst into flames, the floor beneath the projector was littered with dust, dirt, insect parts, and garbage that fell from the prints as they unspooled. But the festival happened.

And if you land prints, prepare for the shipping costs to ruin your life. Early in our career as programmers, we got two contradictory e-mails. One was from the festival that was to receive a print from us, insisting it was common knowledge that the festival that played a film prior to yours would pay for shipping. The other e-mail was from the festival before ours, which had custody of the print, insisting that the opposite was true: We were responsible for the shipping coming from them.

This is a gray area, and it generally means that you get stuck paying shipping in both directions. Your average can of film weighs about 60 pounds. Ship that to Japan and you’re looking at around $700 each way. Your nightmare is getting a call from the distributor telling you that the film will be at the Tel Aviv Film Festival a day before you, and you’ll be required to pay for overnight shipping. You weren’t planning on sending your children to college, were you?

Of course there’s another element to festival hell—namely, actually rounding up an audience to watch the damn thing. The short answer is: There’s no way to guarantee this. Your audience is determined by forces beyond your control. Many years ago, I lobbied hard to bring a movie to my festival called Comeuppance (heh). I thought it was a lovely film and audiences would really go for it. Seven people showed up. I sat in the theater while the movie played, calculating shipping costs and the rental fee versus ticket sales. My stomach cramped, and I dashed to the bathroom. As I crossed the lobby I saw the projectionist walking out the door.

“Where are you going?”

“I’m going to get dinner.”

“But … the movie.”

“It’ll be fine,” he said. “No one’s in there, anyways.”