Do you own a red carpet? Better get one, because the world of film festivals is coming to your house. As film moves online, the world of film festivals is changing in ways that no-one can predict. You can already watch a lot of festival films online, and that holds both promise and danger for festivals.

Cannes turned 64 this year, Venice is 68, and the Sydney Film Festival, which I ran for ten years, has just concluded its 58th edition, as of June 2011. There is no sense that these events are in trouble, and every sense that trouble may be coming. The question is whether the world’s film festivals can do anything about it.

It is hard to overstate the challenges. The old models for how festivals worked are under pressure, the new ones are not yet invented. The foundation idea of festivals is to curate programs from the top down – we picked the films for you, providing a conduit for stuff that was unlikely to reach you in any other way. In the cultural backwater of Australia in the 1950s, when both Sydney and Melbourne film festivals started, it was a job worth doing. The same conditions prevailed all around the world, outside a few key places. That was before art houses became popular in most major cities, before Australia had a multicultural channel (SBS) showing foreign film classics, and before the Internet. That last word should be INTERNET – because it’s the greatest force at work in the world of film right now, not just film festivals.

Film Festivals Come To Your Living Room

Some snippets from the trade papers: YouTube, owned by Google, is now making complete feature films and documentaries available to American and British users. North Americans can already buy movies from iTunes, Amazon or services offering on-demand streaming or Video on Demand (VOD). Netflix, which offers streaming and DVDs by mail, has 100,000 titles on DVD and 23 million subscribers. In Australia, Quickflix and Bigpond Movies provide similar DVD-by-mail services. Hulu, a free, ad-supported streamer of TV and movies in the US, is planning to launch in Australia. Illegal downloading is rife here already, of course. All of this proliferation is across multiple devices, from laptop to phone to iPad. So then why then do we need film festivals? Isn’t everything going online?

Actually, it’s not. Many of the problems of traditional distribution still exist. The companies supplying these new services are not necessarily equipped or inclined to venture far outside the mainstream yet, so festivals still have that role – at least in theory. We staged retrospectives at the Sydney Film Festival of Preston Sturges, Roberto Rossellini and Yasujiro Ozu – all acknowledged masters. Try finding any of their films on BigPond Movies, or even something by Lars von Trier. They have one film featuring Ingrid Bergman, none directed by Ingmar Bergman, but they do have Striptease, by Andrew Bergman. You see the problem? I’m not criticising BigPond Movies, which boasts 44,000 titles, but there is a lot they can’t or won’t do.

On the other hand, this is already changing. The VOD provider MUBI will soon launch a premium service in Australia in partnership with art house distributor Hopscotch. Their titles will be available for download day-and-date with the DVD release. If people want to watch good cinema in good cinemas, why wouldn’t they want them to be available online as well? Home screens just get better each year, and the promise of super fast broadband and huge bandwidth offers enormous potential for film lovers – and for film festivals that are willing to think in new ways.

Geoffrey Gilmore gets paid to think in new ways. He ran the Sundance Film Festival for 19 years, leaving in early 2009 to take over as creative director of Tribeca Enterprises, the company that runs New York’s Tribeca Film Festival, and Tribeca Cinemas. Robert De Niro is to Tribeca what Robert Redford was to Sundance – a guiding spirit and a source of endless entrée. He hired Gilmore to dream the future of film festivals, and their ideas are ambitious.

"One of the reasons I left Sundance was because I felt that the old days of film festivals, the idea of how you form a community at a festival, had become a steadily decreasing phenomenon. Even the multifaceted community we see in a place like Cannes was less and less real…"

The festivals at Cannes, Venice and Berlin – three of the big five – began primarily as cultural platforms for art films, although there was a lot of politics too. Venice, the world’s first film festival, began in 1932 and quickly became Mussolini’s plaything. Cannes was a reaction against that. In 1938 the Nazis had made sure that Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia won in Venice rather than Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion. It was a classic victory of war over peace. The French took their ball and went home, kicking off Cannes in 1946 as the ‘free world’ festival. Berlin followed five years later with major American support - American stars and films were supposed to cheer up the Berliners and reform them. These three festivals had the game sewn up until the mid-1970s, when a handful of North American cineastes decided they wanted a seat at the table. The big three became the big five with the growth of Toronto and Sundance, which were more openly commercial.

Toronto was a direct reaction against the snobbishness of the European festivals. To this day, Cannes insists on photographers wearing dinner suits to shoot on the red carpet. Toronto has no competition as such and no formal market, but it’s become an essential place for buyers and sellers to meet, and a launch pad for the major studios. Sundance began as a forum for the new American independents, who were not getting much notice from the major studios. That all changed with the rise of the mini-majors like Miramax. Sundance is now Hollywood’s talent farm.

The Sydney and Melbourne film festivals, which began in the early 1950’s, were always about art, more than commerce. They grew out of the film society movement, so that enthusiasts could get access to the films they were only reading about in the Cannes and Venice programs. Both are now mid-level festivals – old, established, well-regarded regional forums, below the big five, but still influential in their own markets. Adelaide and Brisbane are younger but growing in importance, partly because they have brought fresh ideas.

Geoff Gilmore says this old world order is changing because of the Internet. He believes the whole curatorial aesthetic has to change – that’s why this year’s TFF featured the debut of a major new game, LA Noire, an experiment in Internet storytelling. He believes festivals have to figure out how to do online distribution as well as promotion. That’s what he is trying to do at Tribeca.

"So many filmmakers would tell me that the point of their highest visibility was when their films played at my festival. I decided we had to take advantage of that, so the idea at Tribeca, in a nutshell, is to use the festival platform to showcase the work in a way that helps find distribution for that filmmaker. How do you do day-and-date releasing, so that as we’re showcasing work in the festival, we’re also at the same time doing day-and-date VOD?"

Good question.

Piers Handling, CEO at Toronto, believes no one has made that work yet, but a lot of festivals are trying. Tribeca partnered with a series of VOD networks this year to offer their films online. "We put 12 films in 40 million homes out of Tribeca last year; we’re doing 26 films in 40 million homes this year," says Gilmore.

"When I started the online Festival at Tribeca, it wasn’t just the extension of the festival to an audience that wasn’t there. It was a way of creating an online community that goes both ways. It was a way for a filmmaker to speak using social media to an audience that is not in front of them, and a way for an audience to type something into a filmmaker and say 'I wanna ask you a question about that film'... To me, that’s what that online community could become and it isn’t yet. It should be."

What’s driving these changes is a fundamental shift in the way young people access screen culture. Some call it digital democracy. The old curatorial methods may become irrelevant. Gilmore says that young Americans hardly read critics, or buy newspapers. They find their culture in new ways, and they don’t wait for critical opinion. They swarm. In May 2011, six million people downloaded a new movie trailer in the first 24 hours.

Where does this leave festivals, even ones with a highly active online presence? Piers Handling believes that online will never replace the communal experience of seeing a film in a darkened theatre, and it won’t diminish the need for skilled curatorial advice.

"With all this proliferation of media, I have noticed that there is a huge desire for curatorial voices, for gatekeepers. I think the value of gatekeepers is increasing with the proliferation of choices... There is an immense amount of material but how do you distinguish that material from everything else? There is just so much noise in that universe…and young people tell me they still want to be guided through that universe.

"I think the agendas that festivals set out to achieve 40 or 50 years ago have actually been accomplished. We have now arrived and we are now a part of the industry. I think we were always, at the outset, knocking on the door and saying, we are advocating for a whole crop of films that aren’t a part of the mainstream. That’s what we’re here for, we’re working a niche. A lot of those films have now found a place in the market."

Clare Stewart, who has just completed her fifth and final festival as artistic director of the Sydney Film Festival, sees only promise in the new order. "I don’t think there is a move away from big communal events at all and as long as film festivals are responsive to change, the future looks exciting. The digital revolution is already multiplying the platforms via which a film festival can occur, in a way that enriches and expands upon the core event, without overriding the original experience of being in a cinema, watching a movie, and engaging with the creators. In my view, that points to a dynamic future for film festivals.

"From a programming and curatorial perspective, I find this exciting. We get to generate multiple kinds of conversations about the films we screen, and the program overall. More can be said, in different ways, through a multitude of channels."

I hope she’s right. If not, we may be entering a world where everything is available but no one has seen the same films. If Geoff Gilmore is right, you won’t need to be in a major city to go a film festival, because you’ll be able to watch the films day-and-date on your television, computer or mobile device, for a small fee. You’ll text or email your questions to Lars or Mike Leigh or David Michod in real time from Gunnedah, and they’ll talk about their film online from Rekjavik, or Park City, Utah or the State Theatre. You’ll log in to a festival site to play the latest games, ahead of their release, and become a participant, rather than an observer, in the making of an Internet story. Film festivals will become distribution outlets for films that may never go near Hollywood for money or approval, returning money to filmmakers.

If Piers Handling is right, the growth of all these streams on the Internet increases the need for strong curatorial voices, and that expertise comes partly out of festivals. It’s true that Cate Blanchett is unlikely to show up to your home red carpet, but you’ll probably be able to simulate walking up the one at Cannes by putting some sort of box on your head. You could wear boardshorts at that festival. 
 



This is an edited version of an article that appeared first in The Sydney Morning Herald, June 4, 2011.