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Spike Lee premiered his last indie narrative feature, Red Hook Summer, at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, where it ended up getting acquired for distribution by Variance Films. He's back this year with another indie - Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, which, notably, he financed via a Kickstarter - but this time he chose a different platform for his premiere: the American Black Film Festival.
As iconic a filmmaker as he is, there's little doubt Lee could have premiered the film more or less wherever he wanted, so the decision to premiere at a relatively small and unknown festival - given the options he surely had before him - is an interesting one, and one that highlights an important point: with established films that are sure to receive a high level of attention, premiering at a giant film festival is only so important.
For young or relatively unknown filmmakers, it goes without saying that premiering at a major film festival confers an incredible level of importance: status, reputation, recognition, merit. This is the way the system works, and for the most part it seems to work relatively well; it's often the case that the next strong crop of indie filmmakers does tend to emerge out of the big independent fests. Yet for a filmmaker whose legacy is already cemented, like Lee, the necessity of premiering at a big festival is not as strong.
This is the way the system works, and for the most part it seems to work relatively well; it's often the case that the next strong crop of indie filmmakers does tend to emerge out of the big independent fests.
The two things most important for filmmakers to get out of festivals - respect for the film's merit and the opportunity to sell the film, both provided by the viewership the festival reaches - are things that will be available to any film by Lee or any other filmmaker of his status. Buyers are aware of him, and viewers take notice; the filmmaker provides the audience, and so the festival's ability to provide an audience is not as necessary.
What are the implications? It'll be interesting to see if more big-time filmmakers follow Lee's path. It's unlikely, but even if there is a small sea change, it could be beneficial to the industry if other big name filmmakers take their indie premieres to smaller, growing fests.
The benefits are twofold: this would free up more slots at the bigger festivals to smaller, unknown filmmakers who could really benefit from the exposure, and it would bring more exposure to smaller, worthy fests that are looking to grow. The end result could be a more diverse, healthier film festival ecosystem, with more opportunities and legitimacy for all parties involved.