26 March 2010

The Cleveland Film Fest - Getting It Right

by guest columnist Frederick Marx. Follow him on Twitter.

I just got back from the Cleveland Film festival where I showed my film to very enthusiastic audiences at two sold out 300 person screenings. It’s gratifying to attend a festival where it seems like they’re doing most things right. People queue for hours to get into obscure, unknown films like mine. The excitement in the air is palpable.

Most festivals get stuck on a treadmill of increased Hollywood expectation. Wealthy donors usually want to hobnob with stars. So most festivals do what they can to bring them in. Traditionally, the bigger the stars, the happier the donors. You can usually get a quick snapshot of a festival – where it’s been and where it’s going – by the wattage of the stars they attract. An up and coming festival will only be able to bring up and coming stars (or over the hill ones). But unless stars adopt a festival on an ongoing basis, committing to helping you out with time or money year after year (like Alec Baldwin does with the Hamptons Film Festival), they will not contribute to the ongoing growth and health of the festival. They help with glamour, prestige, attracting press and PR, but they don’t help build and sustain an audience.

Stars also bring with them their own set of problems. The bigger the star, the bigger the outlay of time and money to accommodate them. In keeping with the privileges of fame and wealth in this country, stars demand a lot of attention and significant outlays of cash. Though they’re the people most capable of paying their own way, they are the most particular when it comes to demanding free, special treatment: first class plane tickets, top flight hotel suites, wining and dining, security... The biggest stars also travel with their entourages who must be accommodated as well.

So no matter how pleased your big donors are to fork over greater and greater amounts of cash for access to stars, your average film festival budget grows commesurately top heavy – you spend more and more money for galas, receptions, parties, press conferences, awards and other ceremonies, classy swag, panels… Meanwhile, your average audience member has limited to no access to the stars and high wattage events anyway.

The situation gets more complicated, and in the long term often worse, when distribution companies become festival sponsors. No festival can risk pissing off a big donor company when their contribution may comprise a healthy percentage of the operating budget. Not surprisingly, those companies’ films are given special consideration and are usually the first to be put on the program. These are usually bigger budget films, perhaps with stars, that often come with a certain prestige. But are they necessarily better films? Often, no.

What does a distribution company get out of its sponsorship? For a mere, let’s say $250,000/year, they get to launch their products in the marketplace with the perfect branding opportunity. Their film will become associated with “independents,” and eventually marketed as something “cool,” something trendy, that will appeal to those in the marketplace they’re trying to reach. They also soak up hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of free publicity. Being able to say that your film screened at, say, Sundance or Toronto, has real dollar value to those selling it.

So who’s driving the bus? As the focus grows on red carpets, flashy events, bigger movies, all too often the audience seems to be left behind. The film festival budgets may increase, the press and attention may grow, the audience numbers might even increase for a time, but festivals that grow this way, thinking it’s their logical path to success, are only stepping on to a treadmill that will run ever faster. Rather than focus on raw numbers – growing budgets, growing receipts, and growing attendance figures - they should also be asking: Are the audiences not only getting bigger but getting more diverse? Are we reaching new segments of local society, new potential audiences? Are we creating more partnerships with local institutions? Are the audiences more enthusiastic? Are the films getting better? Is the audience offered more choice? Is the number of people wanting to volunteer growing?

Once a festival has sold its soul to the twin devils of distribution company sponsorship and donors demanding stars they’ve started down the road to what can prove unsustainable. Before you know it festivals that have a mission to serve independent film are catering almost exclusively to segments of the Hollywood industry.

Not in Cleveland.

Executive Director Marcie Goodman told me that they’ve experimented with more social events, more parties, but people don’t attend. Why? Because the audiences would rather be watching movies! That is an extremely good sign, symbolizing everything that’s right with the festival. When people would rather attend the films than schmooze with the stars you have a grounded, sensible, and devoted audience. An audience that can be supported and grown by judiciously expanding quality, diverse content. An audience that will be loyal, rather than come and go based on how much they like a certain star. An audience grounded in the love of cinema and ideas, not addicted to celebrity culture.

Cleveland, from what I can tell, doesn’t even go after stars. What they do go after are artists. The makers of the films, most of whom are relative unknowns. That’s a good sign. When a documentary like mine can sell out at 2:30 pm on one of the first warm, Spring afternoons (it was a Saturday, but still…) that’s another good sign. When film after film after film, documentaries as well as fiction, draw large enthusiastic crowds, that’s the best sign of all.

I think there should be truth in advertising. Festivals that profess showcasing “independent,” alternative films, non-Hollywood fare, should not screen semi-commercial ventures with distribution and TV deals already attached, with $1m+ budgets, featuring names from TV, Hollywood, and Broadway, perhaps wholly calculated to break a given director, writer, producer, actor, into Hollywood. These kinds of career-starting, resume building films are everywhere these days. With judicious attention, they are easily separated from films driven wholly by passion, by vision, by mission.

When festivals like Cleveland (and Big Sky, and Doc Edge to name two more) let the resume films go, let the stars and red carpets go, and just focus on bringing their audience the best, most varied kinds of films, you can be sure they’re building a foundation that can and will be sustained. But a festival that brings stars you have to wonder if it’s going to still be around in 5-10 years.

Frederick Marx  is an internationally acclaimed, Oscar and Emmy nominated producer/director with 35 years in the film business.   He was named a Chicago Tribune Artist of the Year for 1994, a 1995 Guggenheim Fellow, and a recipient of a Robert F. Kennedy Special Achievement Award.  His film HOOP DREAMS played in hundreds of theatres nationwide after winning the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival and was the first documentary ever chosen to close the New York Film Festival.  It was on over 100 “Ten Best” lists nationwide and was named Best Film of the Year by critics Roger Ebert, Gene Siskel, Gene Shalit, and Ken Turran and by the Chicago Film Critics Association. Ebert also named it Best Film of the Decade. It won numerous prestigious awards, including an Academy Nomination (Best Editing), Producer’s Guild, Editor’s Guild (ACE), Peabody Awards, the Prix Italia (Europe’s top documentary prize) and The National Society of Film Critics Award.  The New York, Boston, LA, and San Francisco Film Critics all chose it as Best Documentary, 1994.  Utne Reader named it one of 150 of humanity’s “essential works,” the Library of Congress recently added it to its prestigious National Film Registry and the International Documentary Association named it the Best Documentary Ever.


endmike said...

We were so honored and pleased you were able to come to Cleveland!! Glad I got to met you and glad you had a good time!

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