Why Film Festivals Still Matter

May 22, 2012

Last month I did some thorough coverage of the Tribeca Film Festival, and with Cannes in full swing now and studios spending millions to promote their latest an important question has arisen: are film festivals still an effective way to hype or sell a film in the age of digital screening?


Film festivals have existed since the 1930s, but they really came of age in the late 1970s and early 1980s when Robert Redford and his Sundance Institute turned what was once the Utah Film Festival into the best initial promotional tool for mid and low-budget films.  Virtually every independent film that was a hit in the late 1980s to mid-1990s started gaining its first buzz from Sundance and other festivals.  The Oscar-winning powerhouse studio Miramax virtually built its empire on films that made their mark at Sundance, and it's likely we would've never heard of talents like Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, Paul Thomas Anderson, Steven Soderbergh, Kevin Smith, Darren Aronofsky, and Edward Burns if they didn't have film festivals to exhibit their earliest films to producers.  If you like any 1990s independent films or filmmakers, you have film festivals to thank. 


But as with most things in entertainment, that was then and this is now.  There hasn't been a major hit that came out of Sundance since 2006's Little Miss Sunshine (although 2009's Precious certainly did strong business).  Frankly it used to seem like there would be two or three large-to-small hit Sundance films every year, but now that rate has been reduced to once or twice every five years.  It seems that film festivals might not be the effective marketing tool they once were.  Of course, festivals have tried to combat this by getting more eyeballs to watch their films: with my press pass for Tribeca I was able to watch two dozen or so of the festival's movies online.  After all, what will get more eyeballs: screening your film at a film festival or streaming your movie online?  That poses the question: is having a centralized location for film festivals a marketing method that is just too archaic and expensive in an era when films can be streamed around the world instantly?  In other words, should physical festivals be replaced by virtual festivals?


I'd argue no.  Film festivals build centralized buzz in a way that many disconnected people watching around the world can't.  Studio representatives who are looking to acquire films at film festivals want to hear and see the reactions of people in the theaters and coming out of the theaters when potential acquisitions screen.  One of the more fascinating happenings that came out of my experience at Tribeca was that a number of films that were expected to be surefire hits based on pre-release buzz were at best underwhelming and at worst awful, and films that had little-to-no buzz before ended up with a fair amount of praise and good reviews.  


Regardless, it's likely that the amount of people who see films at film festivals and then begin the initial buzz through word of mouth (i.e. which really means "social media" these days) wouldn't have been quite as significant had there been no centralized physical location to see the movies. How a movie plays in a theater in front of an audience is completely different than even on the biggest computer or television screen.


Those reactions are important: the initial rants and raves might be the deciding factor in whether or not a studio decides to distribute a particular film.  So while film festivals may not be the prime showcases that they used to be, they still remain an important way of getting new filmmakers and low-budget films noticed.

Chris McKittrick is a New York-based cinephile who also writes for MovieBuzzers.com and DailyActor.com. He is also a published writer of both fiction and nonfiction. Check him out on Twitter at @ChrisMcKit


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