Film Festivals: An Alternate Distribution System
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Introduction:

The key cause of festival proliferation is mostly linked with newly active independent and foreign-language filmmakers who yearn for enthusiastic audiences that prefer watching the non-traditional but innovative cinema as opposed to the typical Hollywood studio product, which dominates film screens not only in America but also across most of Europe.

According to the data provided by the European Audiovisual Observatory, cinema attendance in the 27 member states of the European Union decreased by 1.3% in 2006-2007 to 919 million admissions. Furthermore the data given above shows that 14 out of 27 European Union states have suffered a decline in cinema attendance for national films between 2006 and 2007. For example, countries such as Slovakia experienced an extremely poor year with an 18.3% decline in cinema admissions in 2007, while Hungary represented a devastating 13.8% decrease. In comparison however other European nations like Lithuania show cinema-attending figures were up by a phenomenal 34%, while Hungary represent an annual growth of 13.8%. In fact the total market share for European produced films (based on number of cinema admissions) has increased from 25.1% in 2003 to 28.8% in 2007. While these figures are somewhat promising, it is imperative to take into account that films from the US have captured more than 62% of the European market share between 2003 and 2007. At least 24 out of the top 25 films by the number of cinema admissions in Europe for 2007 and 2008 were US films or US/European co-productions.

Such figures and data show that US, or to be more specific Hollywood films, reign supreme over the European Union box office. Cinemagoers in Europe clearly have a vigorous appetite for US films, while in general, ignoring their own national products and as Hollywood tightens its grip on commercial distribution, films that aren’t handled by the studios specialty divisions depend on festival screenings to reach audiences and build support among critics. Smaller distributors select their films from festival programs, as do companies needing material for television and home video.

Moreover, an unknown film comes to a festival, in order to be propelled beyond the festival. It wants to enter into distribution and the various exhibition outlets. According to Elsaesser, “films use the festival circuit as the muscle that pumps it through the larger system and in this way festivals increasingly act as interface and membrane.” Recent palm d or winner, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Thai film, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives for example, emphasizes upon the fact that a successful film at a festival may very well be invited to join the commercial system. Upon completing the production of Uncle Boonmee, the Asian filmmaker was at first, uncertain whether the film would even be released in his own home country but shortly after it’s premier in Cannes in 2010, the film got picked up for theatrical release by a number of distribution companies, including Strand Releasing (USA), Pyramide Distribution (France) and the Match Factory (Worldwide).

For international filmmakers and national film industries that struggle to compete with Hollywood’s commercial hegemony, see “film festivals as a not-to-be missed opportunity to both earn money and promote their goods to the fullest extent.” Cultural theorist, Shohini Chaudhuri states that, ‘film festivals are important to considerations of “world cinema”, as they facilitate cultural exchange between different national cinemas and provide an alternative global distribution network for challenging, experimental and otherwise un-marketable films.’ Unlike a typical Hollywood studio product, which will usually have a distributor attached since inception, films from other countries, however, tend to heavily depend on festival participation as it secures them circulation beyond their original environment. German-Turkish director Faith Akin’s Gegen die Wand/Head On in 2004, for example, secured festival showings at more than one hundred international festivals and later on theatrical and DVD distribution deals for a wide range of territories, such as Germany, France, UK, Spain and Chile. Screening films globally in this manner enables audiences to experience world cinema that would otherwise never be shown in local venues.

However, only a select few of the festivals play a key role in the global circulation of certain types of foreign non-mainstream cinematic products. The Sundance festival which takes place in January, is the most important site where new work by American independents is being showcased in order to fill the few slots that art house cinemas or the dedicated screens of the multiplexes keep open for the minority interest cinema. Over the years, major distributors such as Miramax have bought theatrical rights for many independently produced films that have been screened in Sundance. A few of these films include Sex, Lies and Videotape, The Crying game and The Piano.

Then there is Toronto in early September where American programmers and distributors pick up the best films that Europe and Asia have to offer. “The most exciting new films from across Asia are showcased at the festival in Pusan, Korea in October, where a selection is picked up and presented at Rotterdam at the end of January, so that European and American programmers can take their picks and proliferate the films exposure by scheduling them for further screening.”

But most festival films don’t get distributed commercially outside their country of origin. There simply isn’t room for them all in the market, and wide exposure on the festival circuit can convince distributors that the audience for a film has already peaked. Portuguese director Pedro Costa, for example is acclaimed for using his “ascetic style to depict the marginalized people in desperate living situations.” In recent years his films such as Colossal Youth have been shown across continents at festivals in Hong Kong, Buenos Aires, Belgrade, Tokyo and Locarno but unfortunately has not been made available for official distribution. Even despite the publicity a film receives, showing it at a festival can’t repay the costs of production. As critic Roger Elbert has pointed out: “A good film will play seventy festivals and then that’s it. It never gets picked up by a distributor, an it never plays in any theaters, and the people who made the film are expected to pay for the shipping costs and to send over the press kits and maybe send in a star or a director.”

Despite such drawbacks, however, festivals of all sizes have been instrumental in choosing, from all the thousand of films made outside Hollywood, those that might find international audiences. “Today the festival circuit not only supports and facilitates the distribution of non-Hollywood cinema; it has expanded sufficiently and has built up to be regarded as the distribution network itself.” However it is vital to acknowledge that the global business of film distribution at the festival circuit would never have really existed without the emergence of international markets, where professionals from the industry gather to buy and sell motion pictures, acquire rights and of course network. The following chapter will now explore some of these crucial markets and examine the economical role they play in supporting both world and art house cinema.

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