Festivals are as much part of the overall marketing plan for many films (particularly foreign) as a full-page ad in the Newspaper or a television spot. So much public relation effort is poured into creating interest in world cinema films at top festivals like Berlin, Cannes and Toronto that they tend to have their biggest impact at that time, which is not always but often more than a year before they are released in the US or UK . In today’s current media climate good word of mouth and buzz can follow a film within minutes after its preliminary festival or market screening and for those distributors specializing in the theatrical release of art house and foreign language titles, this is frequently seen as an “inexpensive promotional tool”.
An auspicious example of this can be seen with Miramax’s 1997, Japanese language film, Shall We Dance? which was given a special screening at the Cannes Film Festival, after it’s world premier at Sundance. The film was suppose to open in the US, in May after its showing in Cannes, but Miramax decided to push the release date forward by two months in order to build press and word of mouth at other essential festivals. Since then, Shall We Dance? has gone on to becoming the most lucrative Japanese title at the U.S. box office and also the most profitable non English speaking film for Miramax by grossing a total of $9,499,091 . A similar strategy was adopted by Sony Picture’s hugely successful Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, (HK/CN/TW: 2000) which started with an ecstatic out of competition screening at Cannes, then trevelled to the critics favorite, Telluride and finally ending it’s run at Toronto by winning the popular audience award. In this way, “festival sites become an integral part of the marketing strategy laid out by a distributor.”
It really shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that moviegoers visit the cinema to escape reality. People want to experience laughter or sadness or for that matter any emotion that makes them forget about their daily lives, even if it’s just for ninety minutes. Add a couple of big Hollywood actors to the equation then the experience is only enhanced further. However for those specialty films that lack the presence of lavish stars or commercial appeal, can not help but rely on festivals as a way of assuring both potential viewers and distributors that their movie is money well spent.
A specific case in point is The Scent of Green Papaya (VN/FR: 1993) by Vietnamese director, Anh Hung Tran. The film, although artistically beautiful lacked mainstream sensibilities usually required to attract a Western audience but this situation rapidly changed when the 1993 Cannes jury awarded The Scent of Green Papaya with the Camera d’ Or for best feature. Instantly acquired by First Look Pictures after its victory in Cannes, the film traveled to the Toronto festival, where it was treated as a must see event by both the press and critics alike . This clearly infers that through the festival circuit, a non-mainstream film like, The Scent of the Green Papaya can gain great exposure and find distributors who are ready to take a gamble.
While screening at different festivals does lead to effective publicity, it is also important to recognize that the success or failure for new films traveling the festival circuit would remain unknown to the general public if it was not for the efforts of critics and the coverage provided by their appropriate media outlets. Festivals of all sizes invite film critics alongside press members in order to keep audiences updated on the latest discoveries emerging from world cinema.
The International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI) for instance send their representatives to sit on jury ceremonies and hand out prizes to worthy contenders and distributors may seek advice from critics about promising titles. Bordwell states that, “there is a network of people [FIPRESCI] who go from festival to festival all over the world, and gossip is in large part the glue of the circuit .” Indeed for many unknown filmmakers who depend on festival publicity, the final judgment passed by one or two people can make all the difference. This was at least the case for director Carl Franklin, whose independently produced film, One False Move (USA: 1992) caught the eye of critic Roger Ebert at the Floating Film Festival. In Ebert’s opinion, “One False Move was a gem” and soon the word got out, ultimately resulting in the films acquisition by Sony Pictures.
In some sense, a positive critic review for certain art house or niche films can be seen as an official stamp of approval that aids in generating plenty of awareness. Alfonso Cuarón’s Mexican comedy/drama, Y tu mamá también (MX: 2001) is a classic example of an engaging, pleasurable film that owes much of its success to the 2001 Venice Film Festival. The initial attention given by critics at Venice created ample interest to draw an audience and eventually ensured more than $33m in cinemas worldwide.
Over the years, noteworthy foreign language films have premiered at major festivals all across the world. City of God (BR/FR: 2002) played Toronto, The Motorcycle Diaries (AR: 2004) premiered at Cannes and The Lives of Others (DE: 2006) was a Locarno audience favorite. Of course, there are hundreds of other foreign films that have premiered at the same events and failed to make a popular or critical impact. Nonetheless they were exposed, potential buyers got to taste their quality first hand and critics and journalists provided them with attention and consideration.