As a freelance film critic looking to get involved with film festivals, I feared that talks at the International Film Festival Summit might be too specialised for me. True, I was one of only two film critics in a room of about 40 people, many of whom had vast experience in founding, financing, organising and programming film festivals: about half gave keynote addresses or participated in panels to share their knowledge. In-depth knowledge of a subject can make it difficult to talk about it without going into the kind of detail that will bore the uninitiated or blind them with science. Yet most of what these highly knowledgeable speakers had to say was completely accessible to the novice. The name ‘summit’ also evokes a vast, potentially intimidating gathering of people, but this summit was a personal and welcoming affair, hosted in a cosy meeting room at the Hotel du Louvre, right in the middle of Paris’s first arrondissement.
Over two days, I listened to the advice and opinions of experienced professionals covering every key area of running a film festival, including programming, financing, film markets, new technology, and originality. The speakers were connected with a range of (mainly European) festivals, big and small: Venice, Cannes, Moscow, Paris Cinema, Stockholm, Oldenburg, the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival, the Deauville American Film Festival and the European Independent Film Festival. There were special guest speakers such as Chris Fujiwara, Artistic Director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival, and Axel Brücker, founder of the Trailer Museum. Michel Hazanavicius also made an appearance to accept the summit’s Best Festival Film of the Year award for The Artist.
Referencing Giorgio Agamben’s The Coming Community, Fujiwara gave an erudite address on the role of film festivals in bringing people together and developing a trans-national, universal community, one that goes beyond national identity and special interest. He made a point which may encounter some resistance in a world which leans increasingly towards individuals interacting with their personal screens: he argued that cinema must be a shared experience, and that watching a movie alone (specifically on DVD at home) fundamentally diminishes the experience. Readers are welcome to comment below regarding their feelings on the matter: is there a special pleasure to watching a DVD on your own at home, and (screen size, and sound/image quality aside), do you feel you benefit from a communal experience even if there is only a handful of other, silent people in the cinema? Do also respond to Fujiwara’s central argument: that festivals have the potential to create a universal community by drawing attention to common concerns (art, the human experience) over national boundaries and other factors which separate us from the wider world.
Fujiwara’s contribution was the most philosophical: his most concrete piece of advice was that programmers should allow the films to guide the festival’s programme, rather than seeking to impose a pre-existing vision on the festival. Other speakers focused entirely on practicalities, of which I’m going to share some of the most useful and interesting:
-Festivals should focus on full houses and good experiences.
-To appeal to a diverse audience, you should have a diverse group of people selecting films. At the same time, programmers shouldn’t just go by personal taste: a ‘bad’ film may appeal to audiences and attract media attention.
-While most festivals boast of being bigger every year, there is value in intimacy: even if you are a festival in a large city, by choosing a small neighbourhood within that city, you can create an intimate atmosphere which encourages people at the festival to talk to each other.
-Be open to new technology: making films (securely) available online can give people in the industry a chance to watch the films before the festival, so that they can focus on networking during the festival. A festival could also sell video-on-demand passes to audiences, who would then [pace Chris Fujiwara] be able to watch the festival’s films online at home (currently a challenge because of rights, however).
-Look after your guests (the ‘talent’ and those around them)—especially if they’re not paid to come to the festival.
-Look after your sponsors: while keeping in mind that sponsorship money is for the festival, not promoting the sponsors, be generous, flexible and reliable with them (e.g. offering free seats, posters, a chance to meet a favourite actor/actress).
-Have your sponsors work together to promote each other’s products (e.g. a sponsor restaurant serving the drinks of a sponsor coffee company): this is known as cross-marketing.
Finally, one of the speakers at the summit pointed out that people in different areas of the film industry (producers, distributors, festival directors, etc.) don’t understand each other’s points of view: it would be very constructive if a festival were able to put together such a diverse group of people in one room, so that each could finally understand the concerns and motivations of the others.
The International Film Festival Summit was held on April 3rd and 4th 2012. For more information on the programme, and future summits in other European and US cities, visit http://filmfestivalsummit.com/iffseuropeagenda.html