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The Secret Formula for a Great Film Festival

Variety logo Variety 12/14/2016 Peter Debruge
© Provided by Variety

Of the 1,000 or so film reviews Variety publishes annually, roughly two-thirds are written at film festivals — which is why, in 2014, I relocated to Europe for two years. The idea was to live on the international festival circuit, skipping from one “sprocket opera” to the next in a demanding attempt to cover the essentials in world cinema. I have since moved back to Los Angeles, but the experience taught me a few things.

You can’t beat Cannes.

When it comes to showcasing international films, the French fest is by far the leader. The world’s top auteurs deliberately make their films to be shown at the Palais, and some (such as Terrence Malick, with “Tree of Life”) have been known to wait an entire year for the honor. Given its unique status, Cannes gets first pick of world premieres (much as Sundance does with American independent films, which benefit more from playing Park City than from playing the Croisette), and though critics may quibble with the lineup at times, inclusion can propel a relatively obscure filmmaker (or country, even) onto the international stage.

Venice isn’t what it once was.

The Italian festival once rivaled Cannes in importance. While the program remains stellar, benefiting from a spot at the top of the awards-season calendar, in recent years, Venice has been overshadowed by Telluride and Toronto, which play many of the same movies mere hours or days later. Technically, Venice launched “Gravity,” “Birdman,” and “La La Land,” but those films’ Oscar runs effectively began with their North American receptions.

Fighting for premiere status undercuts premier status.

Major-market festivals such as Toronto, Berlin, and Busan manage to attract the level of press attention they do by debuting dozens (in some cases, upward of 100) new films: Critics flock there to review, distributors swarm to buy, agents descend to sign fresh talent. Yet there’s no way attendees can take in all that new content (much of which is only so-so anyway). Meanwhile, many second- and third-tier festivals, desperate to attract press and industry attendees, scramble to program films that were rejected by the others, yielding ever-weaker offerings overall. That’s the reason few respect the Rome film fest. But the worst offender is Tallinn Black Nights, with its massive lineup of marginal new films.

Better movies make for a better festival.

Many regional festivals fret about losing press and industry cache if they cut back on the number of premieres. Fair enough, but they would serve local audiencesbetter by delivering the cream of thecrop from the festival circuit, the way the New York Film Festival has done for years. (You can’t find a stronger lineup anywhere; being selected is a major honor — and a huge boost in awareness for the American market.)

Better yet, augment truly great films with local offerings.

By combining an impeccably curated selection of non-premieres with spotlights on films made in their own backyards, festivals such as Dubai, Sydney, Karlovy Vary, and Rio offer attendees a chance to catch up with great films they may have missed at previous events, alongside a sampling of what’s most deserving from their respective regions. Tokyo sets a great example, offering foreign attendees a showcase of standout Japanese commercial releases from earlier in the year. Likewise, Munich underscored its mission by opening with the year’s best German film, “Toni Erdmann,” shortly after it had played Cannes. (By contrast, cynics know to steer clear of German films at Berlin, Italian films at Venice, etc., as such premiere-driven events often miss out on their countries’ best debuts but are obliged to include a number of lesser local offerings in order to qualify for state funding.)

Finding a niche can give smaller fests an edge.

Can’t compete for the big premieres? Smart fests focus on a more specific category of film, as defined by genre, format (animation, documentaries, etc.), or a unifyingaesthetic. That approach has distinguished Locarno in recent years. In staying true to their esoteric personal tastes, Locarno artistic director Carlo Chatrian and programming head Mark Peranson have carved out a platform for minimalist- to-taxing art films, serving a narrow yet highly engaged audience. If you see people wearing leopard-spotted lanyards on the fest circuit, those are Locarno evangelists — and few other festivals inspire such cult-like enthusiasm from attendees.

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