Richard Brody of the New Yorker has said, “There are as many ways of making movies as there are movies, and there are as many experiences of movies as there are viewers.” You could say the same for the film festival; there are as many ways to program a festival as there are festivals. Film festivals take place all over the world and showcase work that represents a vast range of the human condition. And yet, the idea of a film festival is influenced by the earliest renditions of film gatherings in the 1930s and 40s, subsequently expanded by individual creativity. Here in Columbia, the Citizen Jane Film Festival (CJ) celebrated its 10th edition in 2017. Be it due to influence and/or available resources, its format (four days, filmmaker-focused, non-competition) bears close resemblance to its local neighbor, the True/False Film Fest (T/F, 15th edition in 2018). T/F itself shares traits with Telluride in Colorado, and they all exist as a subset of a larger community. The oldest festivals in the world have reached retirement age but continue to work on a level with vast amount of resources and clout. Cannes, Melbourne, Berlin, and Venice are some festivals that have gone on for 60 or 70 years, all the while setting the bar high for festival programming with their continued success and established prestige.
The mission of Cannes, one of the leading festivals in the world, is “to draw attention to and raise the profile of films, with the aim of contributing towards the development of cinema, boosting the film industry worldwide and celebrating cinema at an international level.” Cannes spreads its official selections across various categories, with different purposes for each category. In Competition films consist of “arthouse cinema with a wide audience appeal”, and in 2017 included titles like Good Time by the Safdie Brothers (Heaven Knows What), Happy End by Michael Haneke (Amour, White Ribbon), and The Beguiled by Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation). These films compete for the Palme d’Or (similar to the Golden Bear in Berlin or the Golden Lion in Venice), which heightens a film’s marketability.
For many industry members, the primary objective at a film festival is to successfully navigate the marketplace; there are times when people attend festivals solely to pitch to potential investors and find money to fund their projects, and films can live or die by the exposure they gain from screening and finding distribution at a festival. Cannes hosts the Marché du Film, a marketplace that attracts 12,000 professionals annually, including producers, sellers, buyers, and programmers. Similarly, Berlin boasts the enormous European Film Market, where hundreds of companies gather to showcase upcoming productions. If you’re an industry member, it is all too easy to forget one of the main attractions of any film festival: the simple joy of watching a new film in a sold-out auditorium. The exhibition experience is shaped by the programming team; its job is to make sure that the films programmed reflect the mission of the festival and expectations of an audience. If a line-up disappoints on a promise, it is difficult for attendees to trust a festival with their investment (a high-priced pass), and this may affect the fest’s future.
Some festivals attract massive numbers of attendees by programming hundreds of titles, and can last up to almost a month. The Seattle Film Festival takes place over three and a half weeks, and regularly programs upwards of 400 films. Festivals like Seattle typically manage these monstrous line-ups by developing categories (similar to older, more prestigious festivals). Common categories include competitions, shorts, international, fiction/non-fiction, sports, music, and midnight (horror). Other festivals rely on a more heavily curated line-up. Festivals that program 40 to 50 features have a good chance to retain their audiences based on the strength of the selections. Telluride takes this a step further and keeps its selective line-up a secret until passholders arrive. Several large festivals focus primarily on non-fiction stories and characters, including Hot Docs, International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam (IDFA), and CPH:DOX.
Smaller fests have the potential to carve niches in their respective communities. For Columbia, Missouri, True/False provides a celebration of the non-fiction craft in a concise 40-feature line-up, and the Citizen Jane Film Festival showcases strong filmmaking from female and female-identifying filmmakers. Though all of these fests approach programming in their own way, they all contribute to a collective film culture.