The New Film Festival Half-Life

In a recent interview I did with the Creative Capacity I waxed lyrical about the way in which the gears of the film distribution and exhibition sector were perhaps not running to the same speed as the production sector whose technical development has seen a revolution in quality, access, mobility, sound, colour, picture and cost.

To my eye the distribution and exhibition sector internationally has largely remained the same for decades with multiplex dominance and the distribution mechanisms in each territory controlled by a small number of companies despite the break-down of territorial viewer access that technology has provided. I have no issue with those companies btw – many of their founders and people I count as personal friends and who I consult to at various times.

As an aside I’ve just had the opportunity to preview the excellent documentary Cinema Futures which rigorously examines the changing shape of this sector and the potential risks and benefits the theatrical cinematic digital revolution will have on the archive and preservation. See it if you can (main pic and below).


What I didn’t mention in the Creative Capacity article is my impression of the impact of the changing shape of the sector on the film festival world – which like the distribution and exhibition sector by and large continues to work to decades-old operational and programatic mechanisms. Here I should declare my interest and say I’m currently involved in organising two – the Revelation Perth International Film Festival and Essential Independents a nationally touring event for Palace Cinemas. In my time at ACMI also there were at least 12 film festivals of significant scale annually – and that’s just one venue in one place. Despite the boom of film festivals which must demonstrate some level of financial success at the very least, this sector is not immune to major industrial shifts internationally.

Like their kin in the commercial world the speed of the content movement through the festival/exhibition/broadcast/on demand system is having a major impact. Where only very recently a film had at least a year on the international film festival circuit and then often another 6 additional months before any kind of commercial release, the festival life for a film has literally been cut in half. Where films screened in Cannes (May), Toronto & Venice (September) or IDFA (November) would easily find a place at Australian international film festivals the following year, these titles are now often well circulating the on demand environment a matter of two or three months after their initial fest premieres.

The entry of Netflix into the production and distribution environment is of course a big part of this shift with many titles now strategically placed for two or three A-list fests for the laurels then it’s all aboard the online train. The sense here of course is that with the potential decline in the importance of theatrical release as the jewel in the crown of the life of a film so too festivals are rapidly losing their currency as both a launch platform for new works and as a marketplace to acquire them.

Now if we pull that observation out there are several things in the current environment that may see considerable and rapid shifts:

  • The “big” fest titles – those that can generate significant box office – may simply not be there in the volume they once were as they pass more rapidly through the system. There may well be a financial impact and an increased degree of difficulty in access for smaller festivals that don’t fall into the strategy of vertically integrated broadcasters like Netflix and Amazon who acquire, produce and distribute more and more titles. This isn’t a complaint by the way – it’s just movement.
  • The days of film festivals being able to demand “premieres” are numbered I feel. I had lengthy discussions with producers of a great US indie comedy this year that premiered at Sundance to excellent reviews. They were subsequently selected for a major European festival to appear 7months later. The European festival in question however demanded an international premiere so excluding the title from screening anywhere outside the US after a hot start for that 7 months. Certainly a good way to kill a film.
  • Film selections and availability of those selections may become increasingly erratic and short-term. Hits from Cannes, Toronto, Venice and IDFA in one year are likely to be old news by the time the Australian fest cycle comes around cutting a once reliable supply chain. That applies to festivals the world over. This starts to introduce ideas around festivals adopting much more dynamic and immediate programming across the moving image spectrum and across varied time-frames. There’s something to be considered in the static nature of the most film festival structures and placements.
  • The strong will survive. Those events that have a “reason to be” beyond being survey will I believe continue to thrive. If potentially fests that aren’t already major markets or critical centres have already lost currency as a point of acquisition/business and are now losing further currency as a platform for release, there’s a big issue looming. Internationally it’s now no longer enough just for a fest to be big or old – in fact I believe the opposite is the case and I feel filmmakers are looking for that level of vitality, purpose, networks and ultimately sensibility that have in many instances been passed over for other forces of celebrity, tourism, brand or box office – some self imposed and some imposed from external sources. This is an international question.

So…very interesting times indeed for film festivals internationally…you can see it happening.

Next blog: Approaching Film Festivals Strategically

4 thoughts on “The New Film Festival Half-Life

  1. Thanks Richard for crunching this complex and dynamic situation into a usefully cogent article and good on you for getting this started


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