With the recent announcement of the 2023 Cannes lineup, the summer festival season has officially begun. Industry movers and makers will travel all over the globe—to Cannes, Tribeca, Venice, and Toronto, among many other lesser known fests—to showcase their work, compete for prizes, raise money for new projects, and luxuriate the glamor and glitz that these kinds of events usually traffic in. Meanwhile, the poorer, less-connected cinephiles will have to make do with virtual screenings, a pandemic-era standard that seems here to stay. Charging $20 a pop to enjoy these exclusive affairs on a computer screen proved too lucrative a business model to abandon.
Is a festival the best venue to experience a film? I’m not an expert on the world of film festivals, having only attended a couple regional fests in my lifetime, but my years attending the Maryland Film Festival (which will not convene this year, as it struggles to pay the bills) have left me jaded. Occasionally the MFF would score some great films, and it was always fun to see who the special presenters were (everyone from Martin O’Malley to Will Oldham have shown films) and what John Waters’ annual selection would be, but it was hard to ignore that each year’s calendar had more festival circuit garbage—movies that seem designed for the Sundance to streaming-service pipeline—than the year before. Eventually I just stopped buying tickets, content to catch up with whatever titles interested me when they appeared at the Charles or the Parkway.
The whole design of film fests, along with their integral role in the international film market, begs for reexamination. Does it make sense to gorge on so many movies in such quick succession? Does that kind of gluttony have its drawbacks? Festivals encourage people to see more movies than might otherwise feel reasonable in such a short timespan, and to have opinions about them right away. “What did you see? How did you like it? Didn’t you find it a bit…?” A buzz takes over, fueled by alcohol, social media, and the intoxicating presence of (mostly very minor) celebrities. No festival is too small or niche to avoid the buzz, no actor or director too small-time for its attendees to fawn over, no opinion too ill-considered to publish on Letterboxd before the credits have even finished rolling, no question too asinine to pose during post-screening Q&As, like “Where do you get your ideas?” or “What happens to the characters after the movie ends?” I’ll never forget Alex Ross Perry trying to answer the latter after a screening of Queen of Earth, struggling to maintain his usual magnanimity in the face of such a stupid question. Questions like these feel inspired less by genuine curiosity than a weird need to engage with and be acknowledged by famous people, and it’s always embarrassing.
If I sound bitter, I probably am. Festivals make me feel like a bad cinephile: if I don’t love film festivals, is it maybe also possible that I don’t sufficiently love film? If my issues with festivals didn’t go way beyond their marathon structure and unshakable stench of starfuckery, I might seriously entertain that possibility. But my real problem with the film festival ecosystem is the way in which it advances the agenda of corporate bean counters and furthers the odious logic of NFT-era art “acquisition,” that works of art exist as nothing more than commodities to be bought and sold. News of these acquisitions often eclipse top prize announcements at major fests. Meanwhile, at smaller festivals, whatever curatorial integrity remains is compromised by Faustian business partnerships. Wonder why so many dogshit movies are playing at your local festival? Look no further than the “Community Partners” page in the back of the program.
I’m not the only one who’s sick of film festivals. A recent article reports that director Céline Sciamma (Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Petite Maman) has sworn off festivals, calling them "joyless, spectulative [sic] competitions.” (This isn’t a direct quote; it was sourced from a message board, so grain of salt and all that.) Several commenters noted that Sciamma could be bitter due to a lack of major award recognition for her work. Even if that’s the case, tell me where she’s wrong. Are festivals not joyless? Are they not largely speculative affairs, constructed by and around rich assholes who couldn’t care less about cinema? Is Sciamma bitter, or is she just stating publicly something most other filmmakers would only say in private, lest they be blacklisted for biting the hand that feeds them?
Even for an established filmmaker like Sciamma, it’s not easy to swear off festivals completely, since they’re often the primary means of exposure for non-commercial filmmakers. It’s worth considering what an alternative to the film festival system might look like. Platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo have created online avenues for crowdsourced fundraising, giving small, independent movies new means of financing that don’t require schmoozing wealthy patrons at festivals. Take Damien Leone’s Terrifier 2 for example. Financed by fans over Indiegogo—the movie has several throwaway speaking parts that were clearly written for top-tier donors—Leone showed the finished film at Fantastic Fest before taking it on a sort of roadshow tour of cinemas across the country, making over $15 million on a $250,000 budget (no doubt aided by Leone’s William Castle-like publicity campaign).
While the roadshow method isn’t always this financially successful (for instance, Louis CK and Joe List took a similar approach to last year’s self-financed Fourth of July, which failed to recoup even a quarter of its $2 million budget), it does give filmmakers a little more control over their work and its distribution. More than that, the roadshow model reduces the need for middlemen, including film festivals. A roadshow tour is similar to a festival circuit—traveling from town to town, showing your film, doing Q&As and photo ops, possibly drinking too much—with one crucial difference: the emphasis shifts from the festival to the film, from the event itself to the work the event was designed to celebrate. People attend film festivals to see movies; people attend a roadshow screening to see a specific movie.
If film festivals aren’t going away anytime soon, and I don’t think they are, their organizers should spend at least as much time fostering communities of local film lovers as they spend wooing wealthy partners and prestigious guests. As the people at MFF can surely attest by now, fancy new theaters and community partnerships don’t mean jack if you don’t fill the seats. Surviving in a post-Covid climate will likely require more imagination than more World Cinema Café screenings, which make going to the movies sound like homework. It will require year-round events that people are interested in attending, which demands some attention to what sort of movies its most devoted members and attendees actually like. It’ll also require the events themselves to be more lively and dynamic, to take more risks with their curation and be more imaginative in their layout and structure.
None of this is likely. Most small film fests will continue glad-handing wealthy partners to keep themselves afloat. Some will fail, and others will pop up in their place. I suspect if film festivals did suddenly go away tomorrow, few people would miss them. Filmmakers would find new venues to promote their films and ink new deals. Organizers would find other jobs in film distribution and promotion. Residents of Cannes and Venice would breathe a little easier, for once enjoying a summer’s afternoon without Ezra Miller crashing into them on a razor scooter. Movies would still get made, and people would still see them. The world would keep spinning, just like in the Universal logo—one of several corporations whose stranglehold on every aspect of the American film market would continue, neither tightened nor loosened by the sudden absence of festivals. And maybe something new and exciting would take the festival’s place.