With crowd funding and internet distribution at our fingertips, do film festivals really matter?
With Cannes coming to a close, I can’t help but think about my last year of film school. Everyone was finishing their thesis projects, and the ones who had chosen to make films were submitting to festivals and I didn't understand why. In a world where modern television series like High Maintenance (2016) and Insecure (2016), which were both web-series before being picked up by HBO, and crowd funded feature films like Veronica Mars (2014) and YouTube's Lazer Team (2015) seeing success and releases, then why should I invest time, and money that I certainly didn't have, on applications that at times can feel more like a lottery than a festival. With crowd funding services and high quality online content continuing to be on the rise, I'm sure I'm not the only person who feels this way. Yet after entering into the industry myself, I quickly discovered that I couldn't have been more wrong.
For a new filmmaker, festivals can be the make or break moment. The festival will be the first platform that their work is going to be showcased on within a theatrical setting. Whether it’s a short film, web-series, or short documentary, those initial festival submissions are going to be a rookie filmmaker’s initial exposure directly to people within industry. Rather than tossing your film or project onto the internet with all of the other content in the world, festivals allow niche audience exposure to the project - this exposure is key.
When studios look for new filmmakers, they want to see people who have created content for audiences. Festivals provide the perfect opportunity for new filmmakers to test their material on crowds and learn how to utilize their reactions and feedback to improve their work. The perfect example of this is Oscar winning writer / director Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty, Detroit).
Her first feature film, which she co-directed with Monty Montgomery, The Loveless (1981), premiered at the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland. Bigelow would remain on the festival circuit for her next two features, Near Dark (1987) and Blue Steel (1989), until 1991 when she was given her first “Hollywood” break, with (forgive the pun) Point Break (1991).
Locarno was the stage for Bigelow’s first feature, demonstrating that she was a filmmaker who could create films for audiences and learn from that experience. Each film after The Loveless (1981) continued to refine Bigelow’s voice within the action film genre. Being able to take those theatrical experiences and use them to refine her voice was imperative for her, and for any new filmmaker leaving film school.
Film school is a protective bubble where, realistically, no one outside of that school will see your work. Receiving and utilizing criticism is an essential part of working within a collaborative industry and becoming a better filmmaker. Being able to convert criticism into growth is an important trait that people look for and provides credibility to that filmmaker in their ability to learn from others. An essential part of the collaborative process.
In film school, like any university program, finding like minded collaborators can be difficult. Sure, it’s possible to find a small group of like-minded individuals but festivals are really the first chance that new filmmakers will have to meet each other and begin networking. A filmmaker’s network is everything and being able to build one from the onset is imperative. These people within the community will range from driven individuals who are on the rise rise to industry veterans who are looking for new talent to sheperd. Therefore, it’s important that new filmmakers distinguish themselves anyway they can.
Many festivals provide awards and achievements that not only to distinguish filmmakers, but as mentioned above, prove that they can create projects that audiences identify with. Being able to put laurels on a filmmakers project greatly increases their profile and makes them more attractive to studios and production companies looking for new talent.
Festivals are the places where filmmakers are allowed to express themselves and experiment with their films. It can be the starting point for any new filmmakers and it’s important to celebrate them as a means to not only expand new work, but as an engine to drive the expansion of film around the world.