On Film Festival Premiere Requirements: Who’s It Good For?
Watching a presentation by Brian Newman, CEO of Tribeca Film Institute, I took note of a discussion on the value of having a film screen as a worldwide, nationwide or regional premiere at a given festival. Newman says he believes the social experience of a festival screening renders the requirement unnecessary, even when a film is fully and freely available online, though his colleagues at the Tribeca Film Festival disagree.
It’s been a few years since I submitted a film to a festival, but I remember it being a miserable process. It’s hard enough to deal with deadlines, trips to the post office (do people do that anymore?) and all those fees (a nasty debate in itself), but I found the premiere requirements practically crippling. Since then, I’ve attended many festivals and have even helped program one, so I have a different understanding of how these things work.
Below, I examine the issue from the perspective of different groups involved and see how each is affected by premiere requirements. I encourage anyone with more experience or a different take to post a comment.
At a minimum, premiere requirements limit the number of times and places you can have your film exhibited. If you include restrictions on other media, it also eliminates opportunities to build an audience or earn money by having a film available online with advertising revenue or for sale as a download or DVD. But it can stop a filmmaker even before getting to festivals. Filmmakers often have to adjust their post-production and release schedules to the annual cycle of festivals and their deadlines. Premiere requirements can force a producer to pass on one festival in favor of a later, more prestigious festival. If they don’t get accepted to that first choice, they’re forced to wait a whole year to try again at that second choice. By that point, they’ve lost time, audience, relevance and money, and they’re submitting year-old film.
It could be good for filmmakers in that it keeps more screening slots open for more films, but I’m afraid this is not always the spirit in which these rules are in place. And it doesn’t help at all in the case of platform exclusivity.
In a short-term way that doesn’t involve too much thinking, premiere requirements are great for festivals, which is presumably why they are still in effect. It can help attract press and industry to a festival, assuming these people are already convinced that the films in question are worth the trip. More simply, the requirements give festivals a lot of power over filmmakers. Lots of other companies use exclusivity as well to raise their negotiating power. (More on that here.) When a filmmaker is forced to put all their eggs in your basket, you can make them beg, and it’s harder for them to ask for concessions like a screening fee or help with a flight and hotel room. The top festivals can use this as a tactic to affect a first-look right for themselves.
Having been a programmer, however, I’ve observed first-hand that great films are precious, so it seems silly to turn away a good film because it’s playing a thousand miles away the week before.
Also, if festivals are to stay relevant, and I believe they can, they need to improve upon and emphasize the value they add as social events. Relying on exclusivity is decreasingly effective and distracts from that.
I’m hard pressed to think how premiere requirements are anything but bad for audiences. In my experience, most non-industry festival attendees are local. Very few people can afford to take a week off and spend money on travel for a film festival if it’s not for work. Even locally, film fans don’t have time to run out of films to see. While it is nice to know you’re seeing something before everybody else, you can retain most of that experience knowing that you’re seeing a film in advance of a wide release (if it even happens at all) and with the director and actors in attendance.
Gen Art is an example of a festival that consistently fills theaters with a local, non-industry audience without a strict premiere requirement. They even host year-round screenings of films the week before wide release, adding the value of an after-party and a post-screening discussion with the director and actors.
Newman speaks about the importance of curation. People have more entertainment options than ever. Acceptance into a prestigious (or not) festival is no guarantee that you’ll love a film, and even if it were, many festivals keep attendees too busy to see everything. Prior festival screenings give films time to build a track record of reviews, buzz and community that can help audiences do their own curation and even heighten the experience.
Press and Industry
For the most part, I think premiere requirements are pretty good for press and industry. I assume they were mostly put in place to attract these people. Distributors, festival programmers, journalists and bloggers go to a lot of festivals, so they don’t need to see the same films over and over again. But many of these people have access to screener copies of all these films anyway. While it does make a difference to see a film with an audience, that is not the way most people will see these films.
It appears that premiere requirements hurt more than they help, and they are helping the wrong people. Distributors are not acquiring many films right now, at least not for enough money to cover a production budget. Professional reviews are great, but they are not the best way to reach audiences. And industry professionals have other reasons to attend festivals – networking, panel discussions and free drinks. Film festivals are great at creating social experiences, and they are best suited to serving audiences first, filmmakers second and everybody else after that.
Premiere requirements seem to be based on the idea that a film starts with a certain value and then shrinks from there on out. This is the same idea that holds up the old model of windows, where a film starts with a big opening weekend, followed by decreasing box office and a chain of platforms, each offering lower cost and lower quality. I believe this model is obsolete, and that producers, audiences and the industry can benefit from giving films a chance to grow.
To see the relevant part of Brian Newman’s talk, go here, click on the “menu” button in the upper-right corner of the video player, and select the fourth section, titled “Conversation.”