Festival Identity; the social, political and cultural position of the film festival

I’m always envious of filmmakers when they get training and industry days. The carefully constructed collection of brilliant guest speakers and opportunities to talk to those who are relevant to their field. Which is why when I learned of what was happening in Jihlava I leapt at the chance…


For the last three years I’ve now attended Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival in Czech Republic. Not only for the chance to take in the winter landscape that is the cobbled streets of the city, but also to take part in the Festival Identity Forum. A three day gathering of festival programmers and festival directors to discuss the inner-workings of their event; the film festival. The group of festivals taking part this year included representatives from: Taiwan, Serbia, Russia, Ukraine, Slovakia, Poland, Norway, Montenegro, Moldova, Macedonia, Iceland, Germany, Belarus and more.


Now as you know we are not a film festival per se, but our intensive day-to-day interaction with film festivals and programmers means that this was the perfect opportunity to garner some more knowledge, and also to introduce ourselves. But also, and this is more important, report back to filmmakers the thoughts and musings of the people that are behind the curtain. And I always say the same thing every time I return home – I wish filmmakers could be partial to this dialogue that happens. I think there’s a lack of correlation between what filmmakers think the festival circuit is for, but also what our industry perpetuates as being the norm. We come across a lot of filmmakers who only speak in large top-tier festivals where as we embrace the whole worldwide circuit of all levels of kudos, genre, niche and location. Believe it or not festivals are run by the passion of those behind it, to curate a programme to promote the cinematic experience and to bring the collective noun of the audience back round to people sharing the experience. The constant jarring of filmmakers only favouring submissions to the top-tier shiny festivals is heartbreaking to say the least. You would be surprised by how many festivals don’t want to be as large as Cannes or Sundance – they want to entertain and grow their dedicated audience and share film.


One of our rules of thumb at FF HQ is that your film isn’t finished until it’s seen by an audience. And if that audience is niche and small it’s still succeeded in what it set out to do. If it reaches far and wide then it’s also succeeded. How you measure your success can often be influenced by what the industry sets the bar at, and the majority of the time it’s stifling the individual’s growth. It’s intriguing that those making film haven’t always thought about the end goal of the audience they’re intending to reach. We have documentarians who haven’t submitted to doc specific festivals, animators who haven’t looked to the animation specific circuit, and narrative short filmmakers who don’t stray from the BAFTA list.


Our first day saw Marek Hovorka and Jarmilla Outratová introduce our first speaker Gertjan Zuilhof, an independent programmer and curator, and former long-term curator of IFF Rotterdam. An interesting idea that arose in that open discussion was the idea of European festivals welcoming screenings of works-in-progress which is not something that is common within the UK and US circuit [aside from Sheffield Doc/Fest.] I was intrigued by how much of a work-in-progress the project had to be and was surprised to learn that it could be a small fragment of the final project – there were certain caveats such as it had to be a national filmmaker, or it was to a particular theme.


There’s a difference between audience led festival programming and identity and industry led festivals. Karlovy Vary has the reputation of the backpacker festival, so very young audience who return. They don't have to worry about lack of sales as tickets sell out already. Although there is the risk that they stay the same and don't expand, although there are no more venues so physically they cannot. Audience and topic-orientated festivals (One World Human Rights FF as an example) include discussions and panels on the subject and themes, seeing culture as a human rights issue for everyone. Their audience is generally an already invested audience due to the nature of their programming and issues covered within the films.


The majority of festivals don't focus on selection of distributional films for programming, it’s purely down to the quality of the film in question. As for the filmmaker’s favourite buzzword Premiere Status, we had an interesting chat about how it doesn't help the filmmaker, film, nor festival. The general consensus is that they shouldn't hold as much kudos as they do – they are only handy for infocrats. Filmmakers can get too distracted by holding out for a "great festival" rather than getting the film seen which should be the utmost important goal. An American attendee states he is actually upset that European festivals are adopting this idea of premiere status.


The name of the forum was all about Identity, so in our smaller breakoff groups we discussed how important building a festival identity is, and how it communicates to your audience. In great detail we talked about it as how you define yourself as different from others, and your mission statement that's inherent to your core of existence as a film festival event. A lot of people expressed that reapplying for funding can be stifling and can be limiting in growing that continuous identity, and also does not allow for flexibility. "Having an identity can prevent innovation" - trying to shake the norm and be different can be frowned upon because of the existing status quo.


I mentioned that a festival identity is imperative for us as a company to look at and explore. This area includes pouring over websites for previous programming decisions, seeing if they are active online, and scouting for customer satisfaction. As strategists we cannot attend all festivals so we have to judge festivals by their front-facing identity. And we agreed collectively that identity is an important responsibility. Every single edition of a festival is different; budget, time, location, programme and sometimes members of staff, but the sturdy line is always going to be the identity of the individual festival.


We also discussed how festivals find it hard to keep communication going throughout the year outside of their programmed event. Some have related events happen outside the festival such as tours or singular screening events, but not all as this is mainly down to budget. Mezipatra has a LGBTQ mini tour that works with different distributors who pass the torch on and keep the tour journey going in regional areas which seemed like a superb way of keeping the momentum going but also reaching a wider audience across a non-restrictive amount of time.


Our other guest speaker was Marijke de Valck, an Associate Professor and Coordinator of the master’s programme Arts and Society at Utrecht University, and an academic expert on film festival studies and co-foudner of the Film Festival Research Network. As a group with Marijke at the helm we expanded upon was the concept of audience. The response I brought to the discussion was that audience should be more than just the programmed filmmakers and their cast and crew. Pure audience is just as key as other creatives because it's a universal event but also film exists to educate and inform. A lot of festivals present explained that they had recurring audience members and felt that they were failing because they were not reaching fresh blood, others embraced that they had a different audience each time, and some didn’t have to worry about ticket sales as the kudos of the festival had their tickets sell out way before the events happened.


When you sit in a room and hear some of the impassioned struggles that the festivals around the world have it’s an eye-opener. In the UK and the US festivals are seen as a lavish event, a glitzy affair with awards and big cheques with big-named stars attending. I personally feel that filmmakers have forgotten that film is to educate and inform, and that’s why festivals are just as important as they ever have been. From MakeDox who create a travelling cinema outside of their main festival programme and go to a village where some people have never seen a film on a large screen, the tears that follow prove that there’s still a place for the cinematic experience and the audience. In Taiwan all independent festivals were disbanded by the government so there are only state funded festivals in existence. There are ten cinemas in Bulgaria. Nine cinemas to cater for approx 1.5 million people in Odessa which means the market is not large enough for a distribution focus. This is down to the audience not being traditional and frequent cinemagoers due to the post-soviet gap of 20 years. One festival in Eastern Europe mentioned that they are given a measly €20,000 to run a festival across seven days, three venues and with 50 // 60 documentaries and pay staff; hence why they don’t pay screener fees and print traffic. Arthouse cinema in Serbia has been destroyed by the transition to a market economy and the rise of the multiplex providing a limited selection of US blockbusters. Each festival has its own hurdles, but each one overcomes as best they can and it’s envigorating to hear the different stories and different plights.


I will always continue to attend the Festival Identity Forum as long as it’s running because I find it a refresher on the importance of the festival circuit, but also an interesting and enlightening way of embracing the wider landscape of film.

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