Things I Learned at the Rotterdam Film Festival

by Torene Svitil
February 4, 2014 3:32 PM
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International Film Festival at Rotterdam

How must festivals must change to survive in the digital age?  How can they continue to support independent film and filmmakers, build audiences, increase film literacy and encourage vital dialogue when watching films on a big screen is no longer the norm?  Panels and programs at Rotterdam grappled with these issues, but the festival itself illustrated some of the confusion of these shifting roles.

Next year, the festival will launch IFFR Live!  Audiences around the world will be able to watch film premieres at the same time as festival audiences.  Selected films will stream simultaneously in art houses and online platforms and spectators will be able to participate in Q&As via social media.  Currently supported by IFFR, Fortissimo Films, Trust Nordisk Film Sales and Doc&Film, IFFR Live! is intended to boost theatrical audiences for European films. 

A panel of festival artistic directors-- Marco Müller (Rome), Frédéric Boyer (Tribeca), Hans Hurch (Viennale), Tina Fischer (CPH:Docs), Chris Fujiwara (Edinburgh), and Nashen Moodley (Sydney)--discussed the tricky balancing of aesthetics and economics in festival programming. "Festivals radically changed the way of engaging with and treating film," said Fujiwara, but now "the old format has to be challenged."  

Here are four things I learned on the panel:

1. Festivals are increasingly run like a business. This affects many of the artistic directors' decisions. Müller questioned whether a focus on world sales put a premium on films with commercial potential or those of a certain length. "Now festivals have to bring in celebrities or filmmakers to attract an audience," added Boyer. "People are attracted to the 'event' of a festival," leading to a growing embrace of parties, exhibitions, workshops, marketplaces and the like." Added Moodley, "The Sydney Film Festival is dependent on the box office for survival, and this affects which films and which filmmakers will be invited to attend."

2. Competition between festivals for world premieres and audience-pleasing films is intense. But Boyer insisted: "You cannot play films just to please the press or the audience." 

3. Retrospectives are still important. Fujiwara called attention to the place of retrospectives in creating a film-literate audience. In the enviable position of having enough financial support from Venice to program as he likes, Hurch stressed the importance of slowly introducing the public to more challenging films. "Once there is trust between the public and the festival, the programmer can push the boundaries a little." 

4. Big festivals like Rotterdam may be too big. Rotterdam offers more films than any viewer can possibly take in, not to mention the exhibitions, panel discussions, and other related events. "At a certain point [a large festival] is not good for the quality of the films," said Hurch, "and it's too hard for the public to meet filmmakers or connect in debate.  Rotterdam is too big.  It doesn't have a heart."

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