The Festival Season Is Kicking Off...

By twhalliii | THE BACK ROW MANIFESTO by Tom Hall August 29, 2006 at 7:06AM

The Festival Season Is Kicking Off...
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The cinematic alarm clock just went off this weekend, and after rubbing my eyes, the reality of the season ahead quickly sunk in. I just spent an entire Saturday in a state of dread, sprawled on the couch like the mangled corpse of some minor character in an Oscar Wilde play, as if watching a terrific Netflix triple feature (A nos amours, The Wicker Man, and I Can't Sleep) were going to offer some sort of shelter from the gray skies and rain that hung over Brooklyn or possibly prepare me for the onslaught of films I will be watching at this year's Toronto International Film Festival. And I do mean onslaught.

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First Of 352: The Toronto International Film Festival's Opening Night Film is Zacharias Kunuk and Norman Cohn's The Journals of Knud Rasmussen

In a recent blog post, indieWIRE guru and Editor-In-Chief bemoaned the overwhleming prospect of navigating 352 films in 10 days (it is physically impossible), preferring the "curated" line-up at the forthcoming Hamptons Interntaional Film Festival. Of course, the comparisons are moot as the festivals serve wildly different purposes and communities, but as a Director of Programming myself, I am always interested in the perceptions of others about what constitutes a manageable film festival and a good program. Eugene writes:

"Tonight in indieWIRE we published a story about the upcoming Hamptons International Film Festival, they will be cutting back on the number of features this year, emphasizing that they want the event to be more highly curated. Overwhelmed by large, catch-all festivals that offer hundreds of films, I'd argue that the move towards fests becoming more carefully curated is a welcome one. In fairness, Toronto seems to excel at offering a solid roster of films in a number of distinctive sections, but it can be quite tough for other fests to match that level of consistent quality...

Eugene hits the nail on the head when he talks about the sustainability of excellence in a festival program; no festival without a huge, established market component has any need for 352 films. Of course, there is only one festival in North America that even remotely strives for numbers like that and achieves excellence and it is the Toronto International Film Festival. The idea that there is a "move" toward "fests becoming more carefully curated" is a falacy; The grandaddy of us all, The New York Film Festival, refuses to stray from their annual commitment to a small, highly scrutinized, well considered film program that perfectly suits the festival's mission to present the best in world cinema. Of course, this year's Salute to 50 Years Of Janus Film offers a mindboggling number of absolute masterpieces (many in new 35mm prints) on top of the fest's main program, but with 28 films in the official line-up, clearly the curatorial model is well-established; it's been with us from the get-go. And Telluride is the undisputed king of the wonderfully curated film festival; devoted audiences fly in from all over the country to take in their Labor Day smorgasbord of amazing films carried out in a low-key, relaxed environment geared toward the simple appreciation of cinema. Both Telluride and the NYFF offer little in the way of glitz and glam, and they both are venerated for being serious about cinema.

But not all festivals are the same. The reality is that we've all been programming our festivals to the best of our abilities, engaging in friendly competition with one another for premieres and films and talent and press so that ultimately, we can best serve our constituencies; from the Boards of Directors of our non-profit organizations, to filmmakers and the film industry, to our local audiences who are hungry for new ideas and great stories that they don't get to see otherwise. Festivals like Toronto, The New York Film Festival and Telluride have been doing that all along, whether they consciously think that way or not. All festivals juggle these concerns, and they are different for each festival. What varies is the scope of the constituency. In Toronto, not only does the festival serve a huge number of international film industry representatives, but it also (and primarily) serves the people of Toronto, who pack the screenings and make for one of the most passionate audiences I've ever experienced. Clearly, the diverse city's appetite for the films matches the festival's scope. Other, smaller festivals thrive on much smaller line-ups because not only are the options for available films much fewer (the film industry has built the entire fall release schedule to sandwich in between Telluride/Toronto/NYFF and end-of-the-year awards season) but also because small, destination communities aren't nearly as sustainable for massive line-ups (without importing the entirety of LA and NYC to the town, ala Sundance). This is always the balancing act, but a new move among festivals?

I shouldn't over-analyze Eugene's statement because I know what he means. Staring down the barrell of Toronto is daunting, and the prospect of catching excellent films in a more narrowly focused environment dispells the overwhleming fear that Toronto inspires; While sitting in one screening, you are missing the five undiscovered masterpieces that are playing only once, on other screens, at the precisely the same time. On the other hand, I can't think of a better problem to have.