‘Festival films’ are a figment of an ignorant mind, so let’s chuck that label
The notion that there is something called as a ‘festival film’ is not only preposterous but also equally perplexing. Over the last few years, certain filmmakers have been termed as directors who make ‘festival films’ and certain producers who are the ‘kings or queens of festivals’, with no one around being able to make any sense of it. The reality is that it is these very people who have paved the way for Indian films, carving a niche for itself beyond the traditional diaspora markets.
Here’s debunking a few myths surrounding festivals and so-called festival films:
‘Festival films exist’
The notion that there is really something such as a ‘festival film’ must be laid to rest. There are only two sorts of films, good films and bad films. Good films, when submitted to festivals, are selected (provided they meet the criteria and a whole lot more) and have a festival journey there on. Bad films do not get selected and, well, that is a good thing.
What is crucial to note is the fact that in addition to making a country at large a tad prouder than it already might be, these films pave the way for a larger industry internationally, from that specific country. For example, when The Monsoon Wedding and The Lunchbox had their festival premieres (albeit many years apart), they had buyers and an international audience take notice of Indian cinema, one that was beyond ‘Bollywood’. In subsequent years, numerous buyers and sales agents began looking at Indian cinema with a keen eye, watching out for quality content They still are…
Here’s some food for thought in case you are still wondering about these so-called ‘festival films’. Busan International Film Festival has consistently showcased major Hindi films including Sultan, Fan and Mirzya, among others in the previous years; Mohenjo Daro was showcased at Locarno and Devdas and Bombay Talkies at Cannes. Baahubali… for that matter even played at the Pyongyang Film Festival in North Korea.
‘It’s all about lobbying’
On behalf of all the accused, here’s the truth. There is nothing called ‘lobbying’ for a film at an international film festival. Most festivals have multiple selection committee members in addition to programmers, so chances of you even remotely thinking that there is a possibility of swaying someone to have your film programmed or selected are grim. Over and above that, festivals steer clear of any such acts. The simplified math is: a good film gets in and a bad film does not; once the number of films they can possibly program has been reached, even the good ones are not selected.
It is imperative to understand that there are complex dynamics involved in the selection of a film, with each festival having its own criteria. Variables like what is the programming narrative that year, what is the country focus; what is the duration of the film; how many slots remain; is it a first- or second-time filmmaker; is the country well-represented already; and, most importantly, is it a good film, among many others form the crux of the decision-making processes.
A rather prominent festival director once mentioned in passing that it was more important to be able to present a film from a country like Afghanistan, where filmmaking was just about starting to find its footing, than to have selected perhaps a conventionally well-made film by a well-known director, ‘For the greater good’, he said.
Of course, there is a certain amount of politics but that can never be generalised and can never be assumed to be a standard across all festivals. The reality is, no one will ever tell you how his or her film was rejected before finally one film festival accepted it. The sad part is, the film once selected is presumed to have been ‘lobbied’ for.
‘You pay submission fees and they don’t even watch the film’
The submission fee you pay doesn’t really go into anyone’s pocket. It actually constitutes only a rather miniscule and negligible portion of their revenue and mostly ends up going towards running a show that costs 10,000 times if not more. It’s not like no one wants to watch your film, there’s really no hidden agenda here. As far as festivals watching or not watching it, yes it is true that there have been instances where it is physically and practically impossible to have seen all the films. However, there are a few festivals that pride themselves on watching all the submissions and reverting with feedback and their decision.
In defence of the few times that festivals may have skipped watching a few films, last-minute submissions and sending links without actually registering the film officially does not help you or the festival. If you cannot plan better, you really cannot expect anyone else to take note.
‘Only five festivals exist’
Each year, these coveted festivals receive thousands of entries, and on an average program, 250-350 films in all (the number of films varies from festival to festival), including in competition, retrospectives, shorts, documentaries and non-competitive programs. Do the math. Once again, notwithstanding various dynamics, namely from India, that of the duration of the film (It is difficult to program longer films and most festivals prefer tight, crisp films and films of around 130 minutes, if not less), the treatment and the subject.
On average, there are over 2,000+ film festivals and it might be worthwhile considering that every film needs to have its own trajectory. Consider the numerous genre festivals like BIFAN, Fantastic Fest, Fantasia Film Fest and Sitges among others for genre films (Action/Horror/ Thriller) or discovery festivals such as Talinn Black Nights in Estonia, Busan in South Korea, Tokyo film fest in Tokyo or SXSW in Austin, Texas, among numerous other such festivals.
Films showcased here have also broken out and had their own massive journeys. Examples of these have included Loev by Sudhanshu Saria which began its journey at Talinn Black Nights and went on to be showcased at numerous other festivals and win not only acclaim but also great distribution deals. Similarly, Ananya Kasravalli’s Chronicles of Hari, which was discovered at Busan and went on to screen at numerous other top-notch festivals. The question you often have to ask your self is, what platform will best do justice to your film?
“Going to festivals is only good for your own morale boost”
Well, yes, sure it is. But let’s also not ignore the fact it is exactly at these festivals that a lot of Indian films have been discovered, sold and deals struck. Markets for Indian films have opened at precisely these festivals. That aside, festivals are also a huge revenue-generator for a good film. There are quite a few film festivals that offer a screening fee for showcasing a film; this of course is not a rule of thumb and is not the complete truth (There are if’s and but’s).
In addition to that, numerous festivals have cash prizes and audience awards that amount to some serious dough. There have been instances of Indian films that have recouped most of their production costs by bagging awards and screenings at numerous festivals. In any case, it is still a revenue avenue that most often goes unaccounted for.
So here’s the deal. Before you go dismissing everyone in this parallel realm, which you perhaps do not understand in its entirety, accept that that they exist and thrive for a reason. If you find yourself a tad unaware, ask before making assumptions. More than a mere label, this is a thriving, living ecosystem and, to understand what it is all about, a little reading and research never really hurt anyone.
– Sanjay Ram