I love film festivals. You get to see most of the best new movies before anyone else, and sometimes you can persuade distributors to buy them. You meet many friends from abroad -fellow critics, film-makers and actors. You go to parties, and sometimes get food as well as bad red wine. You go to bed late and get up early. It’s exhausting, often nerve-wracking but it’s fun.
So the news that many think festivals have had their day is pretty depressing. I can’t quite believe it. But it could be true.
This is the autumn season for their harried directors who try to produce the best possible new films to put before their audiences. If they succeed the festival is considered a triumph. If not, they could be sacked, or lose sponsorship.
To be a festival director doesn’t just mean selecting the best new films from all over the world. You have also to be a diplomat too, since enormous pressure is put on you to show films from countries which are not necessarily up to the mark. And if one region is preferred to another there is often hell to pay.
Everybody, of course, wants a big Hollywood film since that might mean stars coming to the Festival and huge publicity as a result. But Hollywood is a bit careful. If they think their film has little hope of a prize, they won’t show it or help to pay for the stars to attend.
The two most important festivals coming up fast are Venice, one of the oldest in the world, instituted by Mussolini to show the best Italian films over 70 years ago and Toronto (some 300 films) which attracts American critics whose editors don’t want them to stray too far from the homeland and thus put in heavy expenses.
A considerable part of the budget of these two film jamborees is used to host film-makers, stars and favoured critics, including flights, hotels and meals. To run a film festival is becoming more and more expensive and, if the public don’t turn up in droves, you’re in trouble.
More and more the question being asked is “is to all worth it?” The cynics suggest that a big, starry American film will make its way at the box-office whether or not it wins a Festival prize. And an art movie from a small country will be bought and shown all over the world if it is good enough.
Then there is the small matter of who sponsors the legion of film festivals (there are over 50 in France alone) why they spend their money. There have been some shady deals around the world, though Venice and Toronto, which follow each other in early September, can’t be accused of making too many compromises for their sponsors.
One compromise that’s caused considerable controversy is the presence in the Venice programme of Netflix’s Beasts of No Nation, in which Idris Elba plays an African warlord who persuades a young boy to join his mercenary army.
Some see Netflix, who intend to screen the film in theatres at the same time as on VOD, as a clear and present danger to film distribution by the old methods. They worry that festival films, sponsored by businesses like Netflix or Amazon, will do little business in theatres and so sink without a trace. Within the maw of television, or VOD, there may be little room for theatrical release.
Alberto Barbera, Venice’s director, refuses to believe he is destroying movies by encouraging Netflix. He says things will change dramatically within the next few years and festivals will have to incorporate those changes or die. It’s a tactic that looks like causing much shaking of heads, and some encouraging cheers.
Luckily, and for the third year running, Venice has trumped its competition with opening films everyone wants to see. In 2013 it was the space odyssey Gravity. In 2014 it was Birdman, both Oscar nominated, and this year the opener is Everest, the dramatisation of the true story of climbers trapped on Everest after a snow storm. The stars are Jake Gyllenhaal and Robin Wright.
The programme also includes Scott Cooper’s Black Mass in which Johnny Depp hopefully has a decent part after several deserved flops. There’s also Eddie Redmayne in Tom Cooper’s The Danish Girl. The programme looks full of good things, Netflix or not.
I fondly hope the Venice event does not die, and I don’t think it will just yet. But you never know. Things definitely ain’t what they used to be. Even Mussolini’s grandson no longer plays the piano late night at the Excelsior, the smartest hotel on the Lido. But somehow the festival remains the second best in Europe after Cannes.