Kaleem Aftab reports on the recent run of film festivals around the world - from Venice to Toronto, from San Sebastian to Zurich.
September is the time when the film industry lives out of their suitcases. There is an explosion of festivals as films make their pitch to be part of the awards conversation and others try to find distributors around the globe, hoping for a 2017 release.
The season kicks off in Venice. Once upon a time, it was arguably the most glamorous festival on the calendar, however in recent years it’s faced a challenge with Telluride and Toronto vying to show films that would once have been heading to the Lido.
The recent difficulties faced by Venice seemed to be encapsulated by the failure of the festival to build a new festival centre to rival that of the Tiff Lightbox in Toronto, when it was discovered that the proposed location had asbestos problems and the costs rocketed. But one result is that Venice has to be very selective in the films it shows, because it has limited venues and screens. This actually makes Venice one of the most fun film festivals to attend as one is able to catch the films that everyone is talking about, and this year there were many.
With history and tradition still counting for a lot in the film industry, Venice also gets an amazing range of high profile films. In recent years, both Gravity and Birdman opened at the festival before going onto win BAFTAs.
It’s a source of great pride to festivals when they can say that they had the premiere of the film that went onto win the Oscars. So the films compete for a selection of high profile films and award winners are often seen as awards indicators. This year the jury in Venice was presided over by Britain’s Sam Mendes. There is often a very artistic bent to films at Venice, so often after the screenings talk is as much about the music, photography and editing as it is about story.
Many of the films at Venice then travelled to Telluride and Toronto, where north American audiences are given their first chance to not only see films from Cannes and Venice, but also a huge number of premiers of both American studio movies and foreign language award hopefuls.
Some have questioned the size of Toronto which hosts more than 1200 screenings and had 296 feature films. But while it’s true that to watch even a third of the films in Toronto would be impossible, that is not the point of the festival. That’s because Toronto also has a vibrant market and being able to invite buyers and industry folk to screenings with the public in attendance, could win smaller films a release or a festival slot at other events. It is at Toronto where the most eye-catching deals are made, with millions of dollars spent on movies. A successful Toronto for filmmakers is often about commercial deals rather than critical acclaim. That’s reflected in the fact that the most prestigious award at Toronto is the audience award.
The fact that so many players in the industry are in Toronto makes it an important place to launch films and it’s why so many British films premiere there. There were 39 British films in Canada this time around, with many of them making their next stop at the London Film Festival.
Just as Toronto is ending, San Sebastian begins. A fabulous festival in the north of Spain, this is the next step for films. They offer an opportunity for films to prove that they can play to different audiences and also have a great selection of films in Spanish, both from Spain and Latin America.
The great thing about festivals such as San Sebastian is that they don’t feel overwhelming, even if the number of films playing is still high. They also provide audiences to catch up on the hot films they’ve been reading about, as well as allowing the industry to catch up with films they may have missed, but also, and more importantly, give other films a try. There is only so much time in the day, and those at big festivals know that a hot film will be snapped up straight away so they better be at the first screening in Venice or Toronto.
Away from this frenzy, buyers, the press and audiences are able to make more conscientious choices on what to see, and as a result the experience is less stressed and often more rewarding. This atmosphere also allows for an appreciation of more difficult gems.
It’s also at these type of festivals that the chance to see key industry speakers seems possible. The Zurich Summit at the Zurich Film Festival had talks on women in film and how to make films to get distributed.
What’s definitely obvious going to these September festivals, is that one festival is not like another.
By Kaleem Aftab