Film festivals were created to promote what the mainstream ignores. But have their heads been turned too much by the glitter of Hollywood?by Mark Cousins / December 16, 2006 / Leave a comment
The London film festival has just celebrated its 50th year. The Edinburgh international film festival was 60 this summer. Venice turned 63. Cannes is 60 in May. The film festival regulation body, FIAPF (Fédération Internationale des Associations de Producteurs de Film), reckons there are 700 of them in total; the New York Times claims over 1,000. The number of festivals has rocketed in the last decade.
Venice, Edinburgh, Cannes and London are right to celebrate their longevity. But as the elite of the festival circuit clink champagne glasses, it would be surprising if their smiles weren’t a little strained. Despite their glamour and ubiquity, festivals are in crisis. There are just too many of them, and they are too political and colluding.
At least 3,000 films are made each year. Film festivals are the shop windows for such production—visible and glamorous, but also powerless in that they (mostly) only respond to it. Since only around 150 of the 3,000 films are of real artistic merit, the thousand shop windows have to fight tooth and claw to showcase the best. When I was director of Edinburgh, I frequently locked horns with the then director of London. Cannes tends its relationship with Pedro Almodóvar with great care, but if he doesn’t win the Palme d’Or soon, might he switch allegiance to Venice? Venice has long been Woody Allen’s festival of choice, but might Toronto be making approaches behind the scenes?
To make things worse, FIAPF operates a pointless A-list of the 12 festivals it thinks deserve top ranking: Berlin, Mar Del Plata (Argentina), Cannes, Shanghai, Moscow, Karlovy Vary (Czech Republic), Locarno, Montreal, Venice, San Sebastian, Tokyo and Cairo. The omissions are glaring—no Sundance, London, Rotterdam or Toronto. To qualify, each of the 12 must have a competition section containing at least 14 world premieres. So the A-listers alone have at least 168 slots for new films to fill, which means that in theory all 150 of the good movies get swallowed up.
That the film festival circuit is political with a big “P” isn’t surprising. The Italian fascist government meddled with the programming at Venice way back in 1938; the interference led to the founding of Cannes the next year. In 1995 and 1996 a major start-up festival in Prague tried to replace Karlovy Vary (established in 1946 in the province of Bohemia) as the region’s main film event, on the…