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The Art and Business of Festivals

By Cynthia Close

Coming Soon to a Festival Near You: Programming Film Festivals
Edited by Jeffrey Ruoff
Published by St. Andrews Film Studies
274 pages

In the opening pages of Coming Soon to a Festival Near You: Programming Film Festivals, we find two seemingly contradictory statements about the field of film festival studies: "It is burgeoning," and it's "a neglected area of scholarship." Whatever the contentions about the field, the need for an examination of the art, politics and economics behind film festival programming is palpable.

Jeffrey Ruoff, a film historian and associate professor of film and media studies at Dartmouth College, is uniquely positioned to explore this area of film scholarship when he states unequivocally, "My understanding of cinema has been shaped by film festivals." Ruoff claims there are now "several thousand" film festivals throughout the world; this number is big enough to impress and vague enough to defy corroboration.

We learn in the introduction that Venice hosted the first film festival, in 1932. This seems logical, given that the Italian city had recognized the importance of culture to its image and economy as far back as 1895, with the opening of the Venice Biennale. After World War II, other European cities quickly followed suit, but there was no major film festival in the US until the launch of the San Francisco International Film Festival in 1957. The New York Film Festival debuted six years later, and soon made its mark as a staple screening venue for those documentarians and independent filmmakers who flourished thanks to the development of sync sound and lighter and cheaper equipment.

By the 1970s, film culture had spread beyond Europe and North America with the advent of the Cairo International Film Festival in 1976, the Hong Kong International Film Festival in 1977 and the Havana Film Festival in 1979. By 1984 the proliferation of film festivals inspired a New Yorker cartoon depicting tourists ascending a mountain to an isolated village and declaring, "What this place needs is a film festival." Ruoff includes the cartoon in his book

The fact that festivals are a time for celebration, both inside and outside the theaters, is not lost on business associations and offices for tourism. Opportunities abound for promoting a city, state or country, no matter how off the beaten path. Some film festivals may be the only reason for going to a particular place at a particular season of the year. Ruoff points to the Mill Valley Film Festival in Northern California as an example of successful, balanced programming, but the book is not narrowly confined to those festivals that come most easily to mind, such as Sundance, Tribeca, Berlin or Cannes. There is a chapter by Skadi Loist on programming LGBT film festivals; a chapter by Sangjoon Lee titled "The Rise and Demise of the Asia-Pacific Film Festival 1954-1972"; and the final chapter, by Sayoko Kinoshita, which surveys 25 years of the Hiroshima International Animation Festival.

Film scholar Marijke de Valck begins her chapter with an overview of programming practices from the 1930s to the present. She highlights the important fact that countries and individual governments see international film festivals as a vehicle for the showcasing of national cinema. In the chapter by the independent film scholar Gönül Dönmez-Colin, this is certainly the case as she analyses the Istanbul Festival, which offers an annual review of Turkish films. The Thessaloniki International Film Festival, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2009, is discussed by Toby Lee here and in her dissertation for Harvard, where she is a PhD candidate in social anthropology and film and visual studies. Lee digs deeply into the political ramifications of the Greece-based festival during a time of economic, social and cultural crisis there.

Boston-based Gerald Perry is a professor in the Department of Communications at Suffolk University, programmer and curator for the Boston University Cinematheque, and a longtime film critic for The Boston Phoenix. In his essay "Memories of a Film Festival Addict," he is at his most personable, his writing a cross between a travelogue and memoir. He carries us along on his joyful jaunts, from his first innocent discovery of the 1976 World Film Festival in Montreal; to Havana in 1979; followed by the 1980 New York Film Festival; Jerusalem in 1988; Berlin, 1990; Provincetown, 2001; Toronto, 2001 (which coincided with the terrorist attacks on September 11); the Midnight Sun Festival in Finland, 2002; Cannes, 2003; Bangkok,  2005 (held despite the Thai coastline having been devastated by a tsunami); and finally The Ingmar Bergman Film Week, held in Faro, Sweden, in June 2010.

In Ruoff's contribution, "Programming the Old and the New," he interviews Bill and Stella Pence, whose résumé in the film world is long and deep.  Bill, as a vice president and part owner of Janus Films from 1965 to 1978, pioneered the distribution of foreign films and, with Stella, headed national theatrical sales. He played a valuable role in the creation of Janus' extensive library of film classics that evolved as the foundation of The Criterion Collection. In 1979 they founded Kino International, now Kino Lorber. Bill became the Director of Film at Hopkins Center for the Arts at Dartmouth College in 1983, where he continues to program. Stella is a trustee of the Flaherty Film Seminar. The Pences serve as advisors to the Chuck Jones Center for Creativity and helped Turner Classic Movies create and program the TCM Classic Film Festival. On top of all that—and the reason for their inclusion in this book—the couple co-founded the highly respected Telluride Film Festival in 1974. Bill served as co-director/president and Stella as managing director for 33 years. The Spences offer informative and self-deprecating observations; asked about the excitement of attending Cannes, Stella replies, "I don't think Cannes is exciting; I think it's terrifying, frenetic beyond belief." They name names, tell great stories and of course profess their genuine love of film.

There are many lessons to be learned from Coming Soon to a Festival Near You, not only for academics seeking to explore the roots of this ever-expanding international cultural phenomenon but also for filmmakers and tastemakers who, not unlike the tourists pictured in that 1984 New Yorker cartoon, look around and think, "What we need in this town is another film festival." There are stories of success and failure, of festivals that have lasted for decades and of festivals that have inspired social change for the better. The one consistent thread is that launching and programming a film festival is a complex business that requires dedication and long hours of often unpaid labor.

As an addendum, Ruoff has provided an extensive list of URLs of all the festivals cited in the book. This information will be useful for those who were inspired by the discovery that despite the digital revolution, which has dramatically transformed media distribution, the desire to sit together in darkened theaters to experience cinema continues to grow, made possible around the world through film festivals.   

Cynthia Close is the former president of Documentary Educational Resources and currently resides in Burlington, Vermont, where she consults on the business of film and serves on the advisory board of the Vermont International Film Festival.