Issue 4 | October 2014 (Philadelphia, PA)

Lost Highway (David Lynch, 1997)
Lost Highway (David Lynch, 1997)

 The good, the bad, and the ugly of film festivals and indie distribution |

The cinephile highlight of my first month as a Philadelphia resident was undoubtedly the screening of Lost Highway (a film that should only ever be seen on the big screen and with optimal audio so as to fully appreciate its phenomenal soundtrack), preceded by a Q&A with David Lynch (blessedly low on TM proselytizing), that I attended at the stunning Prince Theatre. The evening definitely earns a place in my pantheon of best film-going experiences of all time, and I say that not just because I need to justify waiting on line for two hours to get a standby ticket. Less momentous but just as welcomed was my discovery of three (count ’em!) Landmark Cinema theaters within walking distance of my apartment, so I should be well-fixed for arthouse options. And I’ll be positively awash in offerings this month, because the Philadelphia Film Festival is headed to town October 16-26. I’m looking forward to seeing some of the films that I’ve been hearing about through the festival grapevine over the past year (Tu Dors Nicole, Kumiko the Treasure Hunter, 52 Tuesdays) as well as some by directors I admire (Lynn Shelton’s Laggies, Olivier Assayas’ The Clouds of Sils Maria, Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood). It helps to make up for the fact that I’m going to be missing Athina Tsangari’s presentation of one of my favorite films of the last decade, Attenberg, at the Harvard Film Archive on October 17.

And speaking of festivals, I just booked my ticket for Sundance! Alas, after much deliberation, I had to conclude that as beneficial to my research as it would have been to have attended the Art House Convergence conference taking place the week before, being present for the first week of my spring semester classes needed to take precedence. I’ll hope to make it next year. As it is I’ll only be in Park City for a long weekend, but I plan to make the best of it. I haven’t been to the festival since 2001, when I was a Master’s student at NYU and went as a festival volunteer, trading long, cold unpaid hours of working outside for free accommodation in the “dorms” on Main Street and all the movies I could get in to. I still remember the feeling of nervous anticipation turning to stunned terror at the sold-out world premiere midnight screening of The Blair Witch Project, when no one had yet realized it was a hoax (its now-legendary Internet promotion campaign billed it as a true story). This time around I’ll be experiencing the festival in relative luxury, sans hand and foot warmers and traveling with a group of high school friends who have been going for the last few years and have it down to a science. I’ve been wanting to join them for ages, and am finally coming on board; I think it was their selfie with Mark Ruffalo that I received last year that proved the ultimate motivator.

My friends Ann Whitten and Cade with the devastating Mark Ruffalo
My friends Ann Whitten and Cade with the charming and talented Mark Ruffalo

As for my trip next summer, I’m finding it rather frustrating that some festivals and conferences (not you, Console-ing Passions!) are taking a while to confirm their dates. My tentative itinerary having become rather convoluted, it actually came as a relief that the Edinburgh Film Festival was taken out of the running by its having been moved to August. A pity, since I haven’t been to Scotland, but perhaps the Screen conference held annually in Glasgow will provide an opportunity, dates willing (and still unannounced). I’m still holding out hope of going to the Midnight Sun Film Festival, which has announced its dates (June 10-14), and something about how stubbornly it has lodged itself in my imagination makes me think I should prioritize it over other options. It’s all to say that my precise route remains hazy, but I hope to have a firm itinerary by end of November so that I can begin the arduous process of booking travel and accommodation during some of the precious free time I’ll have over the winter break.

On the subject of film festivals, I’ve already gestured at their increasing ubiquity (really it seems as though every city and (semi-)picturesque town is obligated to host one), and a recent New York Times article marveled at the profusion of niche festivals catering to obscure interests and oddball tastes. Some festivals do continue to consider it their mission to give visibility to films that might otherwise not see the light of day; the Toronto International Film Festival, for example, recently instituted a policy that reserves the first four days of programming for films not yet screened in North America (though this exclusivity also works in Toronto’s favor, allowing it to bid for and boast of having more premieres). But in the case of city-sponsored festivals, a good many serve simply to showcase commercial films already guaranteed to get a decent-sized theatrical run and to enable films with unknown directors and casts to rack up awards that will serve as an alternative mode of branding during the promotional campaign.

Yet I’m prevented from regarding this, the hyper-proliferation of festivals and (in many cases) their unabashed Hollywood-ization, with much cynicism — especially when I hear about something like a queer film festival in Appalachia. (Though I did cringe at hearing that the prestigious Walker Art Center in St. Louis was mounting an Internet Cat Video Film Festival.) Just as I have to shrug and smile when I hear of increasingly outlandish modes of exhibition (see Issue 2’s discussion of London’s Hot Tub Cinema, newly imported to Brooklyn), screening and sound quality be damned. For one thing, unlike the questionable socioeconomics of the trend for state initatives for film production, festivals are good business for the towns and residents that host them. And for another thing, as the founder of one more idiosyncratic spin on movie-going, Secret Cinema, noted (in a talk he gave in Toronto) about his organization having “gone from doing 1 screening with 400 people to our last screening with 85K people. And what this shows is the thirst, this desire above all to come together.”

So I’m hard put to disparage there being “too many” film festivals or wacky exhibition schemes. Whether there are “too many movies,” as a much-debated think-piece by Manohla Dargis dared to claim about contemporary indie film’s allegedly acquisition-driven super-saturation, is a more vexed question for me. While I agree with Dargis’ premise that the indie sector of the film industry should focus on curation over consumption, I would go further to say that curation should happen at all levels and as the responsibility of all persons working in the industry – the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the New York Times, for example, should modernize their systems of nomination and reviewing and no longer make a theatrical opening grounds for award eligibility and (guaranteed) coverage. Theatre owners should also be more discerning in their programming, trusting critics and their own instincts over the hard-sell tactics of “Indiewood” distributors; after all, this isn’t the classical studio era when exhibitors were powerless to decide what to put on the marquee.

And though my project’s primary purpose is to extoll the importance of brick-and-mortar movie theaters and collective movie-going in an age of digital distribution and individualized viewing, I see great value in the missions of web curators offering subscription-based film series such as Fandor, Film Movement, and MUBI, which frequently feature films not available on Netflix, as well as in the service provided by on-demand platforms like, well, Netflix. It’s not as clear that indie filmmakers are as well served financially by this mode of distribution, as another recent New York Times article reported, but as a means towards acquiring notice and credibility these alternative venues for screening indies are proving invaluable.

Until next month, vive le cinéma!

Coming attractions: Dispelling the “death of cinema” myth but grappling with the surplus of contemporary independent films and new viewing options…