According to a widely cited number from Film-Releases.com I can’t actually find on their site, American distributors will release 40% fewer films this award season, compared to last year. (This figure presumably doesn’t take into account the five-plus niche releases flooding New York and LA — and nowhere else — every week.) For those lucky enough to be able to attend this fall’s film festivals, you can make up the drought there; the rest of us are left reading along in order to see what we have to look forward to, maybe.
And even then, as Richard Porton spells out in a grim piece in Moving Image Source, festivals aren’t exactly for The People — even if those people are members of the increasingly niche market for hardcore arthouse films. Porton points out that most festival attendees are “distributors, programmers, and sales agents,” not “freelance film lovers.” (I’d add journalists and jurors to that list.) Movies that once might have seen a small release before landing on DVD are now tougher to see theatrically unless you have the time and money and/or professional excuse to attend festivals.
Porton’s alludes to Mark Peranson’s Cineaste 2008 inside-dirt chronicle, “First You Get the Power, Then You Get the Money: Two Models of Film Festivals,” in which Peranson detailed how much control sales agents have over major festivals. They bundle the worthy and unworthy together, forcing festivals as big as Cannes to take backroom deals where companies like Wild Bunch negotiate their more troublesome films into slates as a quid prop quo for what the programmers really want. (A friend has theorized that this is the only way to explain how Paolo Sorrentino keeps showing up at Cannes.) And Porton also reveals the existence of “film festival studies,” the newest academic discipline I would’ve never dreamt up.
It’s a fascinating read, and a sobering reminder that these days, it’s not so clear what festivals do anymore. Curate the best in world film? Launch films from festivals into the arthouse? None and all of the above, depending on who’s asking. But that doesn’t mean I’m not about to enjoy attending (and covering — for you!) the 2009 New York Film Festival. In these uncertain times, being press does have its perks, just not necessarily financial ones.
[Photo: Glamorous film festival life as shown in “Like You Know It All,” Hong Sang-soo, 2009]