Notes from a Festival Programmer: Who's More Important? Filmmakers or the Audience?

  If you ask most filmmakers and film festivals the role festivals play, the one that is offered most is that festivals exist to help serve filmmakers. The functions of that role are generally identified  as:

  1. assist independent filmmakers in reaching wider audiences
  2. selecting or curating challenging or riskier films that exist outside the mainstream
  3. being a safe haven from Hollywood style filmmaking
  4. aid emerging and upcoming filmmakers in building their careers

Regardless of where you are on the spectrum (<--pay attention to that word) of audience to filmmaker, it's doubtful you'll find any of those objectionable or without merit. It's when it comes to the concepts of serving and reaching audiences that things become a bit more complicated, as illustrated by an email exchange I had with a friend and filmmaker a few months ago. Here are two key bits from that:  

"By anticipating what your audience wants (according to you), you are doing a disservice to them. The only purpose for film festivals is to present material and directors that you can't see anywhere...Fests MUST seek the most challenging material and leave the audience-anticipated material to the multiplexes."

"The film festival should operate under the guise of film afficionado - finding the next, interesting and challenging films and filmmakers. If you are good at that, your audience will follow."

Months later I still find myself understanding the core and source of my friend's points while vehemently disagreeing that audiences will follow if I relegate prime importance to films and filmmakers over them. I strongly believe there is no must and that lies in the reality every festival has a different Spectrum (told you to pay attention) of audience to filmmakers.

At one end is the audience lying at the other end are filmmakers. What doesn't change from fest to fest, event to event is that along that spectrum everyone is an audience member right down to the filmmaker. Even if one has a festival by filmmakers for filmmakers, that is still an audience. Overlaid on top of that are multiple spectra of Audience types, which can be predominately male, predominately female, old, young, niche, general, industry insiders,  industry contrarians, cinephiles and just plain old casual film fans.

What's most important to a festival, more than films or even attendance numbers, is energy. It's the vital lifeblood to sustain what we do. That energy can and should resonant long before an event has started and long after the credits on the last film have finished rolling.  Any festival that doesn't understand what their particular spectra are and aren't in tune with them can mute or kill that energy. When I was covering film festivals on a regular basis prior to ATLFF there were quite a few I attended that tellingly don't exist anymore, or have radically fallen off  the collective radar, and strongly illustrate that.

From year to year those events struggled to build and maintain an audience. They all generally had a few screenings that would hit, while the majority were misses.

If you're the filmmaker or a member of the audience, there are few things as uniquely awkward as sitting in a dead or dying screening. Disappointing and disheartening are the screenings that could have been so much more. And there's nothing more draining than attending back to back screenings in which there is no rising energy.

I've seen filmmakers become visibly angry, dejected and even withdrawn as they go from screening to screening, finding they are not in a unique position.

I've watched audiences tune out and in varying cases, by the middle of the festival, the numbers have dwindled to (near) nothing or become spotty. With the event almost always taking on the solemnity of a cultural wake in which attendance has become an act of obligation to see things through to the bitter end.

It's such a self-defeating approach to crafting what should, regardless of it's purely industry or purely audience, be a rallying point for community however one defines that. It's something we at ATLFF have not been immune to and have to constantly consider and reconsider, being honest with ourselves if we want to stay true to our mission.

It's results that defy the very definition of festival, making the use of the word meaningless:

fes·ti·val

   [fes-tuh-vuhl]

noun

1. a day or time of religious or other celebration, marked byfeasting, ceremonies, or other observances: the festival of Christmas; a Roman festival.
2. a periodic commemoration, anniversary, or celebration: an annual strawberry festival.
3. a period or program of festive  activities, cultural events, or entertainment: a music festival.
4. gaiety; revelry; merrymaking.

There's nothing gained if a festival is so inwardly focused it creates no entry points and no spaces for audiences to become part of the festival itself. It's a recipe to create a hermetically sealed atmosphere that can be deadening, inert, reaching only a few, becoming doggedly elitist by intention or by sheer lack of awareness

It's what leads many to spend more time convincing , cajoling and educating--which eventually morphs into lecturing--audiences than engaging with them and frankly just having fun.

It fosters a desperate need to manufacture energy, which is impossible, yet still props up the perception that events need gimmicks to create the illusion of energy to attract people. It encourages a cynical view that infects all that it touches, becoming a self-fulling prophecy that some films and audiences will never connect. It leads us to put in place correctives that even when we mean well put up artificial barriers and distance that need not exist.

It's what has convinced many audiences that they need know film/music/art theory or history to enjoy a particular work and that they are not allowed to trust their own instincts, their own visceral gut reactions.

Film festivals should be where audiences feel that they are part of something participatory, that their presence and their own experiences matter. Considering audience should be an organic process that has its goal to create an environment in which film, audience and filmmaker meet to create a mixture of empowerment, excitement and the energetic. Presenting audiences films that push them outside their comfort zone and ask them to work even a little harder is an integral part of that. However, every film will do that differently and not every film will do that with every audience.

I'll end with this pulled from my response to my filmmaker friend:

"I'm not saying that you bow down to the audience, that wouldn't make one a very good programmer or curator. However, festivals for the most part are community events that serve audiences and filmmakers. One can't ignore one or the other. Alienate the audience and what good are we to filmmakers? Don't try to curate films that will surprise people, what good are we to audiences?"