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It’s Sundance Film Festival time again! Even as you read these words, movie industry people and journalists are huddling together in dimly-lit rooms to watch the latest and greatest in alternative and art movies, excitedly tastemaking their time away. But… do film festivals really matter?
It’s a cruel question, perhaps. Obviously, they matter to those directly involved in them – the organizers, the filmmakers who might get (a) money (b) recognition, and (c) more work as a result – but to the wider moviegoing audience… who really cares about Sundance, or Cannes, or any other film festival? It’s not like what happens there really makes a massive impact on either mass tastes or what eventually makes it to the majority of theaters across the nation. Aside from logos from awards to float in front of trailers, I’d argue that most film festivals make almost no impact on the average moviegoer in America at all. Does that mean that they’re not actually important?
I’m torn; cynically, depressingly, I think the answer depends on how you define important. If you’re going by the way the movie industry works – money – then the answer is “Probably not.” How many movies have been discovered at festivals and gone on to the kind of massive success that makes people sit up and take notice? Very few(By “discovered,” I mean, “No-one really knew about them before apart from the filmmakers themselves” – Maybe The Blair Witch Project fits the bill? Paranormal Activity?). But it’s the trickledown effect in play, of course – Film Festivals are Comic-Con for squares, for the movie nerds to indulge themselves and learn new things and it’s those people who take those influences and plug them in elsewhere, and then those things influence others, and so on, and eventually some echo of an echo of an echo reaches the mainstream and gets lauded as the Next Big Thing. So, ultimately, yes, I guess?
Maybe my problem is that film festivals are so exclusive; Sundance, at least, does its bit to change this, streaming content online for anyone to see. It’s an obvious solution, but the way to make film festivals actually matter to people is to let people take part in them. As much as I may be pessimistic about the tastes of the mass audience – and in a world where Fringe gets moved to Fridays while Two And A Half Men reigns supreme, can you blame me? – I nonetheless think that audiences would be ready to engage in more challenging fare if it were more available to them. Maybe someone should come up with a virtual film festival, where we can all attend from the comfort of our living rooms, and see what happens to people’s perceptions of film festivals then.