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Who Cares About Film Festivals?

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.


  • Ziggy


    I will repeat exactly what I just yesterday posted in the X-Men story:

    “A posting with a negative slant. What a shocker that I knew it was Graeme McMillan before I even clicked into the story.

    Do you EVER have anything positive to say? ”

    So, do you?

  • Guest

    “Film Festivals are Comic-Con for squares”? I thought Comic-Con was Comic-Con for squares.

  • Julian Gift

    I enjoy watching the films shown at independent film festivals at comic cons. I think that it is a feature that should always be a part of them.

  • Mario J. Ramos

    “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.”

    Wow, really? It’s a FILM festival. As in, watching a movie in movie theater, as in, you know, cinema.

  • Mike

    Agreed. While film festivals are great places for like-minded people to get together and share stories and inspire each other, they also tend to be exclusive to people who know people. When I sit at the Tribeca Film Festival and hear one of the organizers explain how a producer handed him this movie and he had to include it in the festival and I’m wondering, “Did they fill out an application and pay the fee like I did?”, how can I not get the impression of looking in on a special club for those who know others.

    But when I do go, I do love the conversations. Love talking about cinema.

  • Harlock999

    Film festivals are for folks in the industry, including new filmmakers and actors trying to get noticed.

    Just because they don’t affect you personally doesn’t mean you should be “torn” on whether they are good or bad. Ha. What hubris!

    This has to be one of the most ridiculous articles on this site in a long while…

    (And for the record, Fringe is sadly mediocre and not even close to X-Files in terms of quality. Two and a Half Men, however, is indeed an example of cyclical – and “crappy” – mass culture.)

  • Sinistertaco

    What a truly weird article. Of all the things in the world to be “torn” about, this has to rank dead last on the list.

  • Guest

    Who cares about Graeme McMillan?

    NO ONE.

  • Mojo Jojo

    I thought the point of film festivals was to see a buttload of films in one place all at once and enjoy the artform of cinema?

  • Jeff Frost

    Either quit bitching, or quit writing. All you do is present us with thinly veiled excuses to whine about things you don’t know much about… every. damn. time.

  • Ziggy

    you’re talking about a guy who’s “things to look forward to in 2011″ list ended up being a “things that will probably suck in 2011″ list. he doesn’t know how to do anything but whine and bitch. every. damn. time.

  • Mastadge

    Yes, they’re valuable. At least, to those of us who see few films in the theaters and are always looking for new movies. Film festivals, even if I don’t get to them, help me to identify movies to add to my Netflix queue or otherwise seek out.

  • Enrique Trevino

    Have you tried to go to one? Is very easy to attend, they are not as exclusive as you think. I have attended a film festival in Boston, San Antonio, White River Junction, and Dartmouth College. All I needed was to show up and buy a ticket to go inside and watch the movie.

  • Alex

    Movies are supposed to be made by either elitest or people who actually want their stuff to be entertaining. Every film listed at Sundance seems to be the same. Seriously. It sounds like the same political or social opinions every year. They don’t think outside the box, they just think in a different box. I kind of wonder how that town where Sundance is really thinks of this thing every year. Maybe South Park was right about festivals like these.

    The 90s were better for films festivals like these. Kevin Smith was the indie darling when Clerks came out. Now he’s the guy who constantly has trouble with planes partially because of weight. Man, that’s sad.

    Then he complains about it on a giant computer network that everyone pretty much has to use to do business these days. People can put their stuff up on the net too, filmed on a digital camera with washed out colors. In 1993 we didn’t have the net (it was just getting started) and it was great. That is, not everything was on a screen that we were supposed to look at. We could go to the movies without accidently reading the ending on some website.

  • Bill Reed

    A virtual film festival that streamed material “live” would be a great idea, actually.

  • Bill Reed

    Way to tell ‘em, anonymous guy on the internet!

  • Invasionforce

    Film festivals are where Hollywood goes to find horrendous independent products like “Clerks,” and “Blair Witch Project.”

  • Anonymous

    Do festivals matter? I look at it like this:

    I like movies.

    Festivals offer this to me: The chance to see a movie that I might never get to see. The opportunity to speak with the filmmakers.

    Film Festivals are what Comic-Con is for comic book fans.

    So you don’t get it? Who cares? Obviously, you aren’t into film.

    And I’m not trying to be a dick, but Sundance and Cannes are a bit exclusive, most every other festival isn’t. In whatever town you are in, there’s probably a group doing it’s best to put one on and I guarantee there’s nothing exclusive about it.

  • Paul

    Sometimes he does, but his attitudes are usually laughably provincial. I sort of feel sorry for the guy. Ah, well. I’m sure he loves all the crap that the Hollywood establishment, Marvel and DC peddle.

  • stealthwise

    Um, Does any of this matter? Not just festivals, or awards, or films, but anything? Opinions, language, human connection and emotion?

    Draws the line wherever you like, but really, come on, what’s the point of this post?

  • Axle911

    It matters because I’m not watching “Red State” and i really wish i was.

  • TheDaringGentleman

    What a trite filled article.

    “I’d argue that most film festivals make almost no impact on the average moviegoer in America at all.”

    The ‘average’ moviegoer is not what film festivals are for! It’s not for folks who love ‘The Expendables’. It’s for the film industry. It’s all relative; you don’t think film festivals matter? Well, in the grand scheme, does FILM matter? That’s something to ask yourself.

    I enjoy the hell out of cinema, and as a film major, I can see the importance of having an event for fellow lovers to meet and share their passion. It’s exclusive, because it has to be.

  • TheDaringGentleman

    Blast, those damn kids and their interwebs!

  • Derrick

    Yeah. I found that fairly funny as if comic folk are cool. We’re not.

  • kalorama

    “Film Festivals are Comic-Con for squares”

    Comic-Con is Comic-Con for squares.

    As for who cares about film festivals . . . The same people who care about Comic-Con: the people who attend them.

    Really, it’s that simple.

  • Lantern09

    This article sure is stupid.

  • Anonymous

    I haven’t been on CBR in a while and this is the first article I’ve read since returning. I was kind of shocked by the low quality of the post. Glad to see that (judging from the replys) this isn’t representative of the kind of article usually posted here.
    As others have mentioned it’s just a really pointless and unnecessary thing to be complaining about. Yes the exclusivity could be relaxed a little but the viewpoint being represented here is entirely too dismissive of the importance of these events for artists to get their work noticed, and in some cases be rewarded for it. Note I said dismissive, not ignorant. The article does mention the benefits film-makers (albeit in a somewhat flippant a, b, c, manner) but seems far too concerned with the “wider movie-going audience”.
    Oh and seriously, The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity were what came to mind as examples of movies which have benefited from Film Festival exposure? Says it all really.

  • tomspurgeon

    Graeme, as I recall “Crumb” was a huge beneficiary of the Film Festival circuit, and I think an undeniably great film. Admittedly, part of that was its Film Festival success gave Siskel & Ebert the excuse to talk about it on their show and that helped immensely as well. We don’t really have the structure to benefit films that do well at a film festival any more; we don’t even have Siskel & Ebert any longer. People don’t trust film reviewers as a general rule, and most of them are pretty terrible and probably shouldn’t be trusted.

    I think you’re onto something that certain film festivals could do well by figuring out their purpose and how to best replicate that in the age of social media, but I think their exclusivity serves a function, too, with some of them. We hear about Sundance and not about Seattle International Film Festival because Sundance is in the middle of nowhere, it’s hard to get to, and it’s harder than that to get into the parties. I bet there’s still a fair amount of work that gets done at such shows, and I’m sure there are some critics and the like that appreciate the access and opportunities involved, but for the most part the basic format could probably use some tweaking.

  • Colin Fong

    There IS a virtual Film Festival.
    It’s called Portable Film Festival.

    Film Festivals are important for getting the chance to see something special on the big screen before it ends up straight to DVD or worse, never distributed at all.
    There aren’t many cinemas that air movies from around the world, and for that reason you have shitty remakes of films that had nothing wrong with them in the first place other than the fact that people for some reason can’t be bothered to read.

    I’m not so sure which festivals you’re referring to as being exclusive, as the whole point of a film festival over here, is that they want as many people as possible to see these movies to justify putting it on again the next year.

    I love big action spectacles as much as anyone, but 2010 was average, if it hadn’t been for the film festival, we’d have never been able to see the likes of Marwencol, Rare Exports, Winters Bone, Red Hill or Monsters.

    A few big directors were discovered through festivals – Tarantino, Kevin Smith and Christopher Nolan through making following.

  • Ian33407

    wow…I’ve never seen such a bunch of clever people assembled at the same time, at the same moment…where were you all guys ? THE WORLD NEED YOU, SAVE US …

    If Film Festivals don’t matter anymore then we’re all dead, that means the victory of the uniform thinking. Is that because you’ve seen a guy gizmoing in one direction, then trolling the other way the year after you would call it an ‘acting performance’. The industry recycles everything, starting with the faces and ending with the stories. There was a time when films were made by someone who had something to say and not by a fake rebel / free thinker yes-man who want to climb the rugs. This isn’t the case ANYMORE.

  • Jeff

    The Toronto International Film Festival is completely public. So there’s your example of an “open” film festival… The second biggest film festival on the planet.

    Also, as for films that are benefiting from Sundance exposure: Hobo With A Shotgun.

  • Robert Lee

    This is a perfect example of an internet ‘journalist’ writing about something that he or she knows nothing about.

  • grameneedsahobby

    Wow. Thank you guys. I thought I was the only sane one when I e-mailed my brother this article. Probably the most inane, nonsensical, negative rant (let’s call it what it was) I’ve ever read on the internet. And I’ve read dousies. But this one insults me because he pretends to be an intellegent person with his argument. As a “writer” for a medium like comics he surely just… doesn’t get “it”. lol. Thank you guys for making me believe in society again cuz I was flabbergasted. I will NEVER forget his name. Let’s ask CBR to get rid of him.

  • Robert Lee