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It’s no secret that the number of film festivals has grown exponentially in recent years. What was once a handful of high-profile events has become an industry in its own right. But with festivals springing up like mushrooms in a dark basement, it has been hard for many new arrivals to find their footing. If aspiring film fest founders wanted a chance to learn at the feet of their elders, until recently they had to buttonhole experts like Festival de Cannes co-director Thierry Fremaux on the Croisette.
Enter the International Film Festival Summit, which runs Dec. 2-4 at the Loews Lake Las Vegas Resort. Founded in 2004 by Todd Brockman and Waco Hoover, the event unites seasoned pros and fest-circuit greenhorns for three days of keynote addresses, panel discussions and informal socializing.
“Every industry has a number of different events where professionals have a platform to talk to each other, benchmark, exchange ideas and talk about what’s going on in their industry,” says Hoover, who also plans conference and trade shows for other segments of the entertainment industry. “But (before IFFS), there was no forum that would allow film festival and industry professionals to come together and exclusively focus on professional issues.”
In its first year, the summit drew fewer than 100 attendees. But Hoover expects more than 400 guests at this year’s event. Scheduled keynote speakers include Piers Handling, president and CEO of the Toronto Film Festival Group, and Gary Meyer, co-director of the Telluride Film Festival, with panel topics ranging from the impact of digital technology to an hourlong primer on ticketing systems.
“We’ve broken film festivals down into a business, into six fundamental core areas: funding and sponsorship, programming, operations and management, publicity and PR, acquisition and distribution, and digital technology solutions,” Hoover notes.
At first, the IFFS faced skepticism from major festivals. Programrs see one another every year at Toronto, Cannes or Berlin: Why go to Las Vegas to catch up?
“A lot of people said to us, ‘We meet with other festival professionals all the time,'” Hoover says. “But the reality is, there’s a big difference between meeting them at a film festival where you have 20 other items on your to-do list and at an event you’re exclusively focused on ‘How can I run my film festival better? How can I deliver better value to my audience, to filmmakers, board, sponsors, all of those things?'”
“There was nothing else like it,” says South by Southwest Film Conference and Festival producer Matt Dentler. “When we travel to other festivals, we’re not talking about our festivals. We’re talking about the films we’re seeing. So this is a venue to have that dialogue.”
This year will be Handling’s first at the IFFS, but he’s optimistic. “A get-together such as this can only result in good things, even if it’s just the informal networking and getting to know people and creating that sense of collectivity and a joint, common effort,” he says.
For smaller festivals, the benefits of the IFFS are manifest. “We really did end up taking away a lot,” says Lela Meadow-Conner, director of the Wichita, Kan.-based Tallgrass Film Festival, who attended in 2006 and will moderate a panel discussion this year.
Borrowing an idea from last year’s IFFS, Tallgrass held a photo contest for the festival’s fifth anniversary poster as a means of bolstering community involvement. Attendance this year for Tallgrass was up more than 40%, to 5,000.
For more established festivals, the IFFS offers less in the way of revelations. AFI Fest director Christian Gaines calls it “a mini ShoWest for film festivals.” He adds that he enjoys the demonstrations of new technologies but feels his primary role is as an eminence grise. “I feel like I’m imparting knowledge more than I’m absorbing it,” he says.
Adds South by Southwest’s Dentler: “Certain festivals (you) attend to share and offer suggestions and advice, and others (you) attend strictly to be in the room and listen. I can’t say that there’s a lot of educational information that I personally get out of the panel discussions, but I always walk away with at least one nugget of useful information or anecdote that is really applicable to what we do every day.”
What keeps Dentler going back — this year will be his fourth — is the opportunity to pass on what he has learned to those just entering the industry. “Film festivals are a very new trade,” he notes. “It’s not something that’s been passed down from generation to generation. We all had to learn from experience or from the people we met. So I think there’s really a camaraderie between people who are just starting out and the people who’ve done it a bit longer. Just because somebody’s been in the festival business for 30 years doesn’t meant they’re not going to sit down and share a beer with someone who’s just now starting to get into it.”
Gaines says he feels like he’s “giving back” when he attends the IFFS. But he also notes that the film festival community as a whole benefits when new festivals are run well. “No one wants a compromised experience,” he says. “If you have a disenfranchised consumer who has had a bad festival, they’re much less likely to come to your good one. A better film festival environment is better for everyone.”
Adds Hoover: “I think it’s really valuable for the larger festivals to establish a certain degree of best practices. If your first encounters with a festival is terrible — as a filmmaker or as a sponsor or as an attendee — what’s the chance that you’re going to go back to another one? Probably very slim. There is a lot of value in making sure that people who want to get into the industry know what they’re doing and produce successful, valuable events.”
Hoover says the IFFS has worked over the years to make sure that the discussions are framed to pertain to festivals of all shapes and sizes. There’s even an overseas edition, IFFS Europe, which launched in April. But an occasional disconnect is inevitable.
“They’re very approachable and nice,” Tallgrass’ Meadow-Conner says of the IFFS’ more seasoned attendees, “but they’re in such a different space. When their budget is 20,000 times your budget, you have to take their idea and be creative with it.”
Dentler says the most important information to impart to newcomers is the sheer amount of work involved in running a festival. “When I get business cards from the audience members, I would say more than half are not film festival cards,” he says. “They’re attorneys or bankers or computer programrs, and they look at the festival world as something they would like to try out on the weekends. So in these discussions, we try to say, ‘This is what you’re looking at. This is the workload. These are the kind of eight-day weeks you’re going to have to put in.’ We are very plainspoken and blunt about what it entails. If you’re expecting to hang out with celebrities in some resort town, you’re probably mistaken.”
Hoover says the IFFS can be as useful for established festivals as for new ones. “Just because you are running a flagship festival doesn’t mean you can’t still learn other ideas and different ways of doing things.”
But Gaines says that awareness of the IFFS has yet to reach all the way to the top. (Handling, for one, had never heard of it before he was invited.) “I’m not quite sure it’s on the radar of the larger industry,” Gaines says. “The event is really for regional festivals, in my view. To me, what’s useful is to make people do a better job at what they do. You leave with ideas on how to make things better, leads on how to solve issues, and that’s kind of what conventions are. Also, it’s a way to sit around and empathize with people that do the same thing you do. It makes people feel good about themselves.”
THE RUNDOWN: What not to miss at this year’s IFFS
SUNDAY, DECEMBER 2
Convenient Truths: Creating a Sustainable Film Festival
Advice from festival directors on making it up to and past the five-year mark
Keynote presentation by Piers Handling, the president and CEO of the Toronto Film Festival Group
Topics will include the role of festivals as an alternative distribution network and how to extend a festival’s influence through the rest of the year.
MONDAY, DECEMBER 3
Keynote presentation by Variety publisher Charles Koones. The focus will be on the importance of festivals in the entertainment ecosystem.
The Next Big Thing: Content, Technology and Your Film Festival
Executives from Limelight Networks, B-Side and Origin Digital discuss the impact of digital technology on distribution models and audience involvement.
Are Film Festivals the New Art Cinema?
Discussion led by Gary Meyer, co-director of the Telluride Film Festival
Media & Film Festivals: Roles and Relationships
Representatives from both sides of the fence discuss how to manage successful festival-media relations.
Hot and Bothered: Censorship in Film Festival Programming
Ann Arbor Film Festival director Christian McArdle discusses the festival’s First Amendment lawsuit against the state of Michigan, which pulled festival funding after deeming its content “pornographic.”
Presentation of the IFFS’ first annual Excellence Awards
TUESDAY, DECEMBER 4
Keynote presentation by IndieWire editor-in-chief and co-founder Eugene Hernandez
Internet Intelligence: Branding, Marketing and Expanding Audiences
How to generate and capitalize on Internet buzz and use the Web to extend a festival’s brand
Connecting Film Festivals to Community
Erik Jambor, executive director of the Bend Film Festival, discusses how to connect regional festivals with local audiences and use local flavor to attract nationwide attention.
Goals & Expectations: Developing Your Own Strategy for Realistic and Attainable Success
Festival heads from Seattle, Edmonton and Maui offer tips on long-range planning.
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