Can Innovation Save the Rotterdam Film Festival?

A Most Violent Year Jessica Chastain Oscar Isaac at Dinner - H 2014

A Most Violent Year Jessica Chastain Oscar Isaac at Dinner - H 2014

Squeezed between Sundance and Berlin, Holland's premiere film fest is under pressure to attract bigger audiences and industry buyers.

The International Film Festival Rotterdam, or IFFR, which kicks off its 44th edition on Wednesday, is at a crossroads.

The Dutch festival built its reputation as a go-to event for discovering the next big thing in art-house cinema, but Rotterdam's brand of avantgarde movies is out of fashion these days. Few winners of Rotterdam's Tiger Awards find distribution outside the festival circuit. Sundance and Berlin, the festivals that bookend Rotterdam, have a stronger track record in finding breakout indie hits.

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“The festival has lost a lot of its urgency, a lot of professionals are telling me there's no reason to come to Rotterdam anymore,” says Ab Zagt, film editor at Dutch newspaper Algemeen Dagblad. “It's become too mellow, a bit too self-congratulating...What Rotterdam needs is a whole new organizing team and a new director who has the balls to make the changes needed.”

Zagt is among the many Rotterdam critics who put much of the blame for the festival's supposed decline on the shoulders of IFFR director Rutger Wolfson, who will be stepping down after this year's festival.

The complaints are familiar: too many films that are too obscure, too few stars to attract the media and too little business to attract the industry. They are charges that Wolfson, unsurprisingly, denies.

“I don't agree that Rotterdam has become a less important festival, I think we have a very strong profile,” he tells The Hollywood Reporter. “Far from being out of touch with the industry, I think we have been very responsive, and innovative, to the challenges the industry faces.”

Wolfson points to two new initiatives launched this year in Rotterdam, which both address the key problem of finding distribution for art-house films. The first, called IFFR Live!, will see a series of festival screenings broadcast live to a few dozen cinemas across seven European territories, as well as over European VOD platforms. Audience members outside Rotterdam can watch the films and afterwards participate in the director Q&As via Twitter.

The other initiative, Tiger Release, is a cooperation with Dutch media group Infostrada, that will help festival films be made available on VOD platforms. “Artistic films, the kinds of films we champion in the festival, have a tough time in the cinemas,” Wolfson says. “We see our role to help these films find an audience outside the festival.”

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Whatever critics may say about Rotterdam these days, few deny the Dutch festival has been an innovator in the past. Rotterdam's CineMart, launched in 1983, was the first co-production market of its kind, bringing together international producers to finance films across national borders. The Hubert Bals Fund, set up in 1988 in order to back features from developing countries, was another first.

Both have proven their worth, helping films like Cannes winners 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007) and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall his Past Lives  (2010) get made, as well as sleeper hits including Wadjda from Saudi Arabia and recent Ukrainian drama The Tribe.

“But Rotterdam doesn't benefit from this success,” argues Zagt, noting that while films like The Tribe get funding from Hubert Bals, they bypass Rotterdam and choose Cannes, Venice, Toronto or Berlin for their world premieres. “I think young talent looks elsewhere, for other opportunities to show their work,” he says.

Indeed, Rotterdam's most successful section is arguably not its competition lineup, but its Limelight sidebar, screenings of films that have already debuted to acclaim at other festivals. This year' Limelight section includes a raft of Cannes titles, among them Celine Sciamma's Girlhood, Jessica Hausner's Amour Fou, Alice Rohrwacher's The Wonders and Ruben Ostlund's Force Majeure as well as foreign language Oscar nominee Timbuktu from Abderrahmane Sissako .

“These films, films that screen in Cannes and Venice, get more publicity than the competition films and the public is more interested in them,” says Zagt.

Wolfson makes no apology for Rotterdam-backed films going elsewhere for their premieres. “We were over the moon when Uncle Boonmee won Cannes,” he says. “Our prime directive is to support these filmmakers and give their films the best platform they can have. If they can go to Cannes then, well, it is the biggest festival in the world.”

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Whether Rotterdam can survive, and thrive, in its current form is an open question. The festival's storied history, and its track record in picking talent, do still count for something. Top indie production and sales companies, including Fortissimo Films, TrustNordisk and The Match Factory, still see Rotterdam as an essential event on the industry calendar.

But as the industry shifts, many feel the only hope for the IFFR is a complete overhaul. It won't happen this year, but Wolfson's successor will face major challenges as he or she tries to live up to the festival's legacy and keep Rotterdam relevant for the future.

Twitter: @sroxborough