Film fest fever keeps NYC cineastes on run


It's an epidemic. In the New York City area alone, well over fifty film festivals have sprung up over the last few decades, most of those in the last decade alone.

With more than a film festival a week, and the average fest running about eight days, there's hardly a moment in which New Yorkers can't see work from independent filmmakers onscreen.

"Organizers bring festivals here because they know that filmmakers want to be in New York, for the depth and diversity of our City's neighborhoods and people," says Katherine Oliver, commissioner of the Mayor's Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting.

Yet the question still lingers: Is this good for the New York film industry and film lovers, or just sensory overload? Certainly it provides a wider choice than a Manhattan multiplex, and a chance for films to get into the public eye.

But the sheer number of fests is daunting, even for the most obsessive filmgoer. This month alone we've seen the debut of the Staten Island Film Festival (where a smaller film like "The Celestine Prophecy" can grab attention with a best narrative feature win) and the ninth annual Brooklyn International Film Festival ... not to be confused with the fourth annual Brooklyn Underground Film Festival in April ... or Brooklyn's sixth annual Coney Island Film Festival in October ... or Brooklyn's Sundance Institute at BAM, which debuted in May.

Name an ethnicity and New York likely has a film festival to match, whether you're Turkish (the New York Turkish Film Festival) or Russian (the Red Shift Film Festival). Asian-Americans have two fests, but the African-American community trumps them with four, most notably the Urbanworld Vibe Film Festival, which launches Wednesday.

"On the one hand, it's kind of great," IFP executive director Michelle Byrd says. "On the other hand, it's really difficult to eek out time in your schedule. It's unrealistic to think all these films are going to be covered by the media or seen by buyers."

The Tribeca Film Festival is arguably the city's biggest fest market, but it's a small fish in a global pond. Yet Tribeca did yield several sales this year, showing its continuing growth, and even publicity from smaller fests can reach distributors on their home turf.

Still, in the center of independent film, why are so many execs still trekking to Utah, Canada and France while overlooking what's in their backyard? Perhaps the answer to this weakness lies in the city's great strengths: its diversity and its standing as one of the top cultural capitals of the world. Unfortunately, diversity and high culture don't usually attract distributors, just cineastes.

The Film Society of Lincoln Center's New York Film Festival, at 44 the longest-running fest in the city's history, has never aimed to become a market. With a lineup dedicated to presenting the creme de la creme of cinema, many of the films already have U.S. distribution, and those that don't are often critically acclaimed but obscure films.

This fest's genesis and the city's diversity set a tone for all the niche fests that followed. And while Sundance changed people's perspective on the profitability of independent films and kickstarted a slew of new festivals around the U.S., this phenomenon simply created more "virtual" art houses, supplementing the many that have closed since the 1980s.

In the end, fests may give some niche films much-needed awards and publicity on their way to theaters, DVD or oblivion. But in a city known for instant gratification, indie filmmakers shouldn't count on it just yet in New York.