Hot Docs evaluates festival/VOD relationship

Festivals must evolve new models in digital environment

TORONTO – With arthouse cinema going away, film festivals may soon be in the business of helping launch movies direct-to-VOD, rather than towards a theatrical release.

That vision emerged Friday as major festival leaders gathered at the Hot Docs festival in Toronto to debate what's next for them in an evolving digital media landscape.

Geoffrey Gilmore, the newly installed chief creative officer at Tribeca Enterprises, said festivals have to evolve as indie films are increasingly financed and distributed differently than in the past.

Gilmore added the festival of the future will still be a ground event to engage and educate local audiences, but also likely exist in cyberspace and as a market.

“Rather than have the theatrical drive digital, it’s digital that drives theatrical,” Gilmore said of the growing importance of iTunes and the digital cable set-top box in increasingly driving audiences to indie film.

Janet Pierson, producer of the SXSW film festival in Austin trumpeted her recent ground-breaking deal that saw IFC Films launch Joe Swanberg’s “Alexander the Last” direct-to-VOD as it bowed at her festival, and not in cinemas.

“When you premiere a film, you want to connect with audiences and talent,” Pierson said. The question is how to do it going forward.

Frustration was expressed with past festival models where theatrical film buyers and the wider industry often looms larger in importance than filmmakers and local audiences.

“We have to rethink what our agendas are,” Gilmore, a former boss of Sundance for 19 years before shifting to Tribeca, insisted.

“We’re all thinking about commerce and quality at the same time and it’s a bit of a mishmash,” Cameron Bailey, co-director of the Toronto International Film Festival Group, added.

So talk got round to split-deals and equity stakes as festivals help launch a film to VOD and then share in the broadcast revenue.

Here Pierson did not have numbers on the VOD performance for “Alexander the Last” to counter panel skepticism that an evolving festival/VOD relationship could really prove profitable as well as promotional for festivals and filmmakers.

“Where’s the money? If people show me the money, I’ll jump into it,” Gilmore said of new, much touted distribution alternatives for film.

TIFF’s Bailey said festivals in the future had to showcase different digital story-telling techniques, and not just stand still like Cannes as a curatorial authority for 35mm film.

“What we need to do is less top-down and to follow what the audiences are for,” Bailey argued.

But the festival leaders were adamant that the digital space, including VOD, will not replace the local film festival, just as proliferating festivals have replaced arthouse cinema.

Bailey said festivals like TIFF remain key platforms on which to build conversation and buzz around a film both before and after their screening, and in front a live audience with creative talent in tow.

At the same time, Bailey said it was “doable” that a film could also stream online, with an accompanying chat room to build conversation, as it screened on the ground at a festival.

He said TIFF was exploring a simultaneous launch of a film in a festival venue and online, as has already been done at smaller festivals.

The Hot Docs festival continues to May 10.