Gateway to the Public: Film Festivals

Photo Credit: Screen Gems
April 15th, 2012

Independent film festivals have become increasingly visible, specialized and diverse in recent years. However, film festivals are not a new concept. Ever since the first films were made available to the public, festivals have accompanied them. As early as the 1930s, people attended such events to increase their awareness, and at the most basic level, to "keep up with the times" by coming into contact with technology they had never seen before.

As the so-called trend of film turned out to be much more than that, festivals have remained with us, changing their scope and purposes. This evolution is most apparent when considering how specialized and diverse films have become. There is a wide range of film festivals available to the public today, including one event dedicated to bike enthusiasts called the Bicycle Film Festival. Most relevant to the film industry are independent film festivals with the objective of offering visibility to promising new filmmakers.

The gateway to obtaining an audience for any person who is keen on telling a story through cinema, without a substantial budget or any other support, is the independent film festival. Most filmmakers hope that these first showings of their work will amount to a chance to be noticed by guest distributors, resulting in wider releases, larger audiences and profits. Some of the best-known movies recognized as being commercial successes premiered at independent film festivals. These include "The Blair Witch Project" and "Little Miss Sunshine."

Both of these films were groundbreaking in some way. You can understand what the risks were and why studios opted to buy the rights only after representatives have seen the finished product. If you related the concept and production details of "The Blair Witch Project" to anyone without mentioning it is an actual film, the usual reaction would be laughter. Having a group of people walk around in a forest with a camera doesn't quite paint the picture of the fear and horror most experience when watching the film. Similarly, "Little Miss Sunshine" doesn't appear to be a producer;s dream at first glance. It is a road movie that examines family relationships in the unusual context of trying to win a children;s beauty contest.

On the flip side, films that do not lack advertising funds are sometimes screened during festivals before their official release dates. This happens because film festivals help to give films a certain degree of credibility, helping to break the prejudice of heavy advertising. "Easy A" is one of the films that had opportunity. It is a challenging piece of work, showing all the conventional rules and boundaries of a teenager's social universe, as well as the different standpoints that one person can take to break some of them. What is interesting about this is that studios have acknowledged the impact film festivals have on the newly-educated movie-going public.

The beauty of film festivals resides in the fact that the entry contest is open to anyone who wants to demonstrate their ability to take on a film about any topic they might want to approach. Freedom is what makes independent film so appreciated and the role of festivals so important. Audiences deserve different variants of films, including films that get made with no studio constraints or recipes for success and risky films that address some of the most sensitive issues that society may or may not be willing to confront openly. People gain freedom by deciding for themselves who deserves their contributions more, a box-office hit or an unknown gem that challenges some of the established norms in film industry. Creating films is an art form, but just like other expressions of art, its value may be measured commercially. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as the public has access to all or most of the products they should be evaluating.

Finally, it should be mentioned that commercial success isn't always tied to theatrical distribution. Nowadays, partly because the tremendous growth in the film festival arena, most profits come from cable distribution and DVD sales. The separation between visibility in movie theaters and visibility through other avenues is critical. This means that a big chunk of a film studio's activities are optional since filmmakers can gain exposure and generate profits by other means. The film industry has had a strong impact on communities around the globe, and whether you enjoy making or watching films, film festivals are working on your behalf as well as entertaining audiences.