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BSS: navigating the festival circuit

In one of the Symposium’s most information-heavy sessions, producer Tim White talked with the Berlinale’s Maryanne Redpath and Melbourne’s Al Cossar to an audience of filmmakers keen for tips on getting their films in front of more eyeballs.

BSS2014 Festival Panel

Panel (l – r): Maryanne Redpath, moderator Tim White, and Al Cossar
Photo: Tony Forster

While Melbourne claims to be the prestige festival in Australasia, the Berlinale sits comfortably in the top five of the so-called A-list festivals, along with Sundance, Cannes, Venice and Toronto. White was a producer for Robert Sarkies’ Two Little Boys, which played Berlin, and more recently was an executive producer on Andrew Adamson’s Mr. Pip and James Napier Robertson’s The Dark Horse, both of which premiered internationally in Toronto.

Cossar’s title at the MIFF is “Programmer”, but he also has other gigs, as a film critic on ABC television in Australia, and – perhaps unusually for a festival administrator – in editing and post-production.

Besides being director of the Berlinale’s youth-focused Generation section, Kiwi-born Redpath has also been the official Berlinale Delegate for Australia and New Zealand for the last 10 years – hence her annual visits to her homeland. Her other Berlinale hat involves curating a series of indigenous films; but before members of our audience could get too excited about this, she pointed out that 2015’s festival is focused on indigenous filmmaking in Latin America.

Both festivals have been running since the early 1950s, with the Berlinale sneaking ahead of the Melbourne event in age by one year, beginning as it did in 1951. Both feature a market, Melbourne’s 37° South and the Berlinale’s European Film Market.

The MIFF that has just wrapped featured 344 films from 60 countries, with 517 sessions over 17 days. While describing the Berlinale as “a monster, a dinosaur, a juggernaut”, the one statistic that Redpath was keen to point out was that they receive between 7000 and 8000 submissions each year!

Overall it seemed that the ratio between films sought or solicited by festival programmers versus films selected from applications was roughly 50/50 which, if true, is out of kilter with the 80:20 mix common at other A list festivals.

The team at the Melbourne festival see themselves as “enablers of voices, both emerging and established”. But, as well as filmmaker development, they are equally focused on audience development.

The same could be said of the Berlinale. Its Generation section and Talent Campus both focus strongly on emerging filmmakers (including writers, technicians and others).

The oldest section of the Berlinale is the Panorama, the official competition. Like most A list festivals, it skews heavily towards arthouse with a high percentage of LBGT titles. The Berlinale has a good platform for short films, with two strands, one of which focuses on the very experimental.

The Forum section, which originated some 10 to 12 years after the festival’s beginnings, developed out of an “Anti-festival” which was set up in opposition to the Berlinale. It was focused on films with more political content, and solicited films which had little structure, and might be very long or very short. This “anti-festival” is now included as a section of the Berlinale – if you can’t beat them, then absorb them?

The appointment of a new director recently at the Berlinale has resulted in new sidebars; including a culinary one, which is focused on both food consumption and identity.

Tim White spoke of how film festivals are vital to producers of features, in that they can be a cheap and effective way to launch a film to global media.

While Sundance can be too cool for its own good, both the Berlinale and Melbourne are attended by regular filmgoers – a distinct advantage in White’s opinion. When financing a film, producers are often under pressure to play at festivals, especially the three A-listers that have major markets associated with them: the Berlinale, Cannes and Toronto.

While festival selection has long been considered a mark of success for NZ titles, elsewhere filmmakers often don’t want films in their local festivals. Distributors don’t want the art-house tag, and it is felt that festivals can take attention away from general release publicity.

In recent years, there’s been a perceptible shift in how and when local films that play the NZIFF try to parlay that buzz into a general release. This year’s The Dark Horse opened the NZIFF but then went on general release before the festival had reached many of the smaller centres it plays.

Filmmakers fear that if they enter for the local festival and are “not selected” this could get into the local press.

It is also believed to affect the attitudes of other festivals towards such films. It’s all part of festival politics.

Festival politics was a feature of the conversation. There has been considerable discussion recently, for example, of the tussles between Telluride and Toronto festivals. Both Toronto and Cannes are very red carpet oriented; the USA uses Toronto as a kind of competition for the opening weekend and to launch titles considered to be Oscar contenders.

This makes things extremely difficult for the Berlinale. The habit of buyers of arriving for the start of a festival on a Thursday and being gone by Monday creates huge pressure on the festival programmers. One cannot squeeze 400 titles into an opening weekend.

For this reason, the Berlinale is thinking of shifting its European Film Market to a position later in the festival – they want to separate the film screening aspect from the market function of the festival. Redpath particularly is offended by the way buyers treat festival screenings as part of the market, coming in with headphones on, watching for 10 minutes only, then leaving. To her they are really rude!

But while producers, distributors, sales agents and filmmakers are often really keen on festivals, often the programmers see another side. The festival politics and timing of the Berlinale make it difficult for the festival to secure major studio releases from America, so they focus more on the smaller art-house films.

There is also a lot of wheeling and dealing for films that they want but that have already screened elsewhere – suddenly sales agents are not interested any more!

Timing is a serious issue. Coordinating a festival strategy with cinema release windows can be difficult for filmmakers and marketers. Sometimes festival choices are based on actor availability! Schedules and deadlines are extremely tight, and then there is the fact that there are possibly 5000-plus festivals in the world each year.

In response to a question about Without a Box submissions, Cossar said that Melbourne does use the platform – with the consequence that it generates a huge number of submissions. Redpath admitted that she only found out about Without a Box the day before this session, but suspected that it would not work for the for the Berlinale. They are trying to create a system to reduce the number of submissions, not increase it!

Cossar asserted that people need to research both the nature and policies of each festival before applying – for example, the commercial type versus the developmental type. Too many submitters have clearly not done their research, some even confusing the Melbourne festival in Australia with the one in Melbourne, Florida!

To conclude, Cossar emphasised the importance of being proactive at a festival, once you have been selected. Tim White pointed out that if you’ve got a sales agent, it is their job to search for avenues of distribution. The best thing is to get a sales agent on board – but one who knows the festivals.

For Redpath, the most valuable thing a festival could give a filmmaker was experience – through meeting other more experienced filmmakers and mentors.

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