The best film festivals have stimulating films in a festive atmosphere. They have films that challenge and entertain and stretch the mind in a social environment of filmgoers who interact and bond. The best film festivals live way beyond the festivals. The best have filmgoers who return year after year.
With several thousand film festivals in the United States, and new ones starting up every year -- even during these economic hard times -- with audiences growing larger, film festivals have clearly tapped into a critical need that Hollywood films at multiplexes are not fulfilling. This is the need to be emotionally moved and intellectually challenged by films and to share this experience with others.
A popular subgroup of film festivals is destination festivals, which add the attraction of location. There are festivals in the gorgeous Utah red desert, in Florida beach towns during the winter, in the Mid-west grasslands and the Ozark Mountains and even Alaska in December -- "Films worth freezing for," is their motto. Destination festivals add an interesting, often spectacular physical setting to the films and the temporary community of filmgoers.
With the brutal, record heat wave swamping the East Coast and turning New York City into a raging furnace, I needed an escape to a destination festival.
The Woods Hole Film Festival, I soon discovered, is not really a destination festival. Although located on beautiful Cape Cod and the sparkling blue water of Buzzard Bay, with bright green trees and a cool breeze that blows away the heat, this gorgeous setting is pretty much secondary to the festival itself. Sure it doesn't hurt, it helps, but during festival week the setting is not focus.
It's a small town festival -- in a small town with a prestigious marine institute and a swelling summer population living in comfortable second homes and a population that has tentacles reaching around the world. Unlike a true destination festival, however, which is generally plopped like an alien creature in some spectacular scenery, this event has deep roots in the local community.
On the other hand, maybe all these festival categories conceal more they expose. Maybe it's best to accept each festival is unique, and then decide what uniqueness you embrace.
Between films, I talked with the Woods Hold Film Festival executive director, Judy Laster in her cluttered, yet comfortable office. That we soon left for the background of a striking sunset.
After graduating from law school, the cheerful, energetic Ms. Laster followed her heart and with some long-time friends started the Woods Hold Film Festival. It began modestly, one hour of films for a single day. Now, that is genuinely modest! Today, nineteen years later, the festival runs for 8 days and screens more than 100 films selected from approximately 700 submissions from around the world. "When the Internet boomed, it really changed our festival fantastically. People found us on the web." At this year's festival, some 4,500 filmgoers will attend the screenings and events.
With the reduction of film production costs, the festival received more and more submissions and both the programming and audience grew, and with time crucial acclaim increased. Yet, the focus and purpose of the festival remained consistent: Good independent films for an audience that returns year after year. "This is and has always been a community festival, integrated in the community," she Laster says with a broad smile.
"Today no one asks anymore what is a film festival, as they did before. When we started out Independent Film was just burgeoning." Yet, getting younger people to attend the festival is difficult. "Where are the 20s and 30 year olds?" she asks. "That is the lost generation." And then she speculates, "They are creating community online, so they may not feel the need for community in person."
But the director of Woods Hole is not pessimistic, insisting the youngest generation that is coming of age today will support film festivals and the loyal older generation will remain supportive. She is optimistic about Woods Hold Film Festival -- in fact, she is optimistic about film festivals.
"People want real experiences. And the mainstream media doesn't delve into these serious issues, they don't have time, or don't make time. And we are giving them films for adults." Adding, they also program for all ages, with a kids program, and of course for that lost generation.
Regardless of the type of film festival -- destination or community, documentaries only or genre films, high profile or low profile, the types of festivals are nearly endless -- the foundational requirements for success remain the same: Films that rocket the emotions and fuel the minds in a community that draws everyone together. A good film festival does what Hollywood films at the mall multiplexes are not doing, are not even trying to do, are probably incapable of doing. Yet, what the Woods Hole Film Festival is doing this week: slamming filmgoers emotions and rocking their minds and creating a cozy space for everyone to talk about their slams and rocks.