Film festivals are a major industry. There are thousands of film festivals across the globe and many pay good money for a premiere film, creating a multi-million dollar non-theatrical market. For some films, this becomes their bread and butter as they will make more from festival fees than they would in the box office. The right film can make so much money in a festival run, that many distributors have realized that this is the tail that wags the dog in the art-house industry. Filmmakers see it as a very profitable source of income and will play their films in festivals with the hopes that this will only create further buzz upon the box office release.
Up until now, film festivals were experiencing major growth. Anyone with a projector and a computer can start a festival these days. For every large festival there's a spin-off and for every niche festival, there's a niche within the niche. New York City went from having one major festival at Lincoln Center, to having a major festival in almost every neighborhood and sub-neighborhood. Every week the filmgoer can find dozens of festivals, from large ones like Tribeca to small pop-up festivals. But with the abundance of film festivals, the market is growing over-saturated and will soon hit the tipping point. When every synagogue and every bar is throwing a film festival for every little topic, the excitement inevitably wears off. Only the strong and the truly unique festivals will survive.
With the influx of streaming films on VOD, people are just a mouse click away from any film and festivals (as well as the art-house cinemas) are more threatened than ever. One way for festivals to stay relevant is to join the competition. Many major festivals have streaming sites that compliment and enhance their program. Even our Israel Film Center uses its festival to promote its streaming site. But the major value of film festivals is to keep alive the communal experience of film viewing and for that a festival needs to entice the audience with something special.
Audiences are leaving the comfort of their couches to come to film festivals only if there is a value added. They are not just coming for the film; they are coming for the full experience of something they would not get at home -- a conversation, a reception, an interaction. I require a conversation after all my screenings as part of our ongoing Cinematters series. At the Other Israel Film Festival we take the conversation to a new level and dive deep into the topics brought up in the films. Too often I go to film festivals that actually have the filmmakers present but do not engage in any meaningful conversations. Or, I see a tired moderator, who drags out the questions from the audience until absolutely everyone is completely frustrated. The Q&A should be presented as skillfully as the film itself.
At this year's Other Israel Film Festival after every film and conversation there was a call to action. After the audience viewed a film, while they were inspired by its message, we made sure that we had a partnering organization give the audience the opportunity to take the film's message to the next level. Last year, while we screened a film that inspired people to give blood, we had a blood-bus parked right outside the theater.
Often festivals that are known for their parties, throw the same party annually and by the eighth time the guests realize that they can actually drink the same beer at home. Instead of just doing the same old receptions, with the same beer sponsors, Other Israel took it to a new level this year. As we show films on the topic of Arabs in Israel, we switched it up and brought in an Israeli Druze chef, Gazala, to create a unique menu for opening night. This extra step took our reception and audience engagement up a notch and kept the festival fresh.
Festivals serve another important purpose even, and especially, in a VOD society. In a world of endless options for viewing films, festival curators help audiences decide what is worth seeing. With increased film choices we need curators more than ever. This puts a huge responsibility on the festivals that are so often driven by political and social pressures to include certain films. Some say 75% of the films for some of the major festivals are "pre-selected." Meaning they did not go through the normal selection process but were pretty much promised a slot.
Film festivals should allow the best to rise to the top. Ultimately, the quality festivals and the festivals that will survive, are the ones that make great selections and create an atmosphere that cannot be replaced or replicated in someone's living room.