Analysis | Are big film festivals like TIFF still important in the post-COVID times? New York film critic seeks answers from within the industry

“Cannes is a mediocre seaside city with lousy food.” So put it a young European friend in the early 2000s, when I mentioned that I had just completed my first tour of that city’s film festival.

She would know better than me, I guessed, but I was still a bit confused. Because one night on the Croisette (this is how Cannes talks about “the main street”), watching the light of the full moon dance on the ocean and the kliegs and the sparkles of the Palais in front of me, I was often dazzled and understood. . why filmmakers and movie stars would be too.

For his film to cause a sensation it meant making an international mark. the Cannes film festival Competition represents something of a pinnacle of film art, and that competition occurs, or occurred, alongside one of the largest and most ruthless film markets in the world. There was once the holiest of saints – Kurosawa, Bresson, Tarkovsky, Welles – and, in more recent years, a gang of dirty young men in body paint extolling the virtues of Troma schlock. And then there is the red carpet.

Toronto doesn’t have beaches (well, not that kind, anyway), but its film festival is especially beloved by less cynical filmmakers and journalists alike because it’s an event primarily meant to serve the city of movie lovers: a cinematic celebration for the people. . A smorgasbord of movies and a party at the same time. And this year, for the second time, due to COVID-19, it’s mostly virtual rather than in person, which has led many people to wonder what the point is and where the fun is supposed to be.

Berry Meyerowitz, co-president of Quiver, a Toronto-based grower and North American distributor, is among those disappointed. “Toronto is one of the best audiences festivals in the world, talent loves to come here and it’s a great time to release a movie for awards season,” he says. “So it’s a shame we have it virtually two years in a row.”

But it’s not uninteresting, admits Meyerowitz (whose ongoing projects include “Dead for a Dollar,” a western written and directed by Walter Hill, and starring Willem Dafoe, Rachel Brosnahan, and Christoph Waltz) because the COVID-driven shutdowns coincide with a more aggressive push from streaming giants like Netflix, Amazon and Apple to buy movies.

Adding to the excitement or confusion, there’s the fact that once-traditional studios are becoming broadcast giants. In the case of Disney Plus, Disney’s acquisition of 20th Century Fox also absorbed Searchlight, the independent arm behind countless festival hits that became Oscar winners (“Birdman,” “The Shape of Water,” and ” Nomadland “, to name a few recent titles).

RJ Millard, president of Obscured Pictures, a New York film marketing company, also believes that the notion that streamers are squeezing more established distributors with fewer pockets is something of a myth. “On the festival market circuit,” he says, “there is always a new buyer who comes in with a lot of cash. Finding ways to deal with that, to establish a strategy where prudent caution comes into play, is part of the challenge of doing business. But it’s not like this is something new. ”But while Millard misses the festival feel, both he and Meyerowitz say they don’t miss the glitz.

These days it’s worth looking at things from a sober perspective, but let’s face it: glitter can be fun. TIFF has always been, in my experience, a great setting for the kind of social interaction that can only happen at busy parties.

The now-defunct Premiere magazine (where I was on staff for 10 years) sponsored a party at TIFF that we consider the northern equivalent of Vanity Fair’s Oscar party. I think I may have introduced David Lynch to Monica Bellucci on one of these matters. I remember talking to Terence Stamp about Federico Fellini. I remember Richard Harris laughing repeatedly: “Jimmy Webb! Jimmy Webb! after I mentioned that I had chatted with the writer of Harris’s hit song “MacArthur Park” at the LaGuardia airport food court earlier in the week. We all want to get back to that part of the festival glitz, I guess.

In any case, says Millard, “In-person festivals are still vital to releasing a movie and giving audiences and filmmakers the opportunity to see and interact with each other. Festivals make the desire to see a movie much easier, which means there is a great need for them to exist. The theatrical and community sensation of discovery is more of a connection than the activation of a streaming service. “

That’s not quite what Denis Villeneuve, the director of the upcoming “Dune,” meant when he lamented to Total Film magazine in August that “to see” Dune “on TV, the best way to compare it is to drive. a speedboat in your bathtub. It’s ridiculous to me. It’s a movie that was made as a tribute to the big screen experience. ” This condition, it should be noted, has little or nothing to do with film festivals themselves; Warner Media did the decision to launch its full list of 2021 releases on its HBO Max streaming service, sometimes also with theatrical exposure, in late 2020. It so happens that several IMAX screenings of Villeneuve’s film are scheduled to be among the TIFF special events.

As for the so-called “cultural conversation” surrounding festival films, each film (in motion) tells its own story.

At virtual Sundance in 2021, Apple bought the heartwarming family drama “Coda” for a staggering $ 25 million (US). Apple TV released the film in late August, and judging by Rotten Tomatoes, the rave reviews it garnered were matched by audience reactions. And yet, for some, it feels like a movie landing with a thud. Part of this has to do with the fragmented, not to say fractured, form in which we now evaluate the “buzz.”

With social networks, we pick and choose the voices that we are interested in hearing; For all a “Coda” skeptic knows, there may be a densely populated corner of Twitter dedicated to the film (although I couldn’t find one). With streaming services generally not releasing audience information, which could double as box office numbers for those eager to analyze, the massive impact is nearly impossible to measure.

Except when it isn’t. John Sloss, director of Cinetic, a New York-based media sales and consulting firm, has a good story from this year’s Sundance. “Yes, this year’s festival was completely virtual,” he says.. “From a sales perspective, you really can’t use that iteration of Sundance as effectively as you would at a live festival. Sundance has always been a perfect live festival; fuses genuinely enthusiastic audiences with a real sense of industry urgency. The virtual festival is not lacking either, but it puts the illusion into play in another way.

“This year, we made the biggest sale of a documentary in the history of Sundance,” he continues. “And I have to say that the movie benefited from the new environment.”

That documentary, which was sold to Disney-owned Searchlight (but still doing its own deals) for $ 12 million (US), was “Summer of Soul,” which by most metrics that supports the smart set is the most talked about movie. of the summer, if not of the year. In one of those that will become, I think, many divide and conquer moves, Disney put the movie on the streaming service Hulu (of which it is a co-owner) in the U.S. The three industry executives I spoke to They say they are all about showing their movies to as many eyes as possible. They still believe that festivals can help achieve that goal.

But of course, the focus of the festival is not everything. And it certainly is not forever.

I have often told this anecdote (once to writer Brian Raftery, who included it in his excellent book “Best. Movie. Year. Ever.: How 1999 Blew Up the Big Screen”): I was at the Sundance Film Festival in 1999, where everyone could talk about “The Blair Witch Project”, a movie that became a great success, but it did not turn its creators into stars.

In the midst of all the fuss, which went on for days, I boarded a nearly empty bus and ran into a director and producer who had a movie at Slamdance (a kind of underground Sundance shoot that also takes place in Park City, Utah) . They hoped that their eccentric thriller, “Next”, would continue to receive the good word of mouth that the previous one had started. year in TIFF. Because of “Blair Witch” that wasn’t happening and they were a bit depressed. I gave them a little pep talk. The filmmakers were producer Emma Thomas and director Christopher Nolan, you know, the team behind “The Dark Knight Rises.”

Glenn Kenny is a film critic for the New York Times and a contributor to and, among other outlets. He is also the author of “Made Men: The Story of Goodfellas.”

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