| June 4, 2021
It’s April 23, 2020. New York seems to be over the COVID-19 hump. The, uh, president is encouraging “reopening” America while simultaneously hedging so that he won’t be blamed for encouraging this when people start dying in states that reopen too recklessly. The threat of a rekindling of the pandemic in America looms heavily over the fall and winter.
But for now, let’s discuss how we might get back to the movies.
First, we need to start being brutally honest with ourselves and each other.
Cannes is great. Venice is great. But outside of exciting a thin swath of film critics, writers, and industry types who go to Cannes every year, the loss of this festival does not affect the American cinema. Almost all of the festival films that are purchased for US distribution at Cannes go into the International category for Oscar and will not get a theatrical platform of any size in America until the following year. Most of the films that show in theaters and festivals in America in the fall of any given year go into the festival with a US distributor. There are exceptions. But not many.
Venice has even less impact on the US market, aside from as a marketing platform.
I love festivals. I love the communal experience of seeing movies, unencumbered by the predispositions that marketing and publicity create. I go out of my way not to know about the films I will see at any festival, aside from friendly recommendations and loglines in the festival guides.
There is an enormous rush of power in the moment when you are one of a very small group of people who have seen a movie play in a room and interested parties clamor for your insight (to embrace or toss aside). But this moment should not be the key to the future of any film. It has been. Especially at Cannes. But it should not be.
But that strikes at a key element of the festival universe: the marketing and publicity value to distributors. Festivals are often used as a launching pad as much as anything else. But the direct cause and effect — outside of New York City, where the Times and a couple other outlets with popular critics can key the success or failure of a small film — is negligible. Festivals are bait for press coverage. And that works for both sides (to the degree it works for either side). But marketing and successful publicity is still required for a small film to do over $1 million in theatrical or better on VOD. And for a wide-release movie, it’s all about marketing, no matter how well a film does at a festival.
So why are we anxious to get back to Telluride, Toronto and New York this September?
Because we love movies. Because of the rush of the new. Because losing the revenue from the festivals themselves for these organizations would be devastating financially.
But first… Do no harm.
My first major suggestion for the fall festivals hoping to have a footprint is to take the media out of the equation. At least, in person.
There is no major distributor without a secure streaming system of some kind. Take the entire media experience of these festivals to the web. Show the movies. Set up digital interviews. Set strict review embargo dates.
This is a huge opportunity for the distributors. They can expand the base of writers who see these films and to an increasing degree, control when they write about them. The good and the bad of a place like Telluride is that a few loud voices are going to define your film going into Toronto and even beyond. If you win those people over, you win. If you lose those people, you may never recover. Again, a power rush… but not one worth gambling on.
Toronto has a ton more film writers attending than Telluride. It is heavily a media festival for premieres. These festivals compete for premieres. That doesn’t have to change, either.
Distributors could set up the same system for media that it already has. If your film premieres at Telluride, only allow writers who have passes for the festival see and write about the film in that window. Then, widen the audience for Toronto and get that second wave.
The point is, the media element that launches award season can be controlled and, surprisingly, improved for the distribution side.
The next step is the festival itself. And here is the thing… this is the most fragile element of any notion of having a fall festival. Putting people in rooms together.
The weather in Telluride is late summer/early fall, with temperatures that swing between 45 and 85 degrees over a weekend… usually with rain. The altitude is high. People have trouble breathing as it is. I have no idea whether this is a problem with COVID-19, but I do know that people who issues breathing have a bigger problem with the virus. Where is that line?
Toronto tends to be warmer, rarely dipping below 60 at night or getting warmer than 85 during the festival.
Telluride is a festival mostly of visitors to the glorious mountain town. Toronto is a festival with the vast majority of tickets purchased by locals with a large contingent of people coming in from out of town as press or industry. But they are very different challenges.
Toronto seats somewhere between 25,000 and 35,000 people in theaters each day at the festival. Telluride has fewer than 3000 attendees in total. So I see very different plans for both festivals.
Here is the benefit for both of these festivals, as opposed to the shuttered SXSW and Cannes: Neither is a sales festival. There are some titles and that might have to change. But while the idea of a South By film looking for distribution accepting a position in the online film festival being co-sponsored by Amazon, the stakes are very different at Tell&Tiff.
Also, the idea of making festival films available openly to non-fest participants is a non-starter for either of these situations.
For Telluride, I would start with the assumption that 20% of the pass buyers are not showing up this year, no matter how much of an all-clear sign is given. It could easily be more. Young people come to the festival, but the majority of attendees are over 50.
Then I would take the four-day long festival and cut it into two three-day festivals. They already got approval for an extra day. But what is needed is to cut the thing in half and let people decide which identical half they want to attend… First come, first served.
Things need to be a bit more aggressive on the cleaning side. But the volunteers — another issue — are amazing at the festival. Cut the crowd in half and everything will feel safer. Movies already screen multiple times to allow everyone to see them over the weekend. Great. The biggest house is the Werner Herzog Theater with 650 seats. Now 325 seats.
Take your temperature. Wear your mask. If you have a serious cough, stay in your rental. If you are sneezing moistly, stay in your rental.
Reconsider the “Q” system, encouraging people to get their Q early and to come back to enter the theater in time-specific groups. We are all in this together.
How much would it cost to set up a wellness center to support responsible participation? Probably nothing. I can’t imagine that some insurer or healthcare company wouldn’t jump for the chance to reach high-end customers.
When I first started going to Telluride, there was a local cable channel that became the Telluride Channel for the weekend of the fest. It would offer additional programming relevant to the festival. There was also a cable channel for TIFF back when. If you want to do the events that they now do in the park, with four or five filmmakers and a moderator discussing the issues of the moment, great… do it however you choose, Zoom, Skype, whatever, and post it to the web so festivalgoers can get access live (maybe) and post to YouTube so the entire world can engage the conversations. Welcome to 2020.
Again, I would consider leaving the media out of the equation. Distributor preferences would have to be discussed with festivals. But another 100 – 150 people off the top, with a plan to give the entire group access to the films in play, could not hurt.
There are, of course, a hundred details I am not working through. Julie Huntsinger and Tom Luddy are very smart and have smart people with whom they can work this out. But this is the core of my suggestion… expand the dates, reduce the crowds, control the media. And sorry… lose the reusable water bottles.
But the thing about Telluride is that it is really about the cinema as church. No one is going to be upset because there are no tributes for a year. Or no celebrities. And of course, people can be brought to the theater via the internet… which has been done a number of times at Telluride just because someone could not make it to the mountain.
There is the possibility that a fresh outbreak could happen in the weeks before the festival and the whole thing would have to be stopped. But if that is not the case, there could be a Telluride that is not what we have been used to for so many years, but which remains faithful to the ideal. A win for all who love film.
But if that is the case, there could be a virtual version of the festival as simple and complex as putting the 30 films or so on a secure server that passholders would be able to access for three or four days, not unlike the way things are set-up with The Academy. Unlike The Academy, Telluride could force the issue in terms of platform. (Many Academy voters didn’t partake of the Academy streaming access because they didn’t have the Apple TV hardware or more specifically, the current generation of Apple TV. If you can pay all that money for a pass to Telluride, $150 for an Apple TV is not asking too much.) If the festival has to be cancelled on the mountain, have it on your TV. There would be many people making noise about this being impossible, but Telluride’s audience is less than a third as large as the Academy membership. It’s doable. Would everyone rather it be on a screen in the glory of Telluride? Hell, yes. But… COVID.
The Toronto International Film Festival is very different. At least 100,000 people going to see over 150 feature films.
The challenge, by comparison, is mammoth.
I would start by eliminating the press element without regard to what eventually plays in the physical theaters. Or coming from a different angle, setting up a complete TIFF Press Event online without press screenings or junkets of any kinds at the festival.
This would assure distributors that the publicity and marketing goals of the festival would still be achieved, no matter what happens in the real world of Toronto.
The next step is to deal with the Industry section. And there is a very good chance that this could just be cancelled. The whole point is to engage other people face-to-face. Festival as convention. If industry people need to see movies, they should be able to get access from the distributors.
But if you rethink the Press and eliminate the Industry, you’re down to locals and maybe the greatest festival for locals in the world. And that is a giant effort that is well beyond my pay grade. How scores of thousands of Toronto residents and the management of the festival feel about all of this is not something I can project upon reasonably.
But what I suggest, perhaps for both festivals, is to keep the public element intact. Media will be even more focused. Seeing more films would be possible. And all the complications of moving talent and titles around a city would be reduced.
It would be a massive piece of work for all the publicists at all the distributors. But they are killing themselves at these festivals already.
And coming out of these festivals, the product of these festivals that distributors use for a week, a month or the whole award season, would be intact. And the future for these films would still, most likely, be a roll of the dice… but not at the festivals. That, they could control and use as they always do.
And if these festivals end up shutting down in total? The distributors are brought up short and there is no clear opportunity to progress.
Finally, The New York Film Festival, which has traditionally been a festival of festivals, heavily invested in bringing Cannes debuts to America, but with premieres in recent years.
New York has the most interesting opportunity of the group because Cannes isn’t happening and New York can work with Cannes and Venice to bring a lot of that product that may be less commercial and less about award season to New York and America.
I am less comfortable about New York gathering to watch movies in the cathedral than in either of the two other cities. Who knows? But they have another advantage in that they can wait to see where Tell&TIFF settle and decide whether to act in a similar or dissimilar way.
There is also a significant variable in that these are, generally, arthouse films… and that means a different kind of distribution. There could be a radical version of NYFF in which the festival takes place in sync with a VOD availability for the films being played – or not being played – in New York.
If there is a single theme in my thinking, it is to make radical choices. We are in a moment, of being shut in while having a level of technology that was not been available before now, in which it is not only possible to change the experience of these events significantly for this one year, but is, in fact, necessary.
The least successful answer in all cases is for nature to take an ugly course and to leave no footprint for these festivals and the films that intend to use them to the fullest. You can’t ostrich your way out of it. You can’t bravado your way out of it.
If these festivals take difficult action to manage one area of this likely problem, they will be on their way to having building blocks for the rest of their events.
And what does this mean to The Academy Awards? It positions the films in a similar, if not improved way to the norm. And the details of qualifications should be adjusted as needed… not immediately… but in the light of time. The Academy should not be the first to act. That is the cart before the horse.
Let’s keep that cart safe and clean. And next year, hopefully, we will have a vaccine and we will all be so excited to go back to the wonderful traditions of all of these festivals.
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