Once again this week, New York hosts multiple film festivals, each touting a variety of independent and inter- national movies. The beginning of June brings the 18th NewFest (June 1–11, newfest.org), focusing on gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender themes; the ninth Brooklyn International Film Festival (June 2–11, wbff.org), whose press release touts a familiar promise of “some of the most thought- provoking and cutting-edge films of the year”; the first Staten Island Film Festival (June 1–4, sifilmfestival.org), a municipally initiated series looking to bring the experience to a new frontier; and something called the Olive Film Festival (June 2–15, olivefilms.com), a showcase of movies at the Quad by micro-distributor Olive Films. All arrive in the wake of Tribeca’s behemoth cinematic Wal-Mart. Year-round, more than 40 festivals take place in the city: an average of three and a half events per week.
The calendar was not always this crammed. Fifteen years ago, there were only the major uptown galas, identity-based operations like NewFest, and a smattering of diehard experimental showcases. With the rise of Sundance, the commercialization of Indiewood, the advent of DV technology, and an increase in college film courses, the explosion of indie productions fed the development of an unprecedented number of new festivals. In the early ’90s, a festival’s yearly submissions numbered in the hundreds; by the end of the decade, even midsize events might receive thousands.
While the cultural market has made these events possible, are all festivals really necessary? The question may seem rude or absurd (particularly posed by a writer who, to disclose fully, had a decade-long former engagement as a director of the New York Underground Film Festival—as guilty as anyone for adding to the fray). After all, cinematic abundance and a world-class arts culture are reasons many of us choose to live in New York in the first place. But quantity does not always mean quality, and with increased competition for audiences, press, and sponsorship, it’s a question that festival directors would do well to ask themselves: Does this festival need to exist?
“The question does come up a lot,” says NewFest head Basil Tsiokos, yet “for an audience like ours, its not just about the pure love of cinema. Gay people want to see these films together.” Still, while his festival’s mission remains unchanged, Tsiokos has seen a shift in audience attitude. In the era of Logo and Brokeback Mountain, he reports, “the crowd has gotten more selective. Back in the day, we showed whatever was available. Now, we reject a lot more films. And if the audience sees a stinker, they are more vocal.”
Dave Ratzlow, director of programming of Brooklyn International, claims that despite the hundreds of films at Tribeca alone, “there are still quality international films that don’t show in the city. I see the role of a film festival continuing to fill that vacuum,” he says. But he has encountered occasional “resistance from production companies to show at film festivals, because there are so many festivals and distribution is so small.” Smaller events often face booking fees; one French film showing this year initially asked for $1,000 to play. Tsiokos has encountered similar demands. “If your film’s box office will be hurt by a single screening,” he says, “you shouldn’t be distributing that film.”
Both festivals report losing premieres to Tribeca, but neither claims this is significant. Over the years, Tsiokos thinks, premieres have become less important, even if launching a distributor’s title can’t hurt (as NewFest will with THINKFilm’s Strangers With Candy, or BIFF will with IFC’s Factotum). But festival competition isn’t helping anyone, either. “I don’t want to make it sound like I’m against festivals,” Tsiokos says, but “a lot of people have this sense of ‘Let’s put on a show.’ It’s not that easy. Eventually, they’ll get weeded out.”