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Netflix Might Have the Model to Fix a Major Film Festival Flaw (Column)

Should it always take a year for festival highlights to reach more audiences? The recent comedy festival suggests an alternative solution.

“Neptune Frost”

Kino Lorber

Even as Netflix stock struggles, the streamer proved that it can still put on a good show. Except for the guy who jumped Dave Chappelle, last weekend’s Netflix is a Joke Festival was a win: Multiple standups satisfied LA audiences over 11 nights, and that catalyzed a promotional cycle that will drive Netflix subscribers to watch those performances nationwide.

As the international film industry prepares for Cannes — which takes place over roughly the same amount of time — the implications are clear: a physical event, one that teases future content more people want to see! Yes, the Netflix Is a Joke Fest hints at a model that could address one of the biggest challenges in the arthouse distribution landscape.

This column seeks big swings and this one hides in plain sight. Festivals have flirted with taking more active roles in film distribution, but few have cracked the potential to leverage the hype they create. The movies create buzz, they find buyers, and then they wait until they find a slot on the schedule. By that time, the buzz is a memory. The business opportunity to fuse that gap is too obvious to go ignored.

This isn’t about the preordained hits that utilize the festival as a marketing launch. For all the joys of seeing Palme d’Or winner “Titane” at Cannes last year, its presence there was only a key moment in Neon’s timeline for its release.

That luxury doesn’t exist for acquisition titles. The same distributor of “Titane” bought a movie at last year’s festival that’s only coming out this week with Jonas Carpignano’s bracing neorealist crime thriller “A Chiara.” Similarly, Gaspar Noé’s wrenching multi-screen look at senility, “Vortex,” finally made its way to U.S. theaters earlier this month from Utopia Distribution. In early June, as Cannes 2022 buzz ebbs, the 2021 Directors’ Fortnight highlight “Neptune Frost” will come out in U.S. theaters from Kino Lorber.

The Afrofuturist musical from co-directors Saul Williams and Anisia Uzeyman is the ultimate festival breakout story: a gorgeous, unclassifiable hacker love story set against the backdrop of a dreamlike Rwanda, it conjures a mythical sense of postmodern identity in poetic sci-fi terms that would make Octavia Butler proud. Without the festival context, a movie this daring and unexpected has a hard time telling the world it exists in the first place. And like “Vortex” and “A Ciara,” it had to wait for a full festival cycle for its release.

That’s not always the worst thing. Williams and Uzeyman were at Cannes when they found out that “Neptune Frost” got into TIFF and NYFF; a Sundance invite followed. “We felt like the film was going to determine its course,” Williams told me by phone this week. “The number of films that have come and gone between then and now is astounding. Not all of those films live up to the dream of what they were going to do. Our evenly paced approach felt appropriate.”

The capacity for “Neptune Frost” to find an audience was not guaranteed. From the moment it launched at Cannes, its prospects were informed by other festivals: Would they provide more platforms? They did, and all of those invites eventually catalyzed into a sale.

A way to codify this trajectory might take the form of an SVOD service with an opt-in option for all films programmed at major festivals. Build in a generous profit share for filmmakers (most likely around an AVOD model, so every view puts money in their pocket). Movies that play one major festival could wait and see if they get invited to others before pulling the trigger on the VOD release; if a buyer comes along at any point, filmmakers have the option to withdraw from the service. If the offers don’t appeal, these films could capitalize on festival buzz at any point to become more widely available on VOD.

If this sounds familiar, let us take a moment to bow our heads in memory of the Amazon Video Director Film Festival Stars program. For two years, this VOD experiment provided as much as $100,000 for films that played at Sundance and other major festivals to be available on the service.

The Festival Stars program became fundamental to the festival market, providing a built-in SVOD opportunity for filmmakers and distributors that might not otherwise be able to get the work on a major streaming platform. Amazon paid millions for festival films before pulling the plug in 2019, and while the company never officially explained that decision, it was clear that it had other priorities for building out its content library — like spending $8.45 billion for MGM.

Amazon’s Festival Stars program left a gap: The festival ecosystem can’t rely on major streamers and their fickle business strategies. A streaming opportunity for festival films must be a direct outgrowth of the festival circuit itself. During COVID, festivals began building VOD components. In that sense, the first steps have already been taken; they just have to be linked together.

Most filmmakers still covet a theatrical release, but in many cases the festival run is the theatrical release. Many smaller distributors proved that they would gladly take on festival films with existing VOD strategies as long as they get a piece of the pie. If SVOD rights were committed to a festival VOD service through non-exclusive deals, distributors could still leverage that presence by taking these films into other, larger streaming libraries when the opportunities presented themselves. And when they don’t, the filmmakers still benefit from their original festival SVOD deal. It would restore a floor to the marketplace.

Of course, festivals are keen to shed the pandemic-era perception that they’ve become niche VOD platforms. TIFF has already 86’d the virtual component of its lineup (although a few films in the fall festival will be available in Canadian homes). Sundance plans to return to a “hybrid” format, but has yet to sort out how much of its lineup will be available. In these cases and others, festivals have already learned how to engage audiences at home. Rather than abandoning those lessons, they should lean into them as the ultimate means of engaging audiences with the best aspects of their program — the films that wouldn’t have any buzz without the programmers’ decision to put them there.

Of course, some films benefit from the exclusivity of an in-person premiere and wider discovery down the line. Any new service must allow for that option. But it shouldn’t take a year for most festival discoveries to reach wider audiences, and the industry currently lacks a resource to avoid that possibility. If filmmakers could flip a switch when festival hype reaches a fever pitch, the gap between the insular festival world and arthouse audiences tracking that hype would cease to exist.

At Cannes this year, other festival entities will be making the rounds and plotting their next moves in an altogether unpredictable climate. Among those attending Cannes is Shift72 CEO David White, who provides services that create online festivals previously utilized by TIFF and Sundance, among others. That prospect may seem less appealing now that festivals want to return to the physical world, but could there be a middle ground in a joint festival SVOD service bring festival films to audiences before they lose interest?

I can practically hear the eyes rolling at this suggestion: Yes, that’s what we need — another streaming service! But as Netflix’s recent challenges prove, subscriber churn is a real thing. Fickle consumers want services that give them reliable choices. That includes festival audiences, who may seem like a rarified group until one considers that on a global scale, even a rarified group is a scalable one.

As usual, I encourage readers to share their own thoughts about this issue. Would you pay for a streaming service that included major festival films? Or would most filmmakers prefer to simply wait a year and let distributors rebuild the buzz from scratch? What are the financial drawbacks to this approach? Send me better ideas, clarify the roadblocks, or… call me an idiot, as long as can back it up: [email protected]

And if you’re going to Cannes, come do it in person. I’ll be moderating a panel on the future of festivals at the American Pavilion on Sunday, May 22 at 12:30 p.m. I’ll be back there on May 25, again at 12:30 p.m., with my sparring partner Anne Thompson for a live recording of our Screen Talk podcast. Bonus points if you come say hi and bring some ideas for future directions of this column. I might just give you a shoutout.

Speaking of which: Last week’s story about the layoffs at the International Film Festival Rotterdam yielded some rich feedback from the festival community, so I’m including some highlights below. This evolving situation may require a follow-up as the festival aims to announce its new programming team at Cannes, so stay tuned.

“Vanja Kaludjercic is IFFR’s Artistic Director, and the programmers are her subordinates, charged with realizing her vision for the festival. Weirdly enough, not one article on the subject said that. The programmers in question present themselves as victims: as employees who were robbed of something. But can they be robbed of something they didn’t own and were at best given as a loan? It’s true that former IFFR directors left the programming team grosso modo to its own devices. It was their privilege to run the festival like that during their times. But that doesn’t mean that it’s a given. The central aspect that defines the relationship between the Artistic Director and the programmers remains: that the former defines and the latter execute. If anybody has any doubts about that then it would be really interesting to know what that person thinks the Artistic Director’s job is if the programmers do it all.”
—Olaf Möller, IFFR programmer

“I strongly disagree with the statements given about the programmers’ collaboration with the artistic director, Vanja Kaludjercic. I for my part could always discuss things with her in a highly constructive manner, always closely attached to the film and its quality in question (beyond any bureaucratic issues). Yes, it was a collaborative process, but a very fruitful one at that! Of course, if you understand autonomy as a do-what-you-want attitude/working method, then other colleagues might have been disappointed. But as a regional programmer rarely having an overview over the full festival line-up, there has to be someone with the full picture – how could it be otherwise? So, I don’t really see any issue here regarding a lack of trust or autonomy.”
—Stefan Borsos, IFFR programmer

“I think it’s really important that we start talking explicitly about money, both to bring attention to just how dire the situation is, but also because I think that the money is tied up somehow in the poor treatment.”
—Senior programmer at large American festival (anonymous)

“Like any other ‘prestige’ careers in the arts, film programming relies on a classist structure in which the privileged can take the financial hit of working for little or no pay to establish themselves. I hardly need to mention the costs of travel, accommodations, time commitments and so on… By its very nature, the system discourages diversity. It’s a rich man’s hobby.”
—Noel Lawrence, filmmaker

“Rotterdam, for me, was the best film festival in the world — largely because it excluded Hollywood “product“ in favor of independent and thoughtful voices. Raul Ruiz and Kinji Fukasaku had large beautiful retrospectives alongside vibrant new work. Rotterdam used to show more interesting new work in a day than the NYFF would do in its entire run. … Expect to see a bland corporate approach which will ultimately doom it to insignificance.”
—Keith Sanborn, filmmaker

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