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TIFF: Are Film Festivals Good for Movies?

09/16/2013 06:21 EDT | Updated 11/16/2013 05:12 EST

Are film festivals really a good showcase for movies?

The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) is one of the most high profile film festivals in the world. International stars walk the red carpets, the world press turn its collective eye toward Toronto and, it's hoped, tourist revenues shoot through the roof (though it's not always clear how many of the audience are out-of-towners, and how many are locals just getting out of their houses).

And as an added plus, room is usually made at the table for Canadian films, hopefully boosting their profile by putting them on a similar -- if not quite equal -- platform as the big Hollywood and international offerings.

But purists often lament that film festivals, once the sanctum of aficionados, have become simply a launching ground for the usual Hollywood name-brand vehicles. Sure, you aren't liable to see advance screenings for the next Adam Sandler comedy at TIFF, but you are going to see reasonably big names in reasonably mainstream films.

Yet others complain festivals are too elitist, trumpeting a bunch of self-labelled "difficult" films that the average person is only going to come across on the DVD shelf -- months after the film has made the circuits of all the other film festivals.

Because film festivals are a big deal for those in the industry, and for those who report on the industry, there tends to be a lot of coverage and when the movies do start to trickle into the regular theatres (or onto the DVD shelves) they will be accompanied by references to all the awards, nominations, honourable mentions, and special considerations they received at this festival or that -- like a general who shows up at the Governor General's ball, his chest conspicuous with all the medals he's accumulated, though even he might have a hard time remembering from whom and for what.

With luck, the accolades will pique the curiosity of John and Jane Q. Moviegoer -- but does it get them to buy tickets? Maybe it's enough just to grab their attention. You can't force a horse to drink -- but he's definitely going to dehydrate if the well doesn't catch his attention in the first place.

But this gets back to my initial comment about whether film festivals are really a good showplace for movies. Because a festival is a different venue, a different environment, and, yes, arguably a different audience.

Most people like movies. But film festival goers love movies.

So what wows them at a film festival might not be what Ma and Pa are looking for on a Saturday night after the kids are finally in bed.

I was thinking about this reading a review of the Canadian film, The Husband, on Huffington Post Canada. It was the second of two reviews that loved it. I haven't seen the film, so I want to emphasize that before we get too far: the two reviews were really positive.

But I was brought up a bit short in Iman Sheikh's review when, after calling it "gripping, never boring", she then admits it was "mildly frustrating." That it feels like it's "taking you somewhere, and then it doesn't." It's "more character study than cohesive story."

Which, honestly, could be the motto of the Canadian film biz. Maybe those comments stuck with me because I've sat through so many Canadian movies over the years where you only realize the film must've reached its climax because the credits start rolling!

Now I get that she really liked the film -- and I repeat: I have no opinion, one way or the other. But does that sound like a winning description once the movie leaves the insulated, supportive confines of a film festival pond and swims out into the bracing currents of the commercial market place? When people only have a few spare bucks in their pockets, a few free hours in the week, and must decide what movie gets those bucks, gets to eat up those precious free hours? Will it be the movie that never quite goes anywhere?

Maybe yes. Maybe no.

Certainly at a film festival, where you're seeing a dozen films in a few days, that might well be enough. Like a Chinese buffet where no one item has to be that delicious. For that matter, at a film festival, where so many of the films are brooding, self-indulgent Art films, it doesn't take much for a film to acquire a commercial lustre.

I knew someone who took film in university, and he remarked how he acquired a bit of a cinematic version of the Stockholm syndrome. That after spending weeks watching all manner of dreary and self-important films -- new wave, neo-realism, cinema verite, dogma 95 -- a movie with even a semblance of a plot, with even a smattering of witty lines, could take on the air of being a brilliantly entertaining movie simply in comparison.

But that air didn't necessarily hold up once he re-watched the film in a more general context.

Yet Canadian films and filmmakers bank on film festivals. It's hard to get distribution within Canada and even harder to get it outside the country. And budgets are so tight, Hollywood movies regularly spend more on marketing than Canadian movies spend on the whole film! So a film festival airing might be your best shot, both at a theatrical screening, but also at press notice and free publicity.

So in answer to my opening question: yes, films genuinely need TIFF and other festivals.

But is it potentially self-defeating?

Is playing to the film festival crowd really the same as playing to the regular audience? By tailoring your film to that crowd (or funding agencies specifically greenlighting movies with the best chance at the festival circuit) are you actually hobbling your chances at winning a commercial audience? Many of Canada's so-called "greatest" filmmakers can boast of festival wins but have a spotty commercial track record at best.

Some would argue film festivals are supposed to provide a showcase for films that don't conform to commercial norms. One wouldn't go to a sci-fi festival and complain there weren't more rom-coms. But Canadian film has to always be aiming for commercial success -- you can't sustain an industry by smugly dismissing commercial realities (not when you're relying on public funds and public goodwill).

Darting from festival to festival, accumulating prizes and honourable mentions is all well and good. But sooner or later you have to swim out into the mainstream.