A Festival Comes to Town

April 20, 2007
A thought by James Berardinelli

In the film festival pantheon, there are three levels of prestige. Tier One is inhabited by The Giants. Cannes and Toronto are the only undisputed members of this select group. Some would argue that Venice belongs there, or Telluride, or Berlin. Tier Two consists of high profile festivals that aren't the equal of The Giants but still generate media attention: Sundance, South by Southwest, Tribeca, and so forth. Then there are the Tier Threes. This is by far the largest category because it's populated by hundreds of smaller local festivals.

Although the local festivals lack the allure of their bigger siblings, they provide a valuable service - offering little-seen fare to communities that might not often get something other than multiplex movies and providing a whiff of what festival life is like. For those who don't have the time or inclination to take a trip to Toronto or Europe, this can represent "the next best thing." Many of the movies on the "local festival circuit" have previously played in the majors. The average local festival may not have many world premieres but that's usually not a detriment.

Local festivals started multiplying like locusts in the early 1990s. Many have since folded, scaled back, or morphed into something different. The reason is one of economics - film festivals are expensive and time-consuming and if the customer base doesn't justify the output of the organizers, the festival cannot survive. Even Toronto relies heavily on corporate sponsorship. Without the kind of backing it received from the business community during its formative years, it would never have developed into the 500-pound gorilla it is today.

I had my first immersive film festival experience at a local festival. It was 1995 and I took a week-and-a-half off from work to attend what was then called the Philadelphia Festival of World Cinema (now called by the less cumbersome title of the Philadlephia Film Festival). I bought the $200 all access pass and spent my afternoons and evenings shuttling from one theater to another. The experience was magical. The early May weather was benign, the movies were wonderful (for the most part), and there was the sense of a marathon that accompanies any festival, with each day blurring into the next. The schedule was such that I was able to see three or four movies every day, for a total of about 35 over the course of eleven days.

Over the years, I have participated to one degree or another in every edition of the Philadelphia Film Festival, and some have been much better than others. In 1998, I was instrumental in bringing Roger Ebert to the city to give a blow-by-blow walkthrough of Raging Bull. A year or two after that, the festival underwent an upheaval as management churn left the event poorly organized and underpublicized. The biggest mistake made by the new regime was to move the festival from early May to early April. Now, instead of waiting in line on sun-spanked afternoons, a cold gray wind can be blowing around snowflakes. I no longer cover the festival as a working journalist. Instead, I pick out a few titles that interest me and pay $11 for each ticket like everyone else.

There are two "festival seasons" for local festivals. Those are periods when a group of prints make their way around the country from one festival to another, providing exposure for worthwhile films without U.S. distributors. (Most of these will eventually show up on DVD.) The first such window lasts from late September to early November. Festivals that take place during this time show a large percentage of movies that premiered in Toronto (early-mid September). The second window is April 1 through May 15. Spring festivals specialize in Sundance fare.

There are two things to consider when deciding whether to attend a local festival: the movies and the weather. The former is obvious but the latter may not be. However, there are few things worse than standing out in the cold or the rain then piling into a sold-out theater to sit in discomfort for two hours. Lines are rarely under cover, so be prepared. When it comes to picking titles, do a little research on-line. Not everything showing at a festival is quality material. There's an element of politics in picking films that can result in subpar material sneaking through. (This is true of all festivals, including the majors. I have seen some bone-crushingly bad movies at Sundance and Toronto.)

Most major population centers in the United States have at least one form of film festival. It may last as long as two weeks or as short as a weekend. It may feature new movies or little-seen older ones (Ebertfest). And, because it's local, there's no need to make a big commitment to the experience. Try out a movie or two, then come back the next year for more if you like it. Trips to the big festivals can be highly rewarding, but they're also expensive and logistically challenging. The local festival fills the niche for those who would rather stay home but still get an opportunity to explore the cinematic output of the world.