Sunday, April 11, 2010

Building the Best Film Fest: full disclosure

With the Minneapolis St Paul International Film Festival less than a week away, the Star Tribune's Colin Covert ponders, what makes a good film fest? Pooling opinions from a number of people, including myself, the article builds a comprehensive and thoughtful look at what a Midwest film festival is all about. The Twin Cities is not, and never will be, a so-called major market, which makes the two week, 100+ film MSPIFF all the more important to film fans who call the Twin Cities home.

Including a hang-about like me with a group of experts may be a stretch, but I guess if I'm going to be an expert at anything, it's going to be watching movies. Last year I caught 35 films at MSPIFF and I'll try to do the same this year. That's not bragging rights, but merely an admission of my commitment to see these films on the big screen before they disappear.

I'm just as excited this year as I am any other year to dive in and take in as many films as I possibly can without losing my job, my partner or my sanity. I'm going to do my best to report on what I see as often as I can. Until then, here are my answers to the full list of questions from which the Star Tribune article evolved from:

What makes a good film festival?

Organization and good films. Organization seems hit or miss for MSPIFF, but with the bulk of films and times already available online, this year seems to be right on track. What I mean by ‘good films’ is that someone is screening things with a critical eye and an open mind.

With the glut of films in the marketplace, what should the selection criteria be for a major urban film festival?

A film festival reflects the vision of the curators. This is pretty easy to see with various staff changes to the fest over the years. (Or if you look at the bigger festivals – each has a flavor all its own.) However, seeing that MSP is not LA or NYC, I think it is extremely important (when possible) for curators to be aware of the films that have distribution but are not likely to receive a release in the Twin Cities. Munyurangabo, Dry Season, Three Monkeys, Oblivion – just a few examples from last year.

To what degree should it serve and promote local filmmakers?

Including local filmmakers is extremely important. They are a vital part of the film community that should be involved in this event. I feel like the mix MSPIFF has is good.

What other events should be included besides film screenings? How important is it to host visiting filmmakers? What’s the ideal way to have them interact with audiences?

Having visiting directors makes a screening special. Even if the film does come to town later or come out on DVD, having the presence of someone involved with the film makes it unique. In my experience, audience Q&As are a disaster. Post-screening discussions should be prepared by a moderator, and, best possible scenario, arrange a meet and greet before or after the film at an local establishment. (Loads of options for places down there on St Anthony Main for this: Aster Cafe, the extra room Pracna has, Vic’s.) Someone dying to talk to the director should get this chance.

What about the size and scope? Is a program with 100+ offerings more exciting than with one offering less than 50?

Yeah, I wonder about that. I think it might be more like, why not do 100 really well and not 140. I think 50 would take away from the event it has become.

The Twin Cities is host to a growing number of ethnic film festivals: Italian, Jewish, Arab. Is that a good thing or does it bring on film fest burnout?

No way. Obviously each of these series/festivals mean different things to different people, but what they all mean is getting people out of their house to see a film. They all reinforce the social aspect of film going, and reassert a sense community.

How can moviegoers best navigate among dozens of films? Should the screenings be arranged into categories, so that documentary fans and French film buffs can easily find multiple films arranged under each heading?

I’ve always found the country indexes very useful. As far as choosing films, go with your impulse. I’m a sucker for a compelling photo or title. But I know that I am also dedicated to films from specific countries. Although going with my impulses has led to the greatest discoveries, it has also led to some real clunkers. Of course anyone willing to do some research, there are trailers and reviews out there for most of these films. You can also check the fab reviews in the Star Tribune!

Many fests charge entry fees and issue cash prizes to the best films. Does that add to the prestige of the event or is it a distraction from the main business of exhibiting films?

I’m not sure. The voting thing drives me batty though. It makes a cluster after the film; it’s a huge waste of paper; and it has nothing to do with the best of the fest. Let people vote online if they want.


YTSL said...

Hi Kathie --

My two cents re the general question "What makes a film fest?": One thing that makes a film festival a festival to me is the chance to interact with fellow film fans. Otherwise, it's not a fest but just a bunch of people individually sitting in the dark.

Another (and this is why I love the Hong Kong International Film Festival so) is finding filmmakers and film scholars in the audience along with you. As an example, at this year's film fest, I found one of the co-directors of a film I was watching ("Kyoto Story") sitting directly behind me. And then there was catching the sight of Ann Hui attending the same screening of a Fei Mu film as me... ;)

Sandy Nawrot said...

Everything you said makes a whole lot of sense to me. My one comment would be that if you aren't a big indie film market, then what the heck are we down here? It is pretty pathetic.

Daniel said...

Wow, you got to 35 films last year? That IS something to brag about. I think I was maybe halfway to that total, and I saw at least three of the same ones you did.

Anyway, your point about the ballots cannot be understated (I made the same suggestion and I wouldn't be surprised if we weren't the only ones). It's outrageous that year after year we spend time illegibly filling out ballots that are tabulated for no purpose. Move it all online and tell people they can ONLY vote online. Maybe you'll only get a quarter of the response as usual the first year, but isn't the point to push people to the website anyway? They'll come around. Keeping it all on paper at this point does not seem like a viable solution.

P.S. Don't I sound like a complete jerk about local filmmakers in that Strib piece? ;-P.

Kathie Smith said...

Totally agree YTSL - the social aspect of film going is something I love - fest or no fest. But alas, Minneapolis is not Hong Kong so we don't get too many people traveling to the MSPIFF. MSPIFF is a local 'event' and is largely a fan based festival with some of the most intrepid audience members. It really brings people out. (I'm still going to make it to HKIFF one of these years!)

I don't know, San. Orlando does seem a little dry as far as foreign/indie films. Maybe because of those damn tourists!

Daniel, the crazy thing about those ballots is that I think some people actually like them! I can't believe more people aren't fed up with them. (Just to touch on some of the things you brought up in your post,) I think the idea with signing in and getting an account is to be able to create your own calendar by tagging or selecting films. That doesn't exactly seem to be working, but I would love it if it did. Needless to say, the voting could tie right into it. I would be glad to vote online.

(By the way, I thought you comment on local films was a good counterpoint!)