The Glut of Entertainment And The Struggle Of The Mid-Level Film Festival

Posted in Blog, Festival Coverage, Movies by - July 03, 2015

It’s yet another night here in the city of Toronto and as I return home starting to return correspondences and e-mail until well into the wee hours of the AM, the question of “Are there too many movies?” and “Are there too many film festivals?” is going off like a resounding gong in my head.  The answer is simply “yes” and it isn’t going to stop any time soon.

With the glut of markets and delivery systems ranging from the classic theatrical system, to things like day and date on demand, iTunes, Netflix, Shomi and countless others on top of the a-typical DVD and Blu-Ray delivery formats, people want more movies delivered to them as often as possible.

However this has a side effect, especially in a city like Toronto that (at least feels like) it averages more than a film festival a week during the calendar year with hard working teams of programmers working for anywhere from a respectable wage to no money what so ever to try and find the best damn programming that they can to put on our numerous screens across the city.  It’s not an easy job by any means and with the windows from production to release closing ever faster in the modern landscape of 21st century movie making.  It all makes for a very slippery slope when trying to program a festival in the city of Toronto.

Granted this doesn’t apply to festivals like TIFF, Hot Docs, Inside Out and Reel Asian who have established themselves over years of hard work and have made themselves cultural standouts in the city and industry standouts across the globe as Toronto has unquestionably become one of, if not the biggest film hub in the entire world.  These festivals stay ahead of the curve and make themselves a destination point for films along with industry movers & shakers and of course, the fans.

Filmmakers across the globe want to know what Toronto audiences think of their films, it has become as much of a bench mark as a professional baseball player suiting up for the Yankees or a hard working research scientist winning a Nobel prize.  Quite simply, it matters and more then we give ourselves credit for.

While not every festival in this city is lucky enough to have the financial backing that some of the bigger one’s have, it means that the mid-range to smaller festivals need to think even more creatively and outside the box, not only to survive but to thrive.  Not only to secure the best and most interesting programming that it can, but to secure the one thing that any one putting on event needs more than anything else.  Those elusive butts in the seats.


To paraphrase the Kevin Costner baseball classic “Book it, and they will come” but that is easier said than done and innovation is necessary to stay alive.  When I see festivals like the Toronto Jewish Film Festival carving out a genuine money making niche for themselves in the city while at the same time getting aggressive and showing some fascinating programming, I see a film festival that wants to make a dollar or two and knows it has to be constantly evolving.  Or the Niagara Integrated Film Festival that tries to combine the best of both worlds and create a whole new type of viewing experience and even the Blood In The Snow (aka BITS) Canadian Genre Film Festival that is actively championing the ever growing sect of genre filmmaking in Canada it is a beautiful thing to watch as these are festivals that are actively trying to do something different and bring audiences into to see what they have to offer.

However, there are other film festivals that are simply trying to ride the philosophy of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.  While I certainly agree with that philosophy for awhile, it can’t last forever.  If you have a film festival that has been running for 10 years, but can’t be bothered to freshen up their website or expand offerings to provide a certain amount of variety, then perhaps a change or even a long hard look in the mirror is in order because quite simply the demand for content is going nowhere but up…and the days of you being the only game in town are long since over.  You have to adapt, in ways you may not want to, or you will die.

For any mid-range to small film festival worth its salt to be successful it has to do a couple of things that won’t be easy, but are incredibly necessary.

1.) It’s never a one man show, many times people are working long and thankless hours for little to no money.  To get people on board, work has to be delegated and trust has to be there.  If any one person tries to do too much, the bigger an operation gets then the question of “What happens if we make a mistake?” to “When will we make a mistake?”…and a big one.  If there is trust, then people will go the extra mile for you, every single time and almost to an individual, any who works for a film festival either big or small, genuinely loves what they do.

2.) Money talks…and everything else walks: If you don’t aggressively chase down any kind of government or corporate sponsorship money, you need to fill the house.  Sometimes, that means making the safe choice from a programming perspective but as audiences (especially at the more niche and genre festivals) become more and more discerning, there has to be a certain amount of balance.  Audiences come out to festivals like this because they quite frankly want to see something that they may have never seen before.  If you don’t have the net of large scale sponsorship you quite simply have to roll the dice sometimes in order to be able to standout.  Not only to maintain a certain degree of cultural credibility, but to genuinely make a couple of bucks as well and while we all love the art form and want to champion it, it’s also a business.  One that occasionally requires you to go out on a limb and have faith in the audience that you have cultivated because sometimes that calculated risk can really pay off, and I don’t know a soul who is allergic to money.

With all that being said, I have never worked for a film festival in my entire life and I may very well be off base…and that’s fine too.  However, I love attending film festivals and covering them for the various outlets that I have worked for throughout my career, but at the end of the day I am only one guy and I can only be pulled so far in any given direction.  With the glut of films streaming out into the market place the demand on my time and of any writer/blogger/critic be they professional, semi-pro or plain old fan only gets higher and higher.

It used to be enough to simply be a film festival to guarantee “butts in seats” and establish yourself as a cultural entity, but in the increasingly crowded market place that is our city, it simply isn’t enough anymore as everyone just can’t do everything.  Standing out from the crowd is now a necessity, with anywhere from one to about six cinematic events happening every day of the calendar year in the city of Toronto, you have to do more in order to survive.  Otherwise you will be forgotten as quickly as you thought you were on top.  This is how businesses survive, plain and simple.

This post was written by
David Voigt is a Toronto based writer with a problem and a passion for the moving image and all things cinema. Having moved from production to the critical side of the aisle for well over 10 years now at outlets like, Criticize This, Dork Shelf (Now That Shelf), to.Night Newspaper he’s been all across his city, the country and the continent in search of all the news and reviews that are fit to print from the world of cinema.

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