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  • Writer's pictureMichael Lee Simpson


In the summer of 1932, Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde played for an audience from nine countries on the terrace of the Excelsior Palace Hotel in Venice. The occasion: The first screening at the first film festival in history, the Venice International Film Festival. In the last eighty-eight years, over three thousand others have surfaced across the globe. Since the beginning, one thing has been clear—as a whole, commercial films are starkly different from festival films. But what are the differences? Why are these celebrations of cinema so important? Paris International Film Festival (PIFF) participants—from jurors, the press, moderators and the director—shared their views on what makes the festival circuit so crucial in the world of film.

“A festival film can not only encourage the breadth and variety of views, but also consolidate and maintain democracy, peace, and freedom,” said Nancy Hanzhang Shen, whose film Invisible Love won three major awards at PIFF—Best Narrative Feature Film, Best International Actor and Best International Collaboration.

“A commercial film refers to the type of film whose main or only creative purpose is to make profits. It is used by film dealers as a tool for profit. Using a short period of time to shoot to cater to the public taste of the model of the film so as to obtain business benefits. However, there are many commercial films with strong entertaining characters that are social and artistic. Film Festivals are not only like a window, letting us see what other filmmakers are doing, but also like a bridge, setting a platform for encouraging us, especially for the international independent filmmakers, to connect with each other, showcase our works and help each other to create more and more great works.”

“The line between a commercial film and a critically acclaimed film is becoming thinner as is the line between what is television and what film is in general,” explained writer/producer and Forever My Lady author Jeff Rivera. “To me, a festival film has a different intention. It stems from the filmmaker’s need to say something, a message, to offer a glimpse into the life of a character or world. It is about the craft of filmmaking. Whereas a commercial film in general, is focused first on becoming profitable and then entertaining the audience. There are exceptions, of course. And there are certainly commercial films that have something to say such as The Matrix films. I’m not a film snob. I love both. And there’s a place for every type of filmmaker in the world.”

“First, there’s no law that says a film can’t be both, and a whole lot of them are,” clarified Jeff Arch, Sleepless in Seattle writer and Jury Member at PIFF. “But if a project had to be one or the other, I’d say there’s a lot more latitude with festival films, in every category from budget to the subject, to a wider acceptance of unconventional storytelling techniques. Festival films have a lot more freedom to take risks, without the need to appeal to mass audiences globally, because by and large, people go to festivals because they love film, they love and appreciate artistry…Commercial filmmakers are under constant pressure to have their product go into theaters from Beijing to Boston to Berlin, and come out with enough cash to cover costs of making and marketing the film for profit. And yet it shouldn’t be a surprise that many of our truly memorable movies, the ones that go way beyond entertainment and stick in our collective unconscious, got their start at a festival, where audiences got their first crack at them.”

John Higgins, filmmaker and Press Coordinator at PIFF, said, “A festival film tends to be more specialist in tone and aimed at a niche audience, promoting more left-field storytelling and mindsets, whereas a commercial film is designed to hit the broader demographic and provides a reassuring brand for audiences who know what they are getting. However, both films can fit within a festival infrastructure and should not be dismissed in either case. I think it is designed to create and encourage change at a time when the industry is going through a tremendous amount of transition in these ongoing uncertain times. The key thing is that diversity and gender have to be emphasized as much as they were in the last couple of years and the line-up of films and particularly the panels are designed to create constructive dialogue so that action and answers can be used to make progress. As a White European male actor and filmmaker, I welcome this and want to help and mentor filmmakers of all kinds. One of the rules we have at the festival is that everybody, regardless of whether you have only seen a film for the first time yesterday or have become a veteran creative of the industry, is welcome and equal. We want to give people a forum and platform so they can network and share their ideas and feelings about the filmmaking process, as well as allow themselves to be inspired by those films and filmmakers who have been selected.”

Even mega-successful filmmakers unlock the chains of limited creativity soldered together by studios sometimes, walking away from mainstream Hollywood to make their “passion project.” In 2006, Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth received a twenty-two-minute standing ovation at Cannes. Although del Toro had made Blade II and Hellboy in the years before, he chose to make his dark, brilliant Alice In Wonderland-like tale. He has been quoted about the essence of his artistic expression, “Make the movies that need you.”

“In my opinion, festival films are deeply personally and induce emotional impact,” said Lesley Yvonne Hunter, writer, President of Resume Makeover and a PIFF Moderator. “A film showcased in a film festival will inspire deeper emotion; it may make one laugh, cry, deeply wonder and, above all, it will inspire. Festival films are anything but lukewarm. Commercial films are different in that they may inspire but overall, they are produced for the masses, with a mission to achieve mass appeal and bring in large amounts of revenue. Not to say that there is anything wrong with this. However, as a result of this goal of commercial films, oftentimes artistic quality and a deeper mission may be sacrificed, reducing some commercial films to superficial (and even mindless) entertainment.”

“You can be innovative and exciting and illustrate how unique your vision is,” stated Natasha Marburger, Festival Director of London Independent Film Festival and Los Angeles International Film Festival and Co-Director of Cine-Excess, a film festival and distribution label supporting diverse voices in cult cinema. “Most short films are designed as a calling card, so you can be creative with that as much as possible. If you are different and fresh and exciting, you can create some buzz around you as a visionary filmmaker, which can then lead you on to bigger things. I started running the London Independent Film Festival in 2018. It was an opportunity to promote talent and grow a community of filmmakers within London. It was important to me to develop the festival to include panels with film professionals, have industry guests, etc., so that we could have a community to celebrate and support each other and grow as filmmakers.”

Prestigious festivals like Sundance, Austin and Tribeca—including the “Big Three,” Cannes, Venice and Berlin—can be launching pads for a successful career. But defining what success is, commercially and critically, people have opposing ideas.

Some would rather make bad films and become wealthy, others would rather make little to no money and receive the Mussolini Cup from Venice or the Palme d’Or from Cannes. Jeff Arch continued, “One thing I want to get across to filmmakers, like REALLY GET ACROSS, is the price you can pay if you force-hurry your project to make a festival date. NEVER be a slave to a festival date. MAKE SURE YOUR FILM IS READY FIRST. REALLY READY. Show it to as many test audiences as you can and listen to the feedback. I paid a really heavy price to learn this one the hard way, and if I can keep that from happening to anyone else out there, then they won’t have to learn it the hard way too. To go through all you have to endure to create and produce a movie, something that will last forever, with the hopes of everyone who worked on it and financed it, and blow it all because you needed a few more weeks and didn’t take them, please save yourselves the head-pounding regret that could come from that. John Cleese told me that A Fish Called Wanda went through eleven test screenings, and back into post, until they had the worldwide hit they brought into being. Every filmmaker needs to consider this when they do up their budget. Of course, we can’t all fall back on studio-financed screenings and focus groups, there are still creative ways to achieve this. You need to factor in enough time in post to screen your work and get feedback from outside the bubble you’ve been in with all your collaborators all this time. Listen and learn. Or just buy yourselves a really big shovel for the hole you’ll want to dig on the morning after you’ve tanked at a film festival. Or, you can be patient, as much as it hurts. and see your movie all the way through. There will be other festivals. The best sign that you’re not ready is when you’re convinced you are, and there’s a calendar in the room.”

“A festival, oftentimes, shows a film in its purest vision,” reflected filmmaker Rel Dowdell. “This may deem the film too long, or too short, by some industry standards. Therefore, if by some good fortune that a filmmaker’s effort is picked up by a distributor, the filmmaker should expect that some changes will be recommended before any type of release. I’ve been making films for over twenty-five years now. Thankfully, each film I’ve made, which were completely independent, were picked up for major distribution. I’ve been able to also work with some outstanding veteran talent with my films such as Tony Todd (Candyman), Irma P. Hall (The Ladykillers), and the late, celebrated, Emmy-award winning actress Esther Rolle. In fact, my debut feature film effort, Train Ride, was Ms. Rolle’s last work. The film was dedicated to her and her groundbreaking memory. My second feature film, Changing the Game, screened at the illustrious Cannes Film Festival in 2013. I’ve also had the chance to be a juror on major film festivals. Another source of pride for me comes from discovering major talent. I gave notable actors Wood Harris (Creed, Remember the Titans, The Wire) and Russell Hornsby (Fences, The Hate U Give) their first leading roles in my film Train Ride. Hence, every step of my progression of a filmmaker has been very rewarding in its own way.”

“One of the things I loved most about participating in the Paris International Film Festival was hosting the Q&As with the filmmakers,” said PIFF Moderator Elaine Roberts. “It may sound simple enough, but truthfully, it’s a wonderful opportunity to dive into the intricacies of each film and the process each filmmaker went through while making their films. Each film is unique, it has its own voice, and contains profound messages on important social topics. Moderating is a bit like being a journalist in the sense where you have to not only watch the film but view it with these elements in mind. It also helps to do your research and learn more about the filmmaker(s) themselves, obtain their background, watch behind the scenes footage, and get a sense of their journey into making their film that brought them to being selected.”

A sanctuary for cinema lovers, those wearing lanyards and passes are united as a passionate fellowship. They can admire the depth of the stories, many shedding light on controversial topics, false stereotypes and misunderstood ideas, opening the eyes of those who may have been close-minded, realizing how much they identify with the characters. There might be a principal in love with a student, or a runaway prostitute lost on the streets of Miami, or as in the brave $500,000 budget Half Nelson with Ryan Gosling, a caring, gifted middle school teacher in the grips of drug addiction, surpassing the stigma that addicts are society’s greatest scum, and that after all, they are not much different. Director Ryan Fleck proved that Gosling was more competent in the classroom than a traditional teacher. Human flaws are accepted with a new understanding and awareness.

The Director of PIFF, Jenna Suru, wrote and directed a period drama called The Golden Age, which premiered at the London International Film Festival and the Downtown Los Angeles Film Festival, winning Best Foreign Feature in both. She said, “With a strong focus on change, the 2021 edition of the Paris International Film Festival has recently been presenting diversity- inclusive work of all genres: forty-three films and TV pilots, of which twenty-six are directed by female-identifying filmmakers and fifteen are first-time directors.

We are ecstatic about the massive success of this virtual edition. We have been working all year on building an event that would be exciting and beneficial to our filmmakers, to celebrate their films and important messages. We are thrilled to have been enjoying such an interactive event, thanks to our partnership with Filmocracy, and that some of the most renowned festivals around the world have been attending our virtual edition to witness it. I’ve founded the festival with the support of our partners and press, to champion the filmmakers whose films spread a positive message with international potential. We are excited to share with our audiences and community a more diverse cinema for change. Our programming has generated a conversation on such topics as change, the environment. Human rights, anti-racism and gender equality. It has built some relationships that will hopefully solidify into more developments in the near future.”

-Creative Screenwriting Magazine


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