Reinventing Film Festivals

Over the last year or so, there has been an ongoing debate about the future of independent film.  As more and more films are produced and the theatrical bottleneck tightens, a number of independent filmmakers, most famously Mark Gill in his Los Angeles Film Festival keynote address, have warned that “the sky is falling,” while pointing to the closure of a number of high-profile indie distributors. Now, as Karina Longworth has noted in a couple of recent posts, these worries about the future of indie have reemerged at Sundance, as the independent film industry finds itself revisiting the question of the social and economic role of film festivals.

In one post for, Karina observes that a large number of journalists have decided to skip Sundance this year.  Many of them cited the economy as a major factor: for freelancers, the expense of traveling to Utah and paying for a hotel for a week simply isn’t worth it.  Others cited the “pain in the ass” factor, the idea that the festival is too crowded and that it’s too difficult to navigate the crowds, especially when there are plenty of other festivals out there.  Add a couple of unusual social and political circumstances–a historic inauguration and a Proposition 8-motivated boycott of Utah–and more journalists than usual seem willing to stay away.  Karina starts with this notion in her Daily Beast report, but questions one of the basic assumptions Sundance: that it was never anything more than “about sales.”

Festivals are certainly partially “about sales” (something I’d imagine few people would dispute), but they also seem to be about various aspects of the industry representing themselves to journalists, to film audiences, and even to themselves.  It’s probably no mistake that some of the more crucial meta-industry commentaries have emerged from festivals, and one recent example of this is an article on indieWire written by Geoff Gilmore, the Director of the Sundance Film Festival.

In general, Gilmore echoes many of the questions that Gill and others have already asked: Where is indie going? How do we deal with the theatrical bottleneck?  But he also poses some significant questions about the social role of indie cinema for younger audiences.  He is quick to point out that younger viewers are often more knowledgeable about world cinema than previous generations but observes that these viewers

seem to have less interest in [indie film]. Or at least they have a greater range of activities to engage in and thus are more selective and demanding about how they are going to spend their hard-earned dollars. It’s difficult to say whether the new generation will continue to harbor the passion for film that we had. Independent film has broken a lot of ground and had a lot of success in the last two decades.

Like a lot of observers, Gilmore emphasizes the value of long tail distribution and calls for new web venues and new marketing strategies.  But I think that Gilmore’s comments about the social and economic role of festivals are also worth highlighting.  Festivals continue to serve the function of creating greater visibility for films, especially those that otherwise might be difficult to market.  That role may change depending upon the political economy of new media, as newspapers and magazines continue to weigh the value of covering these events.  Still, I think the social role of these festivals, the desire for audiences to feel as if they are part of something larger than themselves (or at least the desire to be in the know about the Next Great Film), will continue to inform many of these festivals.


  1. Dan Hefko Said,

    January 19, 2009 @ 10:25 am

    An interesting development re: attendance at Sundance that you may already be aware of–10 of the short films from the 2009 Festival can be downloaded for free on itunes through January 25: .

  2. Chuck Said,

    January 19, 2009 @ 10:30 am

    I wasn’t aware of that. I knew that Slamdance was making some of their films available on streaming video for about $10 a film, but I think you’re right to suggest that this use of digital media alters the significance of the festival. Making short films available online may make more sense, especially given the difficulty of finding theatrical distribution.

  3. NYUFF & CUFF: Class Of 2000-02 | Bad Lit Said,

    January 23, 2009 @ 8:01 am

    […] light of the reported reduced attendance at Sundance this year, there was some discussion online this week about the role film festivals play in selling a film. The relevance of film festivals and […]

  4. The Chutry Experiment » Reinventing Film Festivals, Year Two Said,

    January 22, 2010 @ 1:15 pm

    […] last year’s Sundance and Slamdance Film Festivals, I began to take notice of how both festivals were making tentative moves toward serving not merely as showcases for new […]

  5. NYUFF & CUFF: Class Of 2000-02 | Underground Film Journal Said,

    May 16, 2013 @ 11:39 am

    […] light of the reported reduced attendance at Sundance this year, there was some discussion online this week about the role film festivals play in selling a film. The relevance of film festivals and […]

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