Notes on Film Festivals vs. Industry Events

September 30, 2010 at 8:52 am

In the course of preparing the volume on Film Festivals and East Asia (which will be out in January 2011), I heard a variety of opinions on the matter if events such as the Asia Pacific Film Festival or the Taipei Golden Horse Awards and Film Festival should be included here. The same type of question kept springing up again and again: Are these industry-staged PR events actually festivals? And, more often than not, the answer was that we cannot really regard them as festivals and should not be studying them as such. The situation was further complicated by linguistic considerations suggesting that both should more adequately be described as ‘exhibitions’. (According to Ruby Cheung, the Chinese name of the Asia-Pacific Film Festival is ya tai ying zhan in Mandarin transliteration, which literally means Asia-Pacific Film Exhibition. Then, for the Golden Horse, we have jin ma guo ji ying zhan in Mandarin transliteration, which literally means ‘Golden Horse International Film Exhibition’).

The seemingly trivial matter of ‘exhibition’ as opposed to ‘festival’ is deeper than it appears and raises general questions about film festivals. Should we consider festivals that are openly run by and mainly staged for the needs of the industry in the same category as those festivals that are mainly organised for the promotion and enjoyment of cinematic art? Perhaps we ought to make a clearer distinction between the two? Independent critic and curator Neil Young of Jigsaw Lounge is a proponent of the view that Cannes should not be regarded as a festival as it is an industry event in the context of which audiences either do not figure or figure only as extras that serve as background for glitzy events (Young speaking at Tromsø IFF, Norway, January 2010). Similar views were floated at the St. Andrews workshop on festivals at St. Andrews (April 2009): also here Cannes was discussed more as an industry event of a different category (see Brown, 2009).

One of the fault lines between the two is the role of the audience: what live access is there for an audience of ordinary spectators in cinéphile capacity? Under this criterion, even a compromised festival like the one in Bangkok, staged mainly for the sake of tourists, would still qualify more as a festival than an industry event that is mainly staged with the industry self-interest as a guiding principle.

Further criteria that augment the fault line relate to matters of ‘nomination’ vs. ‘submission’: the members of the organisation that is staging APFF actually nominate the films that are entered at the festival; industrial considerations take precedence over artistic selection in the context of the Golden Horse awards as well.

In these matters, however, the Asian examples are only part of the story, which requires to be pieced together from a variety of angles. It is precisely along these lines that, while discussing the growing commercialisation of the Toronto IFF, Gabe Klinger recently observed that ‘the audience participation at TIFF has been configured as an industry think tank’; even if on the surface a festival like Toronto may appear to cater to local cinéphiles, concerns over the commercial motivation behind the event keep popping up. He further says: ‘The response of the public cased on attendance, walkouts, visible or audible reactions, etc., help buyers to decide if the film will be worthy for acquisition. Why do you think TIFF is so successful in industry terms? It is because of the public factor, not in spite of it… The industry already factors in the audience response in the way they will package their products…’ (Gabe Klinger, comment to blog post on Toronto at the Girish Shambu blog, August 2010. Available on-line: (30 August 2010). These comments were posted as part of an important wider discussion on the matter of commercialisation of festivals that I touch upon here.

Many film festivals around the world nowadays can be seen ‘phasing out’ their cinéphile constituencies, and they do this for a variety of reasons. National industry bodies were not only entitled to but also expected to nominate films for festivals like Berlinale until the not too distant past; Cannes had not dropped the national affiliation for films until just a few years ago. These are important matters that would merit further investigation in the context of film festival studies.

Brown, William (2009) ‘The Festival Syndrome’, in FFY1: The Festival Circuit, 216-25.

© Dina Iordanova
30 September 2010