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The Nature of a Film Festival: a report from Provincetown.

This past weekend I was fortunate to spend some time in Provincetown as a press person for Big, Red and Shiny. If you follow OurDailyRed (the BRS blog) you would already know some of the details of this journey. I have attended the festival many times. The first time was in 2000 when I was still a student at the Museum School and Kathleen Mullen programmed one of my videos in their shorts program. It was certainly a learning moment for me. Having people shout questions about your film at you across a crowded, drunk-filled bar was certainly a first for me. But that really does sum up what the P-Town film festival is about. I have attended many film festivals both as a programmer and a filmmaker (sometimes both at once) and this type of off-the-cuff, in-your-face interaction is rare. All film festivals have the stars and filmmakers in attendance (obviously some more than others) but at most of these there tends to be a bit of a disjuncture between the official guests and the general public. Perhaps Provincetown is simply too small for this type of distancing to occur? Whatever the reason, the degree of interaction between all attendees seems to be greater in P-town. But that is what makes the P-town fest a bit more real. There is something about running into Jane Lynch at the coffee shop in the morning or seeing Gael Garcia Bernal strolling down Commercial street without any harassment or the accompaniment of handlers/bodyguards that makes one realize the humanity that is behind the monolithic entertainment structure that is Hollywood.

So, the point here is that I like the Provincetown Film Festival. It is obviously very different from, say, the Berlin International Film Festival but it does tend to follow the same format. There is a consistency to film festivals, a methodology if you will, that its very form will always impose on it. You can go to any festival, Telluride, Toronto, Tribeca, and they will all have certain types of events: the filmmaker panel discussion/breakfast luncheon or the social issue filmmaker panel discussion and invariably they have a meet the producers/screenwriters – how to break into the business type of panel. They all tend to vie for the same films: those that arise from other better known festivals like Sundance or Cannes or those that are on the verge of being released to festivals so that you have the honour of presenting a “world premiere” of a film. This is the rarest of beasts as more and more filmmakers and independent distributors have learned to discern which festival will serve their film better. Everyone aims for Sundance and then moves down the ladder from there before finally accepting the fact that they can’t get their film into a “prestigious” festival and finally start accepting screenings at smaller festivals. In this sense Provincetown is certainly in the mid-tier of festivals. It has a higher standing than some due to the town’s history as an arts colony, its nature as a retreat destination and the respect given to Connie White, the Artistic Director. Ms. White has a long history in the Boston film community (having programmed films at the Brattle Theatre and the Coolidge Corner Theatre) and as a produce and distributor of independent film (her company Balcony Releasing first release Daughters of Danang went on to win the academy award nomination for Best Feature Documentary). But its programming tends towards those films that have already made the splash at the larger festivals. The schedule tends to be films culled from Sundance (of course!), Toronto International, the Berlinale and Tribeca. The films are those that have generated buzz and will bring in the contemporary film fan (one who monitors the independent film community) as well as serve the artier side of culture. Now, I am not saying this in a pejorative way. This is sometimes the only way these films are going to be seen. Success at a series of festivals is also an opportunity to have the film screened for potential distributors (although this is rare outside of the big festivals) who troll festivals looking for product and also gauging audience reactions to potential product. But the downside is that this consistent programming pattern amongst festivals makes for a very boring visit. If all the festivals are playing the same 12 films what is the point on attending any of them? To make this even more complicated IFC Films is currently playing its festival films OnDemand on Comcast cable! Why bother with the hassle of going to a screening when you can sit at home and watch it? Why indeed? Well, one main reason is the famous guests.

Festivals also compete for the biggest name guests that they can afford to bring in. Attending filmmakers or stars add a certain cache to the festival. It almost certainly guarantees attendance. Everybody wants to see movie stars and famous directors. Provincetown is notable for its ability to bring in guests. P-town’s Filmmaker on the Edge awards has been given to a wide range of amazing talents in the film community, from: Mary Herron, director of American Psycho (and whom I got to meet this weekend – she probably thought I was a total freak when I grabber her to take a picture with me for which I later apologized over cocktails) to Todd Haynes (Poison, Safe, Velvet Goldmine) and Jim Jarmusch (Down By Law, Dead Man, Night on Earth). This year’s award went to Quentin Tarantino. Alongside the admittedly huge coup of getting Tarantino to attend, P-Town also had Jane Lynch in town to receive the 2008 Faith Hubley Memorial Award and Gael Garcia Bernal, who was given the 2008 Excellence in Acting award. Any festival would be overjoyed to present just one of these great talents so having all three of them elevated the festival beyond other local fests like Nantucket, Newport and Woods Hole. But this didn’t make the festival as a whole entity greater. Bringing in this talent isn’t cheap. A decision has to be made as to where the money comes from or what part of a festival is going to suffer because money that could be spent on other things is now going to talent.

It is obviously difficult to manage a non-profit entity. Especially in the current economic state our country is in. There is only so much money to go around and the arts community has to share from the same pot. So what are the effects of allocating your limited funds towards guests and their fees? There was some talk overheard at a few events this past weekend where attendees thought that the festival wasn’t quite as good as it could have been. One line of thought was that too much money went to bringing in big names to the detriment of the festival over all. Some felt it was a poor allocation of resources. But it could also have been the lack of truly “blockbuster” films. The downturn of the economy has also affected independent filmmakers and distributors. Many of the larger film production companies have shut down their “art-house” divisions in an effort to control spiraling costs. As usual, the independent filmmaker loses out. One effect that I noted was the lack of shorts programs independently programmed as opposed to packaged by HBO. The number dropped from 5 last year to 3 in 2008. HBO also seemed to have a greater presence overall. One notable moment was when Jane Lynch was presented with her award on Saturday night. A series of clips from her many achievements was screened prior to the Q & A. One notable absence was The L Word. Of all her work this was seemed to resonate with the crowd as she is an out queer woman playing on a queer show and, lets face it, the crowd in P-Town is a predominantly queer one. The reason a clip was not included? HBO is a major sponsor of the festival and The L Word is a Showtime program. While this might seem to be a minor quibble I felt that it was indicative of something far more sinister especially with regards to corporate sponsorship of a non-profit event. Sure, it could have been oversight on the part of the events coordinator but I doubt that. When there are several people within five feet of me asking where The L Word clip is then you know something is amiss. I’m not saying that HBO told them that they couldn’t screen a clip from a Showtime program. I would have no idea since I don’t work for the festival. All I am saying is that it looked odd and speaks of undo influence on the part of the corporate sponsor. And that is just lame.

What is my verdict overall? I know I have just spent the last 1200 words meandering and complaining (just a little bit I hope) about this festival but part of my disappointment is due to the fact that I really love this festival. Where else could a online blogger and essay writer have the opportunity to grab a coffee with Jane Lynch or talk Godard with Tarantino? It is a special festival that unfortunately seemed to over reach. I understand that this was the 10th anniversary and that is a milestone for any non-profit. But I’d like them to return to the funky, fun anti-corporate event that I recall from years past. Sure Tarantino deserved his award for Filmmaker on the Edge. His films certainly do push against mainstream notions of filmmaking or at least they originally did. Aren’t we at the point that Tarantino is mainstream? Scary thought but valid nonetheless. His films get mainstream distribution; he was just a juror at Cannes. His is certainly an Artiste in the tradition of Cahiers Du Cinema but I’m not sure he connotes filmmaking on the edge? I like the Kill Bill films but how much did they stretch filmmaking? These films were more mélanges of pre-existing films than groundbreakers. How about Alejandro Inarritu or Michel Gondry (although one could also argue that both of these guys are mainstream)? In the end I hope that the P-town festival returns next year. I hope that the financial output brought in an audience and a profit. It would be a shame to lose this experience as a filmmaker, a programmer and a guy with a press pass.

Provincetown International Film Festival

All images are courtesy of the author.

About Author

James Nadeau is an independent curator, video artist and writer based in Boston. He is editor of Our Daily RED, the blog of arts journal Big RED & Shiny. He is a graduate of the Comparative Media Studies department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He completed his undergraduate studies at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. His video work has been screened internationally and he has presented papers on media and film at conferences nationally. He has programmed film and video in several festivals throughout New England and he is currently a technical instructor on film in the Literature Department at MIT. He is currently working on a manuscript on reality television under consideration by Lexington Books.

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