How the Premiere Film Festival Experience Evens the Playing Field
by Alex Billington
January 28, 2015
As the high school auditorium converted to a movie palace begins to fill, I glance around. Behind me sits the entire executive team of Fox Searchlight, in front of me the entire cast & crew of the movie we're about to see. A few seats over are two writers for Rolling Stone; amongst the crowd are all of my other critic/blogger/movie friends – from the lead reviewers at industry trade magazines like Variety and Hollywood Reporter, to my pals Peter from SlashFilm and Neil from Film School Rejects, and Ethan Anderton, too. We're all here, sitting together, all about to experience the world premiere of a movie no one has seen yet. This is what I love about film festivals. It puts us all on the same level, and together we get to experience cinema.
This is an interesting topic to discuss, but in all truth and honesty I'm not out to condemn anyone. As I sit in the auditorium, the feeling that overcomes me is the feeling of solidarity. Yes, there are various queues and levels of tickets, badges, and access, and we all line up in different places, different ways, waiting to get in once we're allowed to but not a second earlier. But once we get inside the theater, the playing field is even again. No one, outside of the production, their friends and the festival programmers have seen the film we're all about to watch. It could be good, it could be bad, some will love it, some will hate it. But we're all here.
This connects back to the idea of the pure experience of cinema, which is only found in places like Sundance, Cannes or Telluride. The greatest experiences are going to see a film that no one has seen yet, that no one else knows anything about, that hasn't been spoiled by marketing materials/trailers, and that we're all about to discover together. Many times this is what it's like for me at Sundance, choosing a film based on the title, the filmmaker, or the image for it. Sometimes I don't even read the blurb provided by the festival, just so I know as little as possible going in, so I can be surprised. Yes, there are many bad films to see, but I know my tastes well and typically seek out the films I have a good feeling that I might enjoy (or should take a risk on).
Over the last few years, there has been a rise in playing favorites and giving early access to certain outlets over others. This may sound like I'm complaining about the way the industry plays games with the press, and I kind of am, but that's not my point here. One major example of this discrepancy was when Fox showed David Fincher's Gone Girl to roughly six media outlets (mainly the trades) the week before it premiered at the New York Film Festival in early October. While hundreds of accredited members of the press at the NYFF lined up to see the movie's "world premiere" on Friday evening, these six outlets got approval to run their reviews a few days before. It felt unfair, and a bit odd, to see these specific outlets get that upper-hand early advantage (even if they were handpicked by Fincher) undermining the purpose of the world premiere.
In late 2013, the Toronto International Film Festival went ballistic on the indie film community, demanding that films confirm their "world premiere" status or else be eliminated or downplayed. This was because they were responding to the jumble of overlapping premieres between Telluride, Venice and Toronto, which overlap during the fall festival season. TIFF's Cameron Bailey told media outlets their new policy was all because people were confused by the nomenclature of "world premiere" and that it was their duty to clarify that, and not let another festival or screening undercut their dominance. I find it odd they were this bold, and went so far as to make public statements, yet not many in the industry seem to actually care about this.
I will full well admit that I have gone to pre-festival screenings in Los Angeles and New York, catching films that will premiere at the festival. Publicists usually set these up so it takes the pressure off of fitting films into a chaotic 10-day schedule, and having them jumbled in with exhaustion and endless comparisons. I get it. It helps. But I still feel a bit odd about doing so. It doesn't feel the same, I can't really get into the film like I could if I were sitting with a crowd at a Sundance venue. This is where most critics will flip out on me: the film is the film; some of the venues here suck, it's annoying to get into them, and that is a distraction, they'll say. Yes, but that is a part of the experience of a film festival and has been for nearly 70 years. Film festivals are a place where you must be there to see the screenings yourself, that was the original concept for them.
However, I am here to say that I do care, because there's something thrilling realizing no one has seen this movie yet, and no one has an advantage, and we're all about to experience it together. I keep using that word experience because I really do believe the experience is integral to films. While some may argue that a film is a film and should be judged by itself, not on the experience, I would argue that every viewing is its own experience. Whether that's at a festival, or late at night after a few beers, or while curled up under a blanket during a heavy snowstorm, or with some friends at the local art house. Whether we want to admit it or not, every little detail affects our experience and can, in both big and small ways, affect how we enjoy the film.
While at Sundance this year, I've had that feeling of solidarity return and it brings a smile to my face. That's the great thing about fests – anyone, even general members of the public and die-hard film fans ambitious enough to get a ticket, get to sit in the same auditorium as all of us. No more favorites, no more preferential treatment, we're all there in the same room. The trades don't get to run their reviews early, they have to sit through it, and spend a few hours writing just like we do. The acquisitions agents, prospective distributors and studio heads of all kinds, producers, fellow actors/filmmakers/writers, they're all there too. There is no superiority, it's just us and the big screen. Cinema, and the exhilarating experience of it, and nothing more.
At the end of the day, I genuinely love film festivals. I enjoy going in to see films without any marketing or external influence telling us what we should be expecting, or how much we should love it. If it's good, then it's good, the audience decides right then and there, and then the critics go off and write about it. This is the communal experience of cinema that I fell in love with growing up; it's about the audience, it's about all of us watching light projected onto a screen and bouncing back into the eyes of many different people, sitting together, quietly in the dark. This is why we built these movie palaces, to worship cinema together.