A Meditation on Film Festivals

The mantra of capitalism is 'move product.' Whether it's steel for bridges or underwear for kids or jumbo jets for travelers or frosted flakes for breakfast, the world has accepted and adopted the American notion of moving product. It doesn't matter if your government is Communist, like China, or fascist, like Russia, or a republic, like us. You want to move product.

In the film business, whether you're in Hollywood or Bollywood, Hong Kong or Buenos Aires, you live to move product. Get the film in, make money, get it out in time for the next one. If it doesn't make money it's gone by tomorrow, or at least by next Thursday. In the United States more than 95 percent of all theatre screens are owned by just four companies. They - not you, not me, not the filmmakers, not even the studios - make the decisions; none of the rest of us have very much to say about it.

I bring all this up because it occurs to me that one reason for the amazing proliferation of film festivals around the world is in reaction to the control of theatre screens by the big exhibitors. I'm not saying that the good guys like us could take over the world of movies if we only organized. After all, look what happened to the Wobblies. The total audience for film festivals is tiny compared to the total audience for, say, Star Wars Episode Three, which grossed more than $150 million in its first weekend. But it does mean that there is a market out there for good films, in the same way that there's a market for good literature, good music, good theatre. It's small, but it's there.

In the film business, marketing is a two-tier system. Tier one is the multiplex. Every city and town of a certain size has at least one multiplex, showing commercial films almost exclusively. Independent and foreign films don't even exist for them, unless they're a freak like "Sideways" or "My Big Fat Greek Wedding." Then, the second tier, about a dozen major cities have independent art-houses, or a chain like Landmark cinemas, which bring in foreign or independent movies. And along with the art houses there are the film festivals, which can work in any size town. Festivals serve two purposes - first, to acquaint local audiences with films they wouldn't otherwise see; and second, to provide an aura of excitement and value around those films.

For most of the past two weeks I've been at the Seattle International Film Festival, which bills itself as the largest in America - certainly it's the longest, at three and a half weeks. I've seen dozens of films from around the world, films that you and I would never get to see otherwise. I liked some of them, didn't like others, and really loved a few, which is about par for the course. But the important thing is how they came to be at the festival. They were chosen by someone not on the basis of moving product, that is, how much money they could bring in, but because someone thought they were worth seeing. I might agree or disagree, but I would never ever argue with that reason. That's what art is built on, and movies, after all, are an art form. Let's not forget it.