Introduction A few basics about film festivals

Introduction – a few basics about film festivals
by Peter Bosma

Written for the occassion of the Talk show ‘The Digital IFFR: Feed - Trust or Kill the Tiger?’
39th International Film Festival Rotterdam, 3 February 2010.

Film festivals are popular. This is evident from the fact that film festivals attract large audiences everywhere and there is an extensive choice of international film festivals for each day of the year. This ever-increasing popularity raises a lot of fundamental questions, such as: what is happening exactly, how has this happened, and will it last?
Answering these questions initiates an interesting discussion, fuelled by fond memories of times gone by, and thoughts on the hypothetical ideal film festival, as well as expectations about the future of film festivals.
Before we start the discussion and launch our arguments, this introduction offers a brief overview of a few current issues regarding the international film festival circuit.

An exhausting celebration of cinema
What makes film festivals so special? In the sociological perspective of the art world, a film festival is to be regarded as an institution where the newest film productions are presented. It has the same function and status as a Biennale in the world of modern art (like Venice, Sao Paulo, Seoul), and a festival programmer could be compared to a curator: he or she is a gatekeeper who decides what will be selected for display on the international stage of promising potentials. A film festival is a gathering of experts who recognize the earliest signals of new international trends. It is also the first platform to launch a film: the commercial circulation of movies starts here. The question is whether this situation will last, because we live in a time of transition. But let us first investigate the position of film festivals at the moment.
An essential characteristic of film festivals is an extraordinary alterability. Each edition is accidental, a more or less happy coincidence of circumstances. The artistic choice depends on the available harvest and the degree of freedom to gather this crop. This seems obvious, but it is still unknown to many regarding what kind of discouraging obstructions a festival programmer has to face, such as the international film trade, the rivalry between festivals, the often unstable funding, and the variable local cooperation. The big challenge for the festival programmer is to succeed in presenting an attractive programme, which is outstanding on the global festival circuit.
A film festival is a specific kind of microcosm, an isolated setting where film producers, distributors, exhibitors, press and non-professional visitors gather. An international film festival is a special biotope of travelling films and travelling spectators, concentrated on a defined location in a limited period of time. The festival experience stands apart from everyday life. The sense of time and space is narrowed down to the festival grounds and festival schedules. The visitors are offered unusual and intense viewing experiences, a collective exploration and celebration of the unknown: the newest films, or the exotic or forgotten cinema productions. Besides this, a film festival is also a quite peculiar collective exhaustion of the senses. The mutual solidarity of visitors and guests is expressed in tokens of recognition, such as badges, bags and daily papers. Roughly, the visitors are in search of pleasure (beautiful films), glamour (seen and be seen) and comfort (no queues at the box office or at the bar or in the toilets, decent catering, not too much last minute changes in the programme, and above all spacious screening rooms with excellent sightlines and perfect projection).
A film festival is simultaneously a very individualistic search for satisfaction and a social gathering. The profile of the festival visitor is varied; it is possible to distinguish many subcultures in the festival crowds, such as fanatic film buffs, occasional visitors and professionals. Each of these different customers aims at a very personal experience of viewings and meetings. ‘Cinephilia’ could be a dominant and binding element, but it is certainly not the only motivation to visit a film festival. Besides, there are many different sorts of ‘cinephilia’, it is a phenomenon with multiple appearances.
Cinephilia is not a unified belief system but a series of subjective, overlapping, shifting individual canons held together by advocacy and debate. That’s why I want a proper diversity of festivals – including critic-led ones – to exist.”
Nick James, ‘Editorial’, in: Sight and Sound vol 19, no 11 (November 2009) p.5.
Branding the film festival experience
A film festival is in many aspects a ‘survival of the fittest’. First of all, a film festival is a stage where reputations can rise, be adjusted or be destroyed. The distinction of ‘hot or not’ is made under pressure of time and an overload of high quality input. The ‘product’ of a film festival is the programme. In order to be able to promote the programme properly it is necessary to create a recognizable ‘corporate identity’. The artistic determination needs to be translated, for instance, into a strong logo and appealing graphic design. This requirement of continuity and recognition is antithetical to the ideals of the programmers, who wish to present a surprising, unpredictable and unique programme at each edition.
The marketing of a festival expresses itself also in the facilitation of more or less commercial activities, such as a film market for professionals (like the Cinemart), a production fund (like the Hubert Bals Fund), the distribution of festival films (like the dvd label Tiger Releases) and also the offering of educational programmes (such as this talk show). A film festival costs money and needs a large budget, but it raises money as well. In the short term, the local economy profits through the increase of tourist business and valuable city marketing. In the long term the film producer sometimes profits through the free publicity which some of the films get (but this is by no means predictable, because surely a festival hit is not always a blockbuster at the box office, or it may not even be distributed at all).
The ‘core business’ of film festivals remains the presentation of the best possible programme, selected by a strictly independent staff. The programmers and scouts are searching for new discoveries; they select the best quality of the year, the best of what both the upcoming and established talent has to offer. From the perspective of these artistic choices the essential function of a film festival is the stringent and observant selection of which film is fit to be presented. Each film festival encourages every promising talent to offer their films, through the procedures of the entry forms. As a result, the festival programmers receive a huge amount of films. In addition to this vast choice the programmers do their own research on other film festivals and in the field. Only a few of all these possible options are selected. This procedure is a useful service to the festival visitors: they just need to see two hundred films instead of two thousand, but it is also a challenge to explain how this selection has been made. Then again the question regarding the exact profile of the film festival arises; which unique selling points should be mentioned?  
Ranking the festivals.
The international film festival circuit is large, therefore strong competition inevitably arises in order to achieve status and attention. Behind the scenes of the film festivals a fierce battle rages to attract new discoveries and to present as many films in world premiere as possible. This arena of sales agents, film producers, film directors, festival programmers and scouts is still not fully explored. The website just lists thousands of film festivals and provides news and information as completely as possible. The International Federation of Film Producers Associations ( tries to function as a referee regarding the ranking of film festivals, but their authority is not generally accepted. However, we need some uncontested guidelines for evaluation of achievements and excellence if we want to get a grip on the artistic and social dynamics of the phenomenon of the international film festival circuit.
The easiest way to evaluate the success factors of a film festival is quantitative research: an inventory of diverse ratios such as for example the amount of films shown, the amount of guests received, and the amount of paying visitors. However, numbers are not decisive, because it tells us nothing about the important issue of customer satisfaction. Audience surveys at film festivals often limit themselves to enquiries about the facilities and evaluation of the logistic performances. A focus on the quantitative evaluation of the programme would be more interesting, checking the opinions of the festival crowd regarding the perceived quality of the films and clarity of the artistic choices. This is not easy to do. One difficulty for instance is the reliable determination of the pre-existing expectations of the visitors (neutral, high, or low) and the influence of these expectations, in relation to the status of the visitor (film professional or film buff, versed or debutant). There are many forms of customer satisfaction, because there are many different sorts of visitors. The challenge for researchers is to develop a survey which can chart the opinions of the audience in a relevant and reliable way.
The quantitative evaluation of a film festival could also be done by a forum of experts, instead of an audience survey. This will start a discussion regarding what benchmarks will be appropriate. It is easy to list a few general terms, such as the development of the artistic signature of the festival, the degree of representational coverage of global trends in cinema, the innovative character of the programme, the support of upcoming and proven creative talent and the arousal of the curiosity of potential audiences. To adjust these general terms into measurable criteria is another matter, which is not yet resolved.
Research and analysis of the international film circuit
Reflection on film festivals was for a long time exclusively done by film critics of newspapers and magazines. The American film critic Kenneth Turan compiled ten of his festival reports in a book: Sundance to Sarajevo. Film festivals and the World they Made (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002). Only very recently a flow of academic publications started to appear. Dutch film scholar Marijke de Valck is one of the pioneers in this field of Film Festival Studies. In her dissertation she researched the development and characteristics of the international film festival circuit: Film Festivals. From European Geopolitics to Global Cinephilia (2007).
She starts with a rough sketch of the historic origins of the European film festivals, which began as a principally glamorous society event (like Venice, since 1932 and Cannes, since 1946) and gradually developed into an influential factor of reputation building and promotion of new releases. De Valck investigates in a systematic way the institutional network of the international film festivals. Her investigation is subdivided into four aspects: politics, economy, reputation building and programming.
The film festival of Berlin serves as an example for her survey of the geopolitical context. This festival started in 1951 during the Cold War, in a city which was at that time an isolated western enclave in communist territory. The festival functioned as a showcase of Western ideology.
The Cannes film festival serves as an example in her discussion of the transformations in the world cinema market and her description of ‘the gap between cultural criteria and business demands’. The Cannes festival is part of the competitive international festival circuit, but is also a European trade market and has therefore to cope with a complex set of demands.
In the chapter about the value-adding process, the Venice festival serves as a case study, taking four examples of films shown during the 60th edition in 2003: a loser (BUONGIORNO, NOTTE), a winner (THE RETURN), a favourite (LOST IN TRANSLATION) and a scandal (TWENTYNINE PALMS). A film festival aims at the creation of as much ‘buzz’ as possible. In essence, a festival is a media event, with a specific process of agenda-setting and exposure. The coverage by the press is dominated by the glamour of film stars on the red carpet and limited to just a handful of sensational world premieres in the festival competition.
A film festival has also an artistic credo, visible in a clearly profiled choice of films. The International Film Festival Rotterdam serves as example of a festival distinguished by an outspoken visionary programming and a ‘cinephiliac’ audience.

The research of De Valck (2007) provides a clearly defined start for further investigations and research into the phenomenon of film festivals,  as an institution for the consecration of film art, a trade fair of the film industry, and an international exhibition network.
“ Just as the study of museums and galleries is central to our understanding of arts and heritage, the study of festivals is central to understanding the true scope of global cinema. It is logical, therefore, to expect that in the course of the next decade the study of festivals, a growing yet scattered field, will become central to film and cultural studies.”
Dina Iordanova, Press release ‘International Film Festival Workshop’, University of St. Andrews, April 2009. ]
Closing remarks
Film festivals constitute an international network of film screenings; on the other hand each festival is grounded in a local film culture. The festival staff and film scholars as well have to deal with this sliding scale of opposite forces. As mentioned earlier, another sliding scale of opposite forces is the ambition to present a unique, unpredictable programme in each edition and the need for a recognizable, stable artistic signature.
The increasing digitalisation influences the international film culture in many ways. The possibilities of digital worldwide communication undermines the power of the institutions and it requires an adjustment of current practices, but it also provides more options for a truly independent circulation of films.

Copyright note:
You are free to use these texts or fragments of them, on condition you use the citation for non-commercial purposes only, you cite the texts unchanged, and with a correct credit to the source and a correct annotation:
Bosma, P. ‘Introduction – a few basics about film festivals’. (2010)’, on line available at and (Studium Generale Erasmus University Rotterdam) and
Resources on Film festivals
Loist, Skadi & Marijke de Valck (eds) Film Festivals / Film Festival Research: Thematic Annotated Bibliography, URL: Part of the Film Festival Research Network (FFRN), linked to the European Network for Cinema and Media Studies (NECS), URL: also
Recommended reading
- Valck, Marijke de, Film Festivals. From European Geopolitics to Global Cinephilia. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2007.
- Iordanova, Dina & Ragan Rhyne (eds), Film Festival Yearbook. Volume 1: The Festival Circuit, London: Wallflower Press, 2009.
- Iordanova, Dina & Ruby Cheung (eds) Film Festival Yearbook. Volume 2: Film Festivals and Imagined Communities, London: Wallflower Press, 2010.
- Porton, Richard (ed), Dekalog 3: On Film Festivals, London: Wallflower Press, 2009.
- Elsaesser, Thomas, ‘Film Festivals Networks: The New Topographies of Cinema in Europe’, in: ibidem, European Cinema: Face to Face With Hollywood, Amsterdam: Amsterdam UP, 2005, pp. 82-107. URL:
- Gass, Lars Henrik, ‘Trade Market or Trademark? The Future of Film Festivals’, in: Rouge 13 (2009), URL:
- Czach, Liz, ‘Film Festivals, Programming, and the Building of a National cinema’, in: The Moving Image, vol 4, nr 1 (Spring 2004) pp 76-88.
- Stringer, Julian, ‘Raiding the Archive: Film Festivals and the Revival of Classic Hollywood’, in: Grainge, Paul (ed.), Memory and Popular Film, Manchester: Manchester UP, 2003, pp. 81-96.
- Stringer, Julian, ‘Global Cities and the International Film Festival Phenomenon’, in: Shiel, Mark & Tony Fitzmaurice (eds) Cinema and the City: Film and Urban Societies in a Global Context, Oxford: Blackwell, 2001, pp. 134-144.
- Harbord, Janet, ‘Film Festivals: Media Events and Spaces of Flow’, in: ibidem, Film Cultures, London: Sage, 2002, pp 59-76.
- Nichols, Bill, ‘Discovering Form, Inferring Meaning. New Cinemas and the Film Festival Circuit’, in: Film Quarterly, vol 47, nr 3 (Spring 1994), pp 16-30.

Some reports on the International Film Festival Workshop (St. Andrews, 2009):
- Bâ, Saër Maty, ‘Transnational Mission, International Dynamics: A Report on the International Film Festival Workshop 4 April 2009 Centre for Film Studies (CFS), University of St Andrews, Scotland’, in: Senses of Cinema no 51 (2009). URL:
- Chen, Yun-hua, International Film Festivals Workshop. A Report’, in: Scope no 14 (June 2009), URL:
- Pekerman, Serazer "International Film Festival Workshop", in: Film International, no 39 (May 2009), also available at URL:
- Porton, Richard, ‘The Festival Whirl: The Utopian Possibilities – and Dystopian Realities – of the Modern Film Festival’, September 8, 2009, URL:
Some recent magazines dossiers on film festivals:
- Film International vol 6, no 4 (2008, edited by Dina Iordanova). See also
- Schnitt no 54 (April 2009, edited by Lars Henrik Gass).
- de Filmkrant, no 307 (February 2009, ‘Slow Criticism’, edited by Dana Linssen), URL:

Reviews of the Film Festival Yearbook, volume 1: The Festival Circuit: (review of Kirsten Stevens). (part 1 of a blog text by Michael Guillen). (part 2 of a blog text by Michael Guillen).

Some internet tips
- Internet Portal:
- Blog: ‘World Film Festivals. An Exploration of Film Culture, based at Monash University, Australia’, URL:
The international film festival circuit has its own calendar:
In Europe the festival year starts at Rotterdam (since 1972), followed by Berlin (since 1951), Vienna (since 1960) and Cannes (since 1946). In the summer there is among others the film festival of Locarno (since 1946) and Venice (since 1932). In the fall the international festival circuit continues in Toronto (since 1976) and Pusan (since 1996).
  • Additional suggestions for those who want to combine a summer holiday with a visit to a film festival:
Karlovy Vary (, Pesaro (, Sodankylä (, Deauville (, La Rochelle ( en Nairn (
  • The international film festivals in The Netherlands are:, (Nederlands Filmfestival, in Utrecht, since 1981, started as The Dutch Film Days), (International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, since 1988), (since 1986), and the Amsterdam Fantastic Film Festival (since 1984,