Trade Market or Trademark?
There are indications that film festivals, alongside the Internet, are emerging as the most important public platform for movies, thus assuming the role traditionally assigned to cinemas and TV. While festivals presented a marketplace for movies in the past, establishing the conditions of a commercial application of movies and reaching only a relatively small number of people, they now generate publicity and become a part of the commercialisation chain, often the only part.
There can be no doubt about it: even in the few relevant film markets in the world, only a few films actually find a ready market. One example illustrates the gravity of the situation: Marco Müller, director of the Venice Film Festival, has recently proposed the founding of a trust to strengthen the distribution for the film festivals of Cannes, Berlin and Venice, as even most of the films from these festivals will not find their way into cinemas. This means that even the concept of the marketplace itself is in crisis. Business is done in other places, with DVD, and also increasingly on digital channels. Movies as products do not need festivals or maybe even cinemas anymore. This opens up the historical opportunity to finally screen better films.
But just at this moment, when festivals can assert new audiences for films, the public as we once knew it is retreating. Distributors right now are trying to save their products at the expense of the movie theatres. They will henceforth publish their products more or less simultaneously in cinemas and digitally. Movie theatres are confronted with ever-shorter windows for commercialisation. In the medium-term future, film will very probably only be profitable in the private space, as Home Entertainment. Digital projection for cinemas, the hope to which the movie theatre industry is now clinging, and which demands enormous investments as well as phenomenally high subsidies linked to them, will in all likelihood only postpone the process.
The collective experience of cinema will soon be a thing of the past, or at least of minor importance. From the Internet emerges a massive competition to the film festivals and a new, scattered audience – an interactive one: with insider information, voting, and opinions on SMS level. Whoever takes a look at the hundreds of thousands of self-shot or stolen pictures on YouTube, MySpace, MyVideo, etc., will find that here is a target audience for new marketing strategies and exactly ascertainable consumer targeting, grammatically compressed to a handful of keywords. The collapse of publicity, which nowadays is still underestimated, like disenchantment with politics, will progress steadily, like the disappearance of the movie theatre. In the Web 2.0, people behave just as they have learnt to in the political realm: they vote. There is no knowledge required, an opinion is sufficient.
Commercially the cinema has no future, as recent numbers show. Movie attendance in Germany alone has dropped from around 800 million annually in the 1950s to about 124 million today. In the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia the number of annual cinema visits per capita is down to 1.5. Video rentals achieve twice as much turnover as movie theatres. So when the commercialisation of film turns away from the cinemas – and there’s no indication of this development stopping in its tracks – where then can the films be seen that aren’t going to do big business? Will they even be produced anymore?
It is probable that, in the medium-term future, the complete commercialisation chain for movies will collapse. Furthermore, the question presents itself whether subsidies for national movie industries can be justified any longer. At any rate, the extinction of movie theatres will have delicate consequences for film festivals: where and under what circumstances will they be able to take place? Some festivals already experience severe problems in finding appropriate locations. So where and how in the future the festivals – which are able to succeed the movie theatres – will be held remains uncertain.
Film festivals have stumbled into a historically unforeseen role: to become the cultural distributors of films for which there are no or only very limited commercial prospects remaining. They may still be serving as a purveyor of concentrated contents; and, in this respect, they will act as a regulatory body for the cluttered world of content. But they will only restrictedly and by way of exception be able to fulfil their original function as a marketplace that conveys content for other usage. Through the rapidly increasing number of film festivals and the simultaneous loss in significance of their target markets (like TV and movie theatres), festivals are losing their purpose. They may be the successors of movie theatres, but they are overburdened by this heritage which once was believed to be the responsibility of the governmentally financed TV stations. The film festivals by now have adopted the function formerly held by communal cinemas and the TV stations’ film departments: to provide the general public with film culture. But without the film festivals, there wouldn’t be such a thing as living film history anymore. While the politicians still cling to concepts of cultural ‘lighthouse’ projects and the unique selling points of film festivals, reality already calls those concepts into question. In conditions like this, unique selling points can hardly be claimed anymore and seem even questionable, just like the fight for premieres and prizes.
When film festivals are no longer a marketplace but forums, not a place of trade any longer but places of commutation, when they no longer broker but commercialise, what then will be the income base for the filmmakers and producers? Should film festivals in the future pay them for screening the films? Given that, in their current financial situation, the festivals are not prepared for such a scenario, who will make the effort?
1. In the future, film festivals should generally pay for commercialisation. So, as a first step we in Oberhausen have recommended to our sponsors and benefactors is to divide up all prize money proportionally amongst the filmmakers who enter competitions. Competitions alone are no longer a sufficient incentive to expect filmmakers to commit to participation without payment. True, the filmmakers cannot gather large amounts of money from a single festival, but between several of them they might. Naturally, this division of the prize money is only a provisional tool on our way to a new model of commercialisation and refinancing in the frame of the festivals. Financing the new system could result from an adjustment of the rules of compensation for the commercial digital use of films, e.g. via a ‘cultural flat-rate’, and a general remodelling of film subsidies, if the participation of films at a festival were finally seen as worthy of funding.
2. The whole guiding idea of film subsidies has to be put to the test. At least in the European context, film festivals can and must become part of the cycle of film subsidies and refinancing. First steps towards these goals have already been taken by Germany’s amendment to the film subsidies law, which specifies a certain amount of participation or number of prizes at film festivals as a criteria for receiving subsidies. But this system is not going anywhere near far enough. It would make more sense to establish participation or prizes at film festivals as a second column for film subsidies – a more performance-related automatism than the existing decisions by committees and juries.
3. It is economically unjustifiable to artificially keep a commercial film structure alive by subsidising it. ‘To subsidise the cinema just because it is considered culturally important is a platitudinous justification. This is a question of general cultural policy’, states urban planner Ralf Ebert. Film culture can only survive by reconstructing single cinemas as special venues, as ‘venues of excellence’ that could host festivals as well. The historically and socially unique experience of cinema can only survive if the movie theatre transforms into a place that is today already considered natural for contemporary art: a museum, i.e., beyond the market’s grasp. Not as an institution for conserving the past, but as a temporary museum of moving images, a museum of artistic filmmaking. Thus, we who want to keep the cinema alive must destroy it, in order to revive its social function. Cinema will only be able to survive as a museum, but it will not be like any museum we know. However, the precondition for that is a change of attitude amongst the patrons of the arts, who have to understand that the cinema is a place with special conditions in a technical, social and cultural sense. What we need are locations to view movies that can’t be seen on TV, on the Internet, or in the cinemas: places where we can view them better. Cultural education should give us an idea about where and how we can keep the enormous artistic heritage of films accessible and arrangeable; a new kind of place, multifunctional and beyond commercial motives: simultaneously showroom, concert hall, library, cinema, café, artists‘ studio and much more: a transitory space that transforms with the people who use it.
But will there even be a demand for film festivals in the future? With the progressing convergence of TV, telecommunication and the Internet, films will probably be distributed and watched mainly by electronic means. Even the DVDs and their successors will only present transient stages of this process. So are film festival themselves already anachronistic?
They could well become the place for a renewal of film. But, for the most part, they have sadly failed to evolve away from simply being a place for screening movies to something entirely other. In the future there will probably still be, at least from some audiences, a demand for the key qualities a festival has to offer: a well-projected image, collective reception, a quality repertoire, thematic arrangement, conversation. There’s no certainty about that, however.
What is certain is this: if the festivals fail to develop their product and establish their social surplus convincingly and enduringly, they will become obsolete. Film festivals have to learn to overcome the restrictions of location and time; they have to produce books and DVDs and host parties and conferences; they have to become a better version of television and of the university. This is where most of the state-sponsored TV, corrupted by the pressure of ratings, fails – just as contemporary cinema in its currently dismal state fails, or the universities which are regimented like schools. Film festivals have to change from being a marketplace to becoming a brand, taking responsibility over the refinancing of their products. The only sure thing is that screening films will no longer be enough.First published in German and English in Schnitt magazine, then in Spanish in Cahiers du cinema. España, both in April 2009. Reprinted with permission of Lars Henrik Gass and Oliver Baumgarten.
© Lars Henrik Gass and Schnitt 2009. Translation © Daniel Bickermann 2009, revised by Rouge. Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.