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Festival News
Film fests: Beware the buzz
When you get more than 300 movies, major-league distributors and an excitable press in one place, not everything is as it seems, SIMON HOUPT writes

By SIMON HOUPT, The Globe and Mail
September 2, 2002

NEW YORK -- Ready for the buzz?

Over the next two weeks, as the Toronto International Film Festival unspools more than 300 movies, thousands of filmgoers will sit up excitedly when they hear a breathless report about an unknown film or two rocketing to worldwide attention at the festival. Those pictures are what film festivals are about, the quirky undiscovered gem catapulted onto a higher plane of existence by a combination of word-of-mouth, lavish press and the embossed chequebooks of major-league film distributors. That's what makes buzz. But here's a word of advice that may not be appreciated by some of the more excitable elements of the entertainment press: Don't believe the hype.

As a breed, film festivals don't have a great track record of predicting movies that will catch on with the public. Time and again, movies that ignite festival crowds and set off bloody feeding frenzies among the sharks who bid for distribution rights are released to a limp commercial reception.

Remember Happy, Texas? After a raucous screening at the Sundance Film Festival in 1999, Miramax plopped down $10-million (U.S.) for the picture and trumpeted it as its most important acquisition of the festival. By the end of the year, the film slunk out of theatres, trailing receipts for less than $2-million at the North American box office.

"Sundance is a market, there's a buying frenzy, and sometimes the amount the studios pay becomes a story in and of itself," says Jill Bernstein, a senior editor at Premiere magazine.

At the 2000 Cannes festival, Lars von Trier's Dancer in the Dark won the Palme d'or and was snapped up by Fine Line Features, but failed to catch much attention during its theatrical run. Last year, there was a lot of fuss over Tears of the Black Tiger, the first Thai film to screen at Cannes. After test screenings with audiences failed to raise much enthusiasm, it now looks like the movie will go straight to video.

There are dozens of other examples, including Two Family House, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Cherish, Three Seasons, Rosetta, The Son's Room, Slam and Tadpole. Most of these films screened at Sundance or Cannes, which might account for some of the unjustified hype. Those two festivals are attended primarily by industry and press. Very few members of the actual public -- who could provide a reality check on all the excitement -- get into the screenings.

The Toronto film festival is different because it includes members of the public. Its audience-choice award is a dependable predictor of hits: Its recipients include Amélie; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; American Beauty and Life Is Beautiful. But the list also includes The Hanging Garden and Priest, which flopped outside of Canada.

The usual metaphor for these film festivals is the hothouse, but a more appropriate one might be a pinball machine. If someone says something good about a movie, the comments ricochet around the festival, picking up speed and bouncing off the walls.

The journalists and distributors who attend Sundance joke about the fact that it takes place in Park City, Utah, high above sea level, which lowers the amount of oxygen in the air. But its rarefied atmosphere doesn't just come from the lack of air.

"Up at Sundance you're starved for laughter," notes Glenn Kenny, a film critic for Premiere magazine. "You're also starved for the company of real human beings, as opposed to automatons on cellphones. So a really minor film like Tadpole that just makes you laugh is like Christ coming down from the cross."

Furthermore, since the festival takes place in January, in the dead of winter, a film like In the Bedroom can really appeal to lonely critics. "The film is long, it's got really great performances, and it's definitely something that is conscientious," says Kenny. "You walk out of there and it's dark and it's cold, and you're thinking about how profound the movie is and the fact that you're staying at a [bad] resort, and you think about how lonely you are, and about the human condition, and how you don't have anyone to be in the hot tub with."

Certainly, the festivals sometimes throw up a genuine phenomenon, like The Blair Witch Project. But just as often there are great films that fail to attract attention at a festival, then explode in the marketplace. At the 2000 Sundance festival, a little film called Memento failed to convince any distributor of its commercial potential. The producers ended up forming a company for the sole purpose of distributing the film. Made for about $5-million (U.S.), Memento ended up grossing about $25-million at the North American box office -- far more than most of the films that are acquired end up earning -- and picked up two Oscar nominations.

"Memento is going down in history as one of the great mistakes," says Kenny. "It's a testimony to how the kings of indie distribution -- i.e. Harvey Weinstein -- have sort of lost their edge. The fact that none of those guys picked it up is amazing. The receptors just weren't up."

When the storm hits, it can blow away an unseasoned filmmaker. Gary Winick, the director and producer of Tadpole, says the moment the house lights came up after his film screened at Sundance this year, "everything changed."

"It was unbelievable," recalls Winick. He and his producing partner received representatives from a half-dozen distribution companies. They put each person in a different part of the house they were renting in Park City, then shuttled from room to room listening to offers. "There was a seven-hour negotiation, and I felt like I was in a scene from Scarface. It was really, really, really ugly."

The festival led to an atmosphere of fatalistic urgency, making the bidders more intense than anything Winick had ever experienced. "They said things like, 'If you leave my eye line, the deal is off,' and 'There's God and there's me, and since God isn't in this room, I'm making the decisions.' It was insane."

In the end, Miramax paid $5-million (U.S.) for worldwide rights to the picture. After six weeks in theatres, Tadpole had barely accumulated $2-million at the North American box office.

"The movie will be a modest success," says Mark Gill, the president of Miramax, Los Angeles. "You always hope for overwhelming success, but we'll make a modest profit on it. Would we have hoped for even more? Of course we would, but we come out of it just fine. It will be modestly favourable and profitable, which seven out of 10 movies are not, so we'll take it."

The money lost on highly touted flops in the past has led to a more conservative financial environment for the independent films now being picked up at festivals. "Four or five years ago, you routinely saw movies selling for six- , eight- , 10-million dollars, and you now rarely see them selling for more than five, and often times one or two million," says Gill. "So the prices are now reflecting some of that risk, and the fact that it doesn't always work. But it's a gambler's business. If you don't want to gamble, get out."

In other words, buyer beware. At film festivals, that advice applies to audiences as well as the guys with the chequebooks.

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