Ever wondered why some types of films get programmed in film festivals over others? So did Sandy George, so she asked the chiefs of our major film festivals for insight into their decision making.
18 Jul 2013 - 12:00 AM  UPDATED 18 Jul 2013 - 12:00 AM

Artistic director Michelle Carey says “bold” was the word that kept coming into her head when she was at the Cannes Film Festival considering films for her bumper Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF), which is in full swing at the moment.

A critical determinant for the Australian festivals is their timing in relation to major international festivals.

“It is a term that can be over-used but I kept coming back to it,” she says. “It is hard to articulate (selection motivation) but I want a film that asks an audience to respond to it, whether with a statement or a question.”

The word “bold” sits easily alongside “courageous”, “audacious” and “cutting edge”, the judging criteria used by Sydney Film Festival's (SFF) international competition, won this year by Nicolas Winding Refn's Only God Forgives. Like Carey though, festival director Nashen Moodley has a whole festival to program – albeit a smaller one than MIFF – and he says his aim is to find films that illustrate what is happening in world cinema today.

“This can mean showing a relatively large budget American film with recognizable stars or a new film (2013 selection An Episode in the Life of An Iron Picker) made by Oscar winner Danis Tanovic about racism towards Roma people in Bosnia and Herzegovina,” says Moodley. “It can be a broad range of things and that's far more interesting than saying 'this is a festival of arthouse cinema'.”

Adelaide Film Festival (AFF) director Amanda Duthie has to be enamoured with a film to effectively sell it to audiences, she says. During her Cannes visit in May – her first ever – the question she most asked herself was: “Do I love and respect this film?” But in order to offer a distinctive program, under the influence of two key colleagues, she learned to love some initially overlooked films.

The person in charge of the Brisbane International Film Festival (BIFF), Jennie Hughes, wants “quality and diversity” and films with “a special way of telling stories”. “Diversity” is a word that echoes through all the conversations: diversity of genre, geographic spread, director, filmmaker experience, style, etc.

Only Hughes will be drawn – but only slightly – on the question of whether differences in programming between the states are because each state's audiences are different in nature.

“We are a young city, a developing city, only 20 years old, and the other guys have had another 40 years,” she says, referring to how long Sydney and Melbourne have engaged with film audiences. She talks of cherry picking films with broad commercial appeal from the whole year then enticing audiences to subsequently discover others they wouldn't otherwise consider.

But in the same breath, she talks of Brisbane's vibrant arts precinct and cultural events such as the Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art. Moodley too, says it is necessary to both satisfy audience expectations and challenge them. “I don't want someone who has seen 30 films to say 'I loved every film',” he says. “I hope they hate or at least dislike a few, and I think they want to be surprised.”

Revelation Perth International Film Festival program director Jack Sargeant says that to cater to all the communities in a city means that festivals, by their nature, are heterogeneous. He jokes that he can't program the festival just with the “obscure and confrontational” films he'd like to.

On the question of state differences, Carey reckons she doesn't cater specifically to Melbournians but does say that if the music documentary strand Backbeat was dropped there would be “a lynch mob out to get us”. But perhaps that is because habits are hard to break. (She notes that Australia is unique in that there is not one prominent national festival as with Cannes, Toronto or Berlin.)

What all are talking about, in a nutshell, is the art of programming, and that includes balance, giving audiences access points and context for the edgier fare in particular – and including films that will fill the biggest auditoriums and create revenue flows.

In a nutshell, films come from three directions: they are already worldwide festival hits; filmmakers or their advocates successfully submit them; or via programmers' personal interests and research. Personal taste has an influence; it can't not. Sargeant doesn't attend major festivals like the rest and makes much of his networks being different because they are based on his writing and lecturing – and of Perth being “left alone” because it's on the edge of the continent.

Films get a lot of attention just from being new – commercially released films too – and a critical determinant for the Australian festivals is their timing in relation to major international festivals. The SFF, for example, draws heavily from Venice in September of the previous year through to Sundance in January and Berlin in February, although some Cannes films are slipped in. MIFF moved dates years back to take advantage of Cannes but Carey also fondly eyes smaller events such as Vienna – the first overseas film festival she experienced, Hong Kong, Oberhausen, and Bologna, which specialises in presenting film restorations. Duthie and Hughes can look to Toronto for fresh material.

Another critical timing issue is whether a distributor owns Australian rights – irrespective of whether these rights were purchased before or after the film became a must-have – because no amount of cajoling will convince them to release the film to a festival if it doesn't fit their commercial release strategy. But that's another whole subject; as is whether the several dozen films that become hot on the festival circuit deserve that much attention – and how many fabulous films are missed...

What also must be said is that events and other forms of packaging are increasingly important in luring people out of their homes. It might include Q&A sessions with filmmakers, matching films with restaurant or musical experiences, or gathering films into strands. Activism on film and new Arabic cinema, which Carey says “effortlessly suggested themselves”, are examples of popular strands.

Adelaide is awash with festivals and Duthie describes South Australians as “muscled up” festival goers. She is overseeing the Festival of Ideas as well as her first AFF, a first time joint venture.

“It's going to add a whole other layer of rigour, entertainment and engagement with the two festivals riffing off each other,” she says.

Moodley notes that introducing the Sydney Film Festival Hub last year was a very important development: “It gave the festival a new energy. You need a space where people can hang out, have a drink and express their passion for cinema.”

The SFF wrapped in June and Revelation on July 14. MIFF is on until August 11 (see full coverage here), AFF opens on October 10 and BIFF takes place on November 14. Invariably at the end of each – and it's already happened in Sydney – a media release will be issued that brags about record attendances. Ascertaining whether patrons were satisfied is rather more difficult to judge and depends on their personal viewing choices anyway. Enjoy the festival season.

Photo: MIFF opening night (Tony Zara).