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Festival Acclaim vs. Commercial Prospects

Apr 23, 2008
One of the most difficult parts of my job as an acquisitions manager is to distinguish festival acclaim from commercial viability. There is a definite feel at a film fest - those of you who are fortunate enough to attend a few know what I'm talking about. There's a buzz in the air; a feeling that the next screening you attend just might be something truly memorable and special. Why? There's a few reasons, but the two that resonate most with me are:

1. Festival attendees by definition are more open to new/different/experimental films - that's why they are there....

Every audience is full of true movie lovers hoping to see that memorable, special, "fill in your life-changing adjective here" Film. Films always play better in a theater because of the group dynamic; festival audiences raise that concept to an even higher level.

2. Festival films have been hand chosen by a "qualified" panel - they've allegedly already weeded out those pics unworthy of your time. In theory, it's not the same crapshoot as picking a Friday night film at the cineplex.

But what does that really mean...

The fact of the matter is, festival attendees make up a small portion of the filmgoing public. The vast majority of movie-goers are not looking for new/different/experimental films - take a look at the weekly box office report if you don't believe me. So, what does that mean for me, the acquisitions guy who just attended a sold-out festival screening that received a standing ovation during the credits?

Perhaps more importantly to some of our readers - what does that mean to the director/producer of the film that just received a standing ovation during the credits?

With SXSW nearly upon us, these are both valid questions. I'm left to my own devices - more often than not, a gut reaction based on my personal response to the film and my experience working in this crazy business. For the filmmakers - my advice is to enjoy the moment and get swept up in being the toast of the fest - for about a week. The reality is, too many filmmakers let festival acclaim blow up their ego and their expectations for their film. Definitely try to spin your success into a distribution deal, but don't pass on good deals in hopes of the Weinstein Co. swooping in with a suitcase full of $$$.

It sounds harsh, but the buzz of SXSW is gone in a month, replaced by Tribeca; which in turn is replaced by Cannes, and so on and so forth. It's shocking how quickly you can find your film becoming a distant memory to the buyer ready to turn his attention to the next fest. There are too many titles in our recent past that are still sitting on the shelf because the filmmakers were holding on to an inflated notion of their film's worth. Now, they have a dated title worth half as much as it once was, because being a hit at SXSW in '07 means very little once SXSW '08 kicks off.
About the Author
Marc Hughes is the Acquisition Manager for Lifesize Entertainment and a writer for IndieFilmChat.com-Film Festival Discussion
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