Mistaking the festival circuit (pre-commercial showroom for professionals) with the regular commercial distribution (in arthouses or multiplexes with several shows a day, 7 days a week)
There are too many movie reviewer smartasses who believe that the festival circuit has become the viable alternative to artfilm distribution... (especially in the pages of Sight & Sound, Film Comment or the NYT! But Kristin Thompson also professes such agenda). They are in total denial about the derelict state of the arthouse circuit in their respective country, fatalistic about the immuable situation (the arthouse circuit represents less than 1% of all ticket sales and it is humanly impossible to do any better than that, ever), and imagine that with the sprawling development of more and more mini second-hand festivals the future of artfilms is brighter than ever. Well I'm sorry to say, but this is demented!
The above chart shows the number of seats made available for a given film, according to the size of its distribution, and compared with the equivalent in festival screenings.
A few remarks first. These numbers indicate the maximal number of seats offered to the public (in normal commercial exhibition) for one film projected in theatre on an invariant number of screen(s), which implies that the theatre(s) function at full capacity on a period of 2 months. They are compared with an hypothetical run of the same film on the festival circuit, assuming that film gets picked up by a new festival every week of that period (which is wishful thinking).
I used rough numbers, just to get a ballpark idea of the huge gap that widens every week depending on the range of distribution proposed.
Thus for a festival screening I used an average of 500 seats per screening, counting 2 screenings per festivals (the major festivals may give certain films an auditorium of up to 3000 seats twice, but smaller festivals will only open a 100 seaters once). Festivals are attended by an avid crowd so we may assume that every screening is fully booked (which is not the case for every title though).
For the arthouse circuit I opted for a typical arthouse with an average of 200 seats (which may vary depending on the location in a megapole or in low density urban area), and an average of 5 shows a day, 7 days a week. Assuming that the title runs for 8 weeks in a row (which is extremely rare for an artfilm, which is usually dropped after the second week). When a film takes a long time to be picked up by a distributor, and only opens on a handful of theatres, the potential audience is anticiating and rushes in, knowing the occassion to see it on the big screen will not happen again soon, so we may assume a fully booked theatre for the first week at least. Then the attendance dwindles down over the 2 months period (and few films manage to stay on that long in the real world!). This is just a rough simulation. The average filling of seats is usually 15% in France, maybe a little more in the USA, scarcity of screenings making potential viewers more eager, and the general attendance rate per capita (5 films per year per inhabitant, however less than 1% of the screens nationwide are arthouses, so the rate is mostly inflated by the high attendance of multiplex goers) is also higher than in France (3 films per year per inhabitant).
As a comparative, I've also added the typical distribution in multiplexes for a mainstream movie, from 1000 screens for commercial movie with low expectations and up to 4000 screens for a tentpole blockbuster. A multiplex offers bigger auditorium, so I counted an average of 300 seats, and more shows per day (6). The attendance in a multiplex is expected to be fully booked for the opening weekend (4 days) even with such a plethoric number of venues, and shall dwindle down also, but probably at a slower rate than in the arthouse circuit. So the average filling of seats over 2 months is higher (around 30% I believe).
This distribution system corresponds to a market like the USA, with a commercial exhibition that ranges from 1 screening once for an unpopular artfilm, up to 4000 screens nationwide (10% of all screens available) per week for a blockbuster. In France the scale is somewhere between 5 or 7 times smaller, the blockbuster status starts at 800 screens nationwide.
You can see that a small arthouse (1 screen/200 seats/5 shows a day) can match a festival venue (1 screen/500 seats) in only 1 day, in one week that single arthouse shows that film to as many spectators as 7 festivals, while a film can hardly show in more than 1 festival per week. In 2 weeks, before being ousted out by an impatient theatre programmer, it matches up to a run in 14 festivals, and this is a shameful distribution to open a film on only 1 screen nationwide, it should never happen (unless it is an extremely inaccessible piece of experimental cinema only targeted at gallery visitors). In an hypothetical run of 2 months, this dreadful distribution corresponds to a run in 56 festivals, which is more than what the average artfilm would hope to be invited to (excepting the few festival darlings that every festival wants to line up).
Only 1 miserable screen for an entire country (be it Luxembourg or the USA) is absolutely dreadful and an insult to cinema, no matter how bad the film is, every film should be given a decent chance to meet an audience, and this is obviously not the way.
With a release on 6 screens nationwide (still a dreary distribution, even for a bad artfilm), at the end of a 2 months run, it would have offered as many seats as 300 festivals!!! How could the festival circuit ever replace a commercial distribution??? Not a single film gets lined up 300 times in the same country, provided the country has that many festivals willing to arbor it (many local festivals are genre or format exclusive). Here we need to balance out the higher attendance rate of a festival screenings (once or twice per city) and the much lower attendance in arthouses for a simultaneous nationwide release. Even with this consideration in mind, any decent arthouse circuit distribution (at least 30 screens) would offer a wider audience than the maximum number of festivals a film could get!
In France a low artfilm distribution is between 15 and 30 screens, a good distribution is at least 90 screens, and a very popular artfilm may get up to 400 screens, half of the blockbuster level a mass-appeal mainstream genre film gets. In the USA, very few artfilms get more than 30 screens nationwide... and most of what they consider "artfilms" are actually mainstream foreign titles. A once in a blue moon success such as The Artist, supported by the Oscars, reached 1500 screens (a 1/3rd of the blockbuster level) after 15 weeks of struggling "limited release"! This is an exception that doesn't happen every year. Even the so-called American-made "indies" (quite conventional and mainstream in taste) are often restricted to the "limited release" too... There is a stronghold of the 6 major studios on what gets shown to the American public, making constraining deals with exhibitors, in spite of the anti-trust law.
Pretending that it's OK to show any film on only 1 screen (and in this case, it's never for a 2 months period, more like only 1 week and ciao) is an irresponsible thought for a movie reviewer, worse if that reviewer is holding a statement in prints! Every sensible critic, even any mere journalist, should feel outraged by it, and see it as big enough an anomaly to mention it in the review! or better to fucking COMPLAIN about it (in print) to the lazy distributor, the mercantile exhibitors, or more generally to a flawed system... until such recriminations become a public debate at the national level and things start to be taken into consideration for changes and improvements!!!
Why none of this happen in countries where artfilm distribution is struggling? Do they not care at all about how many of their fellow countrymen will get the option to see that film?
Even the great artfilms do not raise such legit concerns... Look at the underexposition of masterpieces (featured in the S&S top10 poll of all time), best films of the year, films awarded at major festivals, critically acclaimed films, or even films nominated at the fucking Oscars! If it's not PG-13, it DOES NOT GET a normal wide distribution. Period. This is bullshit! The USA is a society where culture for the masses is regulated by the moral limitations of a 13 yold. And when I say "masses", I mean the ENTIRE POPULATION minus the happy few living in a megapole where the film was shown for a week... This is a serious concern. Don't you think the press should make it its duty to report this injustice, and campaign actively until something change in the fabric of this corrput system?
Yeah, it happens when there are actual cinephiles working in the press, as distributors and exhibitors, instead of fucking individualist bastards who would rather make money on a trite half-baked flick than to give its chance in the sun to precious little gems that everybody should and must see. But, what do you expect from selfish reviewers who work for the promotion of the officially approved slate of weekly titles, and don't care about the visibility of the films for everyone else once they saw it themselves (on a free DVD screener delivered to them on a silver platter). Complacency breeds hegemony of the lowest common denominator, and the momentum is too heavy to overturn when nobody stands up against it.
How many national festivals will it take for an artfilm to be accessible to 1% of the population? How many years will it take for a film to screen in that many festivals?
With 50 screens during 2 months (a limited release in selected cities) a film could offer 3 million seats, which would be an accessibility to only 1% of the USA population with theatres running at full capacity! Any less than that and we fall under the symbolic 1%. And most artfilms in the USA, especially foreign imports (which includes mainstream genre movies that get near blockbuster status in their country of origin), never get even 50 screens for 2 months...
A blockbuster takes less than 2 months with fully booked theatres to become accessible to 100% of the USA population (in numbers, not necessarily in proximity and affordability)!
I'm not contesting the difference of scale between a blockbuster distribution and an "elitist" artfilm distribution... But why must the gap be so tragically huge? This is the question that never keeps movie reviewers awake at night, because they never wonder why, they don't care wherever the wind blows as long as they are paid to promote the standard marketing talking points.
There is no mystery, if the arthouse system is in dire straits, it's because NOBODY fights for it. You can't always blame the bad taste of the American population, sometimes, when you don't make challenging films AVAILABLE at all, the population doesn't even get the opportunity to reject or adopt them...
Festivals play a key role in the life of an underexposed artfilm. Obviously. To signal its presence to reviewers who only ever watch foreign films (for example) or debut films at festivals, because they never go out of their way to hunt for these themselves (they stay at home and complain about how bad a job festival curators do). To generate a buzz among journalists. To give directors a pristine screening, and a platform for interviews, connection to distributors and even network for future films.
But we can't ask festivals to do more than what they are meant for. A festival circuit, however vast and numerous, will never be able to replace a NORMAL COMMERCIAL DISTRIBUTION (not even the "limited release" of a niche "arthouse film")!!! And they only reach out to the same type of population : professional critics, filmmakers, curators and festival goers. Their opening to the more general public, and especially in rural areas and remote cities is very very limited. The general public is not concerned by the slates of film festivals.
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"[..] What Two Years At Sea suggests is that there is a chasm between a festival screening and a screening in a commercial cinema setting. Rivers' films failed to come...... when it was released into a competitive market festival a few months after the 2011 London film Festival. Various factors can be called into mitigation, including the increasingly saturated market place, weak scheduling and the non-conventional narrative [..]There is already a sheltered alternative to "standard exhibition practice" with "commercial risk"... it's called the "arthouse circuit" ! This is where "artfilms", films will small-audience-appeal and low commercial potential can be projected for longer than an opening weekend, or 2 weeks at best. They can stay on for weeks, where the cinéphile crowd can discover them on the long run, without the costly marketing brainwashing. But when you let your arthouse circuit die out... obviously, you believe that there is only festivals left standing to fulfill the commercial role of an arthouse. And this is bullshit! First it's misjudging the situation and the economy of the system, secondly it's proposing a bandaid for a wooden leg...
When it comes to Two Years At Sea, The Arbor, Las Acasias, Snowtown, Samson & Delilah, and other titles that constitute a commercial risk - but whose festival success suggests that they have a currency - surely there's room for an initiative that allows films to screen without exposing them to rigorous commercial expectations that many of them cannot possibly hope to fulfill? Where festivals do differ from standard exhibition practice is that films are pretty much presented on a relatively even keel. Once a 'niche' title readers the general marketplace, however, it cannot hope to compete with the mainstream in terms of advertising spend and publicity, yet it will be judged over the same three-days box-office performance. [..]"
A Haven for Art Films (David Locke; Sight&Sound; Nov 2012)
Why should "artfilms" be relegated to roaming aimlessly from festival to festival, like free-samples at an agriculture fair, just because expensive mainstream crap holds a monopoly of ALL screens available?
Two Years at Sea is labeled "experimental", although its only a realistic documentary (since when people need a special effort to look at life as it exists in the real world???), the other titles mentionned are merely "artfilms", they are not mass-appeal by any means, but anybody could watch them provided they are the least open-minded, and not totally conditionned by the pre-digested blockbuster culture... These films could and should get easily 50 screens in a country the size of the UK, 200 in the USA, because they are beautiful, worth discovering and most importantly a prime alternative choice to the monotonous offering of mass-appeal entertainment.
We do not expect art films to get a blockbuster treatment anytime soon! Although an import like A Separation reached 1 million spectators in France last year!!! But on the other hand, there is a VITAL MINIMUM of screens that any films must get in order to enter public conversation.
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- A quoi servent les festivals? / Fonction d'un festival (Boyer)
- Repeat Whiner (Gavin Smith) Season 2 Episode 1 / Festival Pundits (Spoiled Brats)
- Festival Pundits (Spoiled Brats) / Clueless Anti-festival clichés / Festivals for Dummies
- Without Festivals / Sans Cannes / Maronniers Cannois
- Mushroom festivals / Random Factoid 3: festival sizes / International Film Festival (stats)
- October 2011 releases USA / Second class film distribution
- American Fatalism (1-2)
- The sad state of the American "Cinéphile elite" / The myth of an "arthouse circuit" in the USA