Film festivals as global brands
Tomáš Hudák 7/2/2022

At the end of last year, the KVIFF Group, which covers all activities around the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, bought a majority share in the Czech distribution company Aerofilms. According to the official report, KVIFF Distribution will aim to “increase the synergy between the festival and online and cinema distribution”, while gradually expanding its operations to the entire region of Central and Eastern Europe. While the purchase of a well-established distribution company by a film festival is not very common, this act correlates with a broader trend that major film festivals have followed in recent years.

Screening of films in the realm of festivals has long been understood as a form of “alternative” distribution. Some of the films, for which traditional international distribution in cinemas is not realistic for economic reasons, find their audience by traveling from one festival to another. They do not use a network of cinemas in that country but an international network of festivals. At best, the film visits dozens of countries where it is screened a couple of times.

While in this model festivals are only a place where the distribution “takes place”, in recent years, especially large festivals have become more and more active in distribution. This is a part of their efforts to strengthen their position among institutions – not only at the national level, but primarily at the global level.

Virtually every major festival today has a program designed for a professional audience and is not satisfied with “just” screening of films. Through markets, co-production forums, workshops and grant systems, the largest festivals intervene in the filmmaking itself and influence what type of film is created. And because they are international platforms, festivals influence events beyond their borders. The Berlinale Talents and Locarno Industry Academy training platforms are even organized on different continents; it’s something like when big football clubs don’t just have a fan base in their own city or region, but they play matches on other continents out of season because they are global brands and they have a huge audience there as well. Film festivals influence film culture and communicate with people who do not really have the opportunity to come to the event in person and are thousands of miles away.

If we only consider the screening of films, i.e. a certain form of distribution, historically many festivals have their roots in the environment of film clubs or associations. However, the current effort of the festivals to offer films outside the traditional framework of the event is the opposite movement, which is based on the festival brand. Festivals are systematically expanding their reach beyond the few days of the main event and outside of their city.

These ambitions take many forms. For example, the Toronto International Film Festival has its own five-screen cinema with a year-round program. While the foundations of the largest Polish festival, New Horizons International Film Festival in Wrocław, were laid by the distribution company Gutek Film, the later built nine-screen cinema shares the name of the festival. The New Horizons Association, formally separated from the distribution company, covers not only the cinema and the international film festival, but also organizes two smaller festivals, thus indirectly expanding the festival (and its brand) throughout the year and further affecting the city’s film culture. However, the daily screenings do not deny the event character of the festivals, which have a crucial place in the calendar.

There are many festivals with year-round activities outside the city, especially in the region or country, and in some cases even abroad. It is mostly a screening of films from the festival program and educational activities are also common. Visions du réel, for example, organizes screenings in Nyon and other Swiss cities under the VdR on Tour brand. The Best of IDFA on Tour brings award-winning films from the Amsterdam festival to dozens of cinemas in the Netherlands. The Jihlava Festival has its Echoes, which, in addition to Czech cities, also take place in Bratislava or Brussels. Similarly, Cannes’ La Semaine de la Critique organizes screenings of short films from its program in France and other countries not only in Europe, Sundance has mini-festivals in London and, until recently, in Hong Kong and the IFF Rotterdam on the Caribbean island of Curaçao.

These activities are in line with one of the main declared missions of film festivals – to help films find their way to the audience. These are often films that have harder times reaching its audience, such as creative documentaries or short films. Festivals work significantly with their name and symbolic capital. The films are screened because they have gone through a rigorous selection process by the festival’s program team and, in some cases, a jury selection. But it is a reciprocal movement – not only does the festival provide a “guarantee” of the quality of the film with its name, but the film also “testifies” in favor of the festival and supports its brand. The more people see it, the more they will appreciate the quality of the festival and its programming.

Other festivals take on a more active role as a distributor in the traditional sense. The Oberhausen International Short Film Festival not only has a traveling Oberhausen on Tour program (which is regularly screened in Bratislava), but also acts as an international distributor and buys dozens of films from the festival program to its catalog each year. The Karlovy Vary festival also started with national distribution earlier – in 2015, a “distribution label” KVIFF Distribution was established in cooperation with Aerofilms and Czech Television. In addition, last summer the festival launched the online platform KVIFF.TV, which, after the purchase of Aerofilms, will significantly expand its offer.

The development of digital technologies and VOD platforms offers new opportunities to the festivals. Above all, they can reach a global audience and do so during the festival. Thanks to digital projection formats and the availability of streaming, festivals have been able to experiment with parallel projections in the past decade. In 2014, the opening film of the Copenhagen festival CPH:DOX was screened simultaneously in several Danish cinemas and at the same time in cinemas in more than 20 European countries, including Bratislava. (It was 1989 by Erzsébet Rácz and Anders Østergaard about the events in Hungary that year, and this special screening took place on November 5, 2014 on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Iron Curtain.) Only a few months earlier, IFF Rotterdam had announced the IFFR Live project. During the four years of the project’s existence (2015 – 2018), the festival screened five to six films from its program in parallel in cinemas in dozens of cities in Europe, including Bratislava and on other continents. An introductory and post-film discussions were streamed from Rotterdam for each screening.

We can understand these events as an attempt to at least partially transfer or rather expand the festival with a certain “atmosphere” (gala, film delegation, Q&A) to other countries. People can visit such a transferred festival in their city and cinema, they do not have to travel hundreds and thousands of kilometers – the festival will come to them. They no longer watch the selection of films after the festival, but are (at least seemingly) real festival-goers. They are physically in the cinema with their community, but at the same time they are with the audience in Rotterdam and can, for example, engage in a discussion with the filmmakers. The festival uses a wave of international media interest, which culminates during the time the festival is held and enables the audience watching the festival only from a distance through festival reviews or reports to become its direct participants.

However, when we talk about the global audience and the adoption of digital technologies, a fundamental change came even earlier, when in 2012 the Venice Film Festival, in cooperation with the VOD platform Festival Scope, created the concept of the virtual cinema – Venice Sala Web. Each year, approximately 15 – 20 films from the festival (usually Orizzonti, Biennale College Cinema and Out of Competition sections) are available following their world premiere in Venice. They are available, with a few exceptions, worldwide and for a relatively small cost (€ 4 – 5), but each film has a limited number of tickets (basically 400 tickets outside of Italy).

This model again emphasizes the role of festivals in finding audiences for the films they offer on a global scale without having to partner with local organizations, cinemas or festivals. Not only does it provide the film a symbolic capital by allowing someone else (a festival or distributor) to screen it for local audiences, the festival does it on its own. The number of tickets sold is limited so that the film is not seen by too many people and can be sold to other festivals or for distribution.

The Festival Scope platform has become an important partner of festivals. The example of Venice was later followed by the Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival, the aforementioned La Semaine de la Critique, or the Quinzaine des Réalisateurs, another parallel selection from Cannes, although they made their films available online shortly after the festival. In that sense they are closer to the festival’s “echoes” (albeit immediate, not spaced weeks and months apart), but other characteristics apply. Other festivals have created their own programs, such as Locarno Shorts Weeks, when during February, the shortest month of the year, Locarno publishes one short film from its last two editions on its website every day.

The Rotterdam Festival has seized on another opportunity offered by the digital world. After trying to make films available to domestic audiences on VHS and DVD in the past, like several other festivals, including the aforementioned New Horizons, it launched its own VOD platform IFFR Unleashed in 2018. While DAFilms or Tënk also have roots in the festival world, the IFF Rotterdam works with its name as a brand and only offers films that have been screened at the festival in the past. Like the aforementioned Oberhausen, or in another sense, the IDFA festival (referring to other platforms where films from its program are available) thus builds an archive of “its” films and takes care of making them available to the public years after their initial screenings at the festival. It does not rely on other platforms to create special programs of Rotterdam films (although such a program is on Mubi, for example); having strong enough name and large enough audience, IFF Rotterdam knows it can afford such an activity.

When pandemic film festivals began to move massively into digital space in the spring of 2020, it was not an unexplored environment. Many foundations have already been laid. For example, limiting the number of tickets sold has become a matter-of-course – even though the films are mostly geo-blocked to the country where the festival should take place. Several major festivals have only taken place in digital form in the last two years. It is probably only a temporary solution, but it does not mean that when they return to a dominant physical form, they will stop using the potential offered by the digital. Festivals began to toy with the capabilities of their digital components years before the pandemic, driven by the logic of expanding, building a brand and gaining influence. The pandemic did not start this process of “digitization”, it only made it visible and accelerated.

Translated by Zuzana Hrivňáková.