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Film Festivals 101: Why They Matter More Than You Think

Like just about everything else, this year’s Sundance Film Festival looks different than it has in the past. Whereas all previous editions have taken place entirely in the thin mountain air of Park City, Utah, 2021’s version — which begins January 28 — will be part in-person, part virtual, and part drive-in. Necessity is the mother of invention, and numerous festivals around the world have had to adapt to COVID-19 with similar innovations.

Sundance and other film festivals occupy a unique place in the collective imagination: Everyone is aware of them, but few outside the industry spend any significant time attending them. (Some, like Cannes, are closed to the public.) Because of this, there's a sense that they're removed from the average moviegoing experience. Beneath the media hype and red carpets, however, at their heart these are — and always have been — cinematic celebrations.

Traditionally, many of the year’s most buzzworthy indie titles premiere at Sundance before being bought by distributors and opening in theaters throughout the spring and summer; Oscar hopefuls bow at Telluride and Toronto in early September ahead of their awards campaigns in fall and winter. If you’ve seen Parasite, The Shape of Water, or nearly any other Best Picture winner, you’ve indirectly taken part in the festival experience.

Past Is Prologue

Gondolas in the Grand Canal during the 16th Venice International Film Festival in 1955
Credit: Mondadori Portfolio/ Getty Images

The Venice Film Festival is the world’s oldest such event, and also one of the most prestigious. It began in 1932, when three men — Giuseppe Volpi, Luciano de Feo, and Antonio Maraini — founded it as part of the Venice Biennale, a citywide art exhibition that dates back to 1893. The first movie screened at the festival was the American horror flick Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which is emblematic of why “Venizia” was founded in the first place: Italians loved movies, but the country didn’t yet have a strong industry of its own and mostly watched American films. (Fun fact: To this day, most foreign movies that play in Italy are dubbed rather than subtitled.)

Nearly 90 years later, Italy has won the Academy Award for Best International Feature Film a record 14 times (including the inaugural prize given out in 1947, to Shoeshine). While it would be hugely reductive to attribute that entirely to the Venice Film Festival — the country’s most influential movement, Italian Neorealism, had more to do with the lingering effects of World War II than anything else — there’s no denying the outsize role it has played in fostering Italy’s reverence for cinema.

Venice is still considered one of the “Big Three” festivals along with Cannes and Berlin, which were founded in 1946 and 1951, respectively. Cannes has long been the most important of them all by a considerable margin, with many considering the Palme d’Or a more prestigious prize than even the Academy Award for Best Picture. (The two overlap on extremely rare occasions, with the most recent example being Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, which became just the third film to win both.) What’s most remarkable about Cannes is the way it gives equal weight to glitzy red-carpet premieres of studio fare like Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and arthouse fare such as, well, Parasite — one isn’t treated as more important than the other, which is part of the reason why a Korean movie was able to go on to win Best Picture in the first place.

Slow to Change

Telluride Film Festival sign on main street in Telluride, Colorado
Credit: Paul Best/ Getty Images

As it has on every other aspect of the film industry, Netflix has had a dramatic effect on the festival universe. Part of the reason Venice had such a strong lineup in 2018 is because the streaming giant pulled its entries from Cannes earlier that year over a dispute regarding theatrical exhibition in France; all of Netflix’s offerings instead premiered at Venice a few months later. The most notable of these was Alfonso Cuarón's Roma, which claimed the festival's Golden Lion (read: top prize) on its way to becoming the most critically acclaimed movie of the year and winning Cuarón his second Academy Award for Best Director. There were several others as well: Paul Greengrass' 22 July, the Coen Brothers' The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, and even Orson Welles' The Other Side of the Wind, which was finally completed 30 years after his death.

Last year was supposed to see Cannes and Netflix bury the hatchet with an out-of-competition screening of Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, but their reunion hit the snag of all snags when the festival (which takes place in May) was canceled due to the pandemic. The Telluride Film Festival, which is held in the Colorado ski-resort town of the same name over Labor Day Weekend and is often considered the unofficial beginning of awards season, was likewise axed.

Looking to the Future

Sundance Film Festival in 2020
Credit: Mat Hayward/ Getty Images

As the first major festival of the calendar year — and, due to timing, one of the last to be unaffected by the pandemic last year — Sundance has had time to adjust. Taking place over seven days instead of the usual 11, it’s also moving beyond Utah: 25 different theaters across the country, from Alabama to Puerto Rico, will act as “Satellite Screens” for at least one movie each, while both Los Angeles and Park City will host drive-in screenings. Though certainly different, these semi-virtual events have largely gone off without a hitch at other festivals. The question now isn’t whether film festivals will survive the pandemic — it’s how many of these innovations they’ll keep in place when they no longer need to.

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