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about the writer

David Sterritt was a longtime member of the New York Film Festival selection committee. He is currently chairman of the National Society of Film Critics, chief book critic of Film Quarterly, and an editorial board member of Quarterly Review of Film and Video. He is past chair of the Columbia University Seminar on Cinema and Interdisciplinary Interpretation and has written for Cahiers du cinéma, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, New Review of Film and Television Studies, Hitchcock Annual, and many other publications. His books include Screening the Beats: Media Culture and the Beat Sensibility (2004), Guiltless Pleasures: A David Sterritt Film Reader (2005), and The Honeymooners (2009).


Film Festivals — Then and Now
By David Sterritt

Fredric March as Mr. Hyde

Nobody knows who first uttered the term "film festival," and its near-universal use probably stems more from its alliterative lilt than from its descriptive precision. Most film festivals have festive elements, of course — glitzy opening ceremonies, guest shots by celebrities, and so forth. But for the movie buffs, industry insiders, and journalists who make up their main audiences, festivals call for prolonged and intensive activity including long hours of screenings, press conferences, q&a sessions, and networking with like-minded professionals and fans.

Beyond this it's hard to generalize. Some festivals are regional, focusing on movies with limited ambitions and drawing primarily local audiences. Others are national or international, drawing attendees from near and far with pictures from many lands. Some showcase hundreds of titles, while others limit their slates to a modest number of rigorously selected entries. Some are eclectic; others target specific genres or formats. Some give prizes; others do not. Events of all kinds have been known to thrive, so there are no strict rules. The only requirement for film-festival organizing is an ability to intuit what the free market of cinema enthusiasm will currently bear.

Dr. Jekyll, Mr. Hyde, and Benito Mussolini

Film festivals had their beginnings in the film societies and cine-clubs that emerged in various countries during the 1920s, reacting against Hollywood's growing dominance by spotlighting other national cinemas and promoting independent, documentary, and avant-garde productions. These organizations flourished in countries as different as France, where they encouraged the rise of Impressionist and Surrealist film, and Brazil, where they were the only reliable outlet for domestically produced movies. Eventually some groups started arranging international conclaves where members could share ideas.


The first film festival per se was a direct result of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini's enthusiasm for movies as a propaganda tool. Eager to cultivate state-run Italian cinema in the face of foreign competition, he spent lavishly to build up the native film industry while heavily taxing the dubbing of foreign-language movies. One of the projects he supported, the Biennial Exhibition of Italian Art, gave birth in 1932 to the International Exhibition of Cinematographic Art in Venice, intended to make the Biennial more varied and multidisciplinary. Its first program began with the premiere of Rouben Mamoulian's horror classic Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and continued with twenty-four additional entries from seven countries — among them James Whale's Frankenstein, Aleksandr Dovzhenko's Earth, René Clair's À nous la liberté, and Edmund Goulding's Grand Hotel. The exhibition's stated intention was to shine "the light of art.over the world of commerce," but power politics were a major subtext of the event, which became a yearly festival in 1935, presenting official prizes in place of the popularity poll and "participation diploma" of the 1932 program. These prizes may themselves have amounted to a popularity poll, however, with fascists heavily favored to win: Domestic movies competed for a Best Italian Film award, and pictures from Nazi Germany — an Italian ally at the time — won the Best Foreign Film prize four times between 1936 and 1942. Even more incestuously, Leni Riefenstahl's epic documentary Olympia, which presents the 1936 Olympics as a showcase for Aryan supremacy, shared the Mussolini Cup in 1938 with an Italian drama about a fascist soldier, and it just so happened that Il Duce's oldest son was credited as "supervisor" of the latter film. Americans and Brits quit the festival jury when these awards were announced. French participants also walked out, partly because of the Mussolini Cup decisions and partly because they were still fuming over an incident the previous year, when festival honchos vetoed a top prize for Jean Renoir's 1937 war drama The Grand Illusion.

Cannes opens, closes, and reopens

After the Grand Illusion brouhaha, French cineastes struck back with a new festival meant to outdo and overshadow its tainted Italian counterpart. A committee went to work on the project, recruiting éminence grise Louis Lumière as president. Overcoming fear of Mussolini's anger, the French government agreed to provide funding, and the French Riviera city of Cannes was chosen as the venue. Other film festivals had sprung up in Europe by this time, but it was Cannes that established such events as staples of modern culture. Its 1939 debut took place in September — organizers hoped to prolong the tourist season by a couple of weeks — with two of the year's major Hollywood productions, Howard Hawks's Only Angels Have Wings and Victor Fleming's The Wizard of Oz, on the program. Norma Shearer, Gary Cooper, Mae West, Tyrone Power, and Douglas Fairbanks were on the "steamship of stars" sent to Cannes by Hollywood's mighty MGM studio, and a cardboard model of the Nôtre-Dame cathedral was erected on the beach, heralding William Dieterle's version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame as the opening-night attraction.

In a shocking twist, however, the opening film was the only film to be screened: Germany's invasion of Poland that very day (1 September) led the festival to close its doors only hours after they had opened. They didn't open again until September 1946, when the festival restarted with a program that proved highly successful (despite the showing of Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious with the reels scrambled). The next two years were difficult — England and the Soviet Union were absent in 1947, and in 1948 the program was cancelled — but in 1951 Cannes became a reliable yearly event, with its timeslot changed to spring, when more major movies are available.

New York, Tokyo, Ouagadougou, and beyond

Festivals proliferated during the 1950s, and politics kept chugging away below the surface of some. When the ambitious Berlin festival began in 1951, for instance, it presented itself as a meeting ground between East and West as the cold war climbed into high gear; but until 1975, no Eastern bloc nation would officially participate. The most important debut of the 1960s was the New York Film Festival, founded in 1963 at Lincoln Center, one of the city's leading cultural venues. Modeled to some extent after the London Film Festival, the New York event focused mainly on art films from Europe and Japan, documentaries, and avant-garde movies. Unlike the heavily programmed festivals at Cannes and Berlin, the New York festival showed a limited quantity of films — about two dozen features and a similar number of shorts — and it awarded no prizes, reasoning that its selective nature made every work shown there a "winner." The event has broadened its scope over the years, adding more special screenings and sidebar programs, including an annual weekend of avant-garde cinema. It remains noncompetitive, however, and considers itself a "public festival" where the audience consists primarily of movie buffs rather than the large contingents of film professionals who attend larger-scale festivals.

The 1970s brought two key events. The first was the 1976 debut of the Toronto International Film Festival, originally called the Festival of Festivals because it specialized in importing films from other such events. It had a setback in its first year when Hollywood studios decided to withdraw their contributions, apparently considering the Toronto audience base too parochial. The joke was on Hollywood, however. In subsequent years Toronto grew into one of the most comprehensive film events in the world, presenting a sweeping array of international art films, domestic productions, and (ironically) more Hollywood products than are likely to be found in any comparable venue. No prizes are bestowed at the Toronto festival, although an independent jury administered by the International Federation of Film Critics gives a single award for the best work by a debuting filmmaker. (More commonly known by its European acronym, FIPRESCI, this organization establishes prize-giving juries, composed of film critics, at many festivals around the world. It also publishes Undercurrent, the online magazine you are reading now.)

The other big development of the 1970s was the founding of the United States Film Festival, set up in Salt Lake City by the Utah Film Commission to promote the state as a film production site. In its first three years it concentrated on retrospectives, discussion sessions, and independent films sought out through a nationwide competition. In 1981 it moved to the smaller community of Park City and sought ways to increase its visibility and influence. It was acquired in 1985 by actor Robert Redford and the four-year-old Sundance Institute, which Redford had established to foster filmmaking outside the Hollywood system. Renamed the Sundance Film Festival in 1989, it became an eagerly covered media event as well as a wide-ranging discovery spot for independent and international productions.

Alongside the famous world-class festivals, more modest events have sprung up by the score — more than 1,000 of them worldwide, according to a New York Times estimate. The time is long past when the United States and Europe had a corner on the market, as is well known to anyone who's attended the Shanghai, Tokyo, or Pusan festivals in Asia, the Ouagadougou festival in Burkina Faso, or many others around the globe.

Success breeds success

It's as hard to summarize the nature of film festivals as it is to count them. By common consensus, Cannes is the most important — because of its age, because of its size, and because success breeds success. (The festival considered most influential is most influential for that very reason.) Cannes divides its programs into several categories. The predominant one is the Competition, comprising about two dozen features, many of them directed by established auteurs. Films directed by favored newcomers, including actors with Cannes credentials on the order of Johnny Depp (The Brave, 1997) and Vincent Gallo (The Brown Bunny, 2003), also make their way into the Competition from time to time, although the results in those cases were disastrous. The main sidebar program, Un Certain Regard ("A Certain Look"), focuses on movies by newer or less-known talents. Two other series operate outside the festival's formal boundaries: the International Critics Week, where selections are chosen by a panel of critics, and the Directors' Fortnight, founded in 1969 to compete with the official festival, which was interrupted in the politically charged year of 1968 by protests involving François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, and other activists of the New Wave period. These programs coexist peacefully with the festival and the concurrent Film Market, established in 1960 as a place where producers, distributors, exhibitors, and others involved in the circulation of new movies can meet, network, and do business.

Overall attendance at Cannes is skewed heavily toward film professionals, including film journalists and critics, who attend press screenings beginning at 8:30 every morning and proceeding until well into the night. Prizes are awarded by a jury of directors, producers, performers, screenwriters, and other notables. The jury announces its awards on the final day, sometimes startling other attendees with its decisions — as when Bruno Dumont's idiosyncratic French production L'Humanité (1999) won three awards, including the Grand Prize of the Jury, after being booed and jeered during its press screening. The highest prizes at Cannes, especially the Palme d'Or, are seen as the most prestigious of all motion-picture honors except the Academy Awards.

Madness, tortured artists, Krazy Kat

Krazy Kat

Festivals with lower profiles, from the interestingly specialized to the deservedly obscure, are also plentiful. No fewer than thirty abide in New York City alone. Others across North America range from the Hardacre Film Festival in Iowa to the Hi Mom Film Festival in North Carolina. Some signal their specialties via unusual names — the Rendezvous with Madness Film and Video Festival in Canada, focusing on mental illness and addiction; the Madcat Women's International Film Festival in California, featuring female filmmakers; the Tacoma Tortured Artists International Film Festival in Washington, centering on low-budget independent films; and many more.

One of the most respected specialized festivals is Pordenone-Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, established in the north of Italy in 1982. Devoted entirely to silent cinema, it draws an international audience of archivists, scholars, critics, and adventurous fans to a schedule that has included everything from century-old kinetoscopes to Krazy Kat cartoons. Also highly regarded is the Locarno festival, a Swiss event launched in 1946 and celebrated for its unusual attention to new directors. The hugely ambitious Rotterdam festival in the Netherlands has earned high marks for its commitment to avant-garde cinema as well as children's films, new features by innovative directors, and an Exploding Cinema sidebar featuring multimedia projects. This festival also presents film-related lectures and awards monetary grants to promising directors from developing nations through the Hubert Bals Fund, which it administers. The San Francisco festival, established in 1957, blazed many trails for the mushrooming American festival scene with its eclectic blend of major new productions, restored classics, and retrospectives devoted to filmmakers better known by art-film enthusiasts than by the general public.

Among the more intriguing American events is the Telluride Film Festival, founded in 1974 in a small Colorado town — once a mining community, now a popular skiing site — and widely regarded as one of the world's most intelligently programmed venues. It keeps the schedule secret until patrons arrive at the entrance gate, shifting the emphasis from hot-ticket premieres to faith in the programmers and delight in the reclusive Rocky Mountains setting. To make sure celebrities will be on hand, the festival presents tributes to three film-world notables each year — honorees have ranged from Shirley MacLaine to Salmon Rushdie — complete with in-person appearances and showings of pertinent films. Many festival events take place in an intimate opera house where Sarah Bernhardt and Jenny Lind held forth during the mining-boom era; the building's original marquee, displaying the word "SHOW" in large upper-case letters, is still standing and serves as the festival's trademark. The legendary Warner Bros. animator Chuck Jones, a frequent presence there before his death in 2002, once paid his respects to Telluride's lofty 9,000-foot elevation by saluting the festival as "the most fun you'll ever have without breathing."

My own festival-going over the years has been influenced by my duties as sole film critic for a daily newspaper (The Christian Science Monitor) published in the US and nominally serving both national and international audiences, although its editors have swung its cultural emphasis increasingly toward mass-market American movies. (Partly because of that, I retired from full-time reviewing in 2005.) I first flew to Cannes in 1974, when The Conversation by Francis Ford Coppola won the top prize and FIPRESCI honored Ali: Fear Eats the Soul by Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Lancelot du Lac by Robert Bresson, who declined the award. As a yearly attendee starting in the 1980s, when I joined the New York festival's selection committee, I saw an enormous number of worthwhile films, quite a few stinkers, and several masterpieces, which I often saw again back home as soon as possible, since the fatigue induced by such crowded daily schedules (I call this the Festival Overload Syndrome) makes it hard to evaluate many films — especially subtle, delicate, and intellectually demanding ones — in the heat of the moment. This said, Cannes is unquestionably one of the festivals that have best satisfied my hunger for stimulating global cinema.

Another is Toronto, thanks to the teeming variety of its offerings and the creativity of its programming by festival director Piers Handling (and before him Helga Stephenson) and a gifted team of associates. Telluride lasts only a few days during a holiday weekend in late summer, but I've found it the most exciting American festival on a day-to-day basis -where else, for example, would I have been asked to moderate public dialogues with filmmakers as different as Stan Brakhage and Mike Leigh? On the other end of the spectrum, I've found the Moscow International Film Festival quite unimaginative in its programming; more interesting fare has shown up in small regional events like the Bermuda, Israel, and Newport (Rhode Island) festivals.

Into the future

Film festivals are changing their selection standards and exhibition formats as technological developments — digital cinematography, 3-D projection, and so forth — alter the nature of cinema itself. In times of financial uncertainty, festivals also face ongoing questions as to whether they should focus on the best of cinematic art — which may include obscure, difficult, and esoteric works — or court movies with catchy themes and major stars that will draw large audiences, attract press attention, and please their all-important financial sponsors.

In the future as in the past, film festivals will hold their own as long as movie lovers find them a stimulating alternative to multiplexes and other directly commercial venues. Exhibition patterns play an important role in shaping cinematic styles, and festivals have provided crucial exposure for new and unconventional works that might not otherwise be seen by the producers, distributors, exhibitors, and others who control the financial infrastructure of theatrical film. Also invaluable is the frequent festival practice of reviving interest in overlooked or forgotten movies from the past that would otherwise remain unknown to — or unviewable by — scholars, critics, and curious fans. All signs point to a healthy and productive future for their manifold activities.

David Sterritt





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bullet. # 6 (4.2010)
bullet. # 5 (5.2009)
bullet. # 4 (10.2008)
bullet. # 3 (11.2006)
bullet. # 2 (7.2006)
bullet. # 1 (4.2006)


issue #6 (4.2010)


bullet. Retrospectives
bullet. The Big Circus
bullet. Festivals with Alexis
bullet. Then and Now
bullet. Indonesia
bullet. Cem Mil Cigarros
bullet. Apichatpong
bullet. On Film Festivals
bullet. Assayas/Debord
bullet. Ethics of Criticism
bullet. Metropolis Found
bullet. Targets
bullet. Gomorra
bullet. Distant
bullet. The Limits of Control