A sociologist’s perspective on the organisation of film festivals

Sustainable Projections, Concepts in Film Festival Management

BOOK REVIEW  by Axel SCOFFIER  •  Published 27.05.2013  •  Updated 30.05.2013
By looking at film festivals through the prism of the open system theory, Alex Fischer identifies the strategic mechanisms and resources of these events and puts forward a certain number of ways capable of ensuring that they are lasting and successful.

Title: Sustainable Projections, Concepts in Film Festival Management

Author(s): Alex Fischer

Editor(s): St Andrews Film Studies

Release Date: 02.01.2013


Managing a film festival is a delicate art, especially since the success of an event depends on a number of different and uncertain factors. In this book, the academic Alex Fischer puts forward rational arguments in support of these key success factors, based on a clear analysis of the basic operational structure of a festival and the interactions between the stakeholders that take place within it. While not being an advice manual for organising a turnkey festival, the book takes a step back to look at an activity that is at the heart of the film industry, and about which very few theories have been formed. So, after defining the main characteristics of a film festival and stressing the fundamentally social nature of this event, the author offers to analyse how it operates using the open system model as the basis. This then makes it possible to break down the process finely and identify the key success factors.

Social connectivity of film festivals

At the heart of Alex Fischer’s thinking process lies the idea that a festival is more than an event that brings films and the public together  A festival is more than an event that brings films and the public together.  and whose success is based on managing a series of practical parameters. A film festival is firstly an ephemeral event founded on social connectivity: a meeting between films and different kinds of public whose participation depends on that of others. The construction of the event is then first and foremost a social construction: directors, the public, critics, international sellers, distributors, sponsors, and public authorities… are connected by shared needs that the festival meets. Each party takes part in accordance with the benefits they hope to gain from the participation of others. Participant satisfaction is therefore not a simple consequence of their taking part; rather it depends on their underlying motivation, something that the organisers must keep in mind. The festival must in the light of this be considered a site of passage[+] NoteMarijke de Valck, Film Festivals: From European Geopolitics to Global Cinephilia, Amsterdam University Press, 2007X [1] and the hub of a larger social network, which must aim at optimising the satisfaction of each of the participants.

This approach puts the organisation of the event into perspective and produces some practical consequences. The dynamic nature of the social environment requires organisers to constantly adapt, and they even have to be able to manipulate this environment. They must continually foresee any paralysis that could arise if the organisation were to be affected by an outside factor: cancellation of a key sponsor, an actor or a famous film director etc...

Alex Fischer takes the example of two festivals to which the British director Ken Loach was invited: the Melbourne Film International Festival from which he threatened to withdraw if the organisers accepted funding from the Israeli government to receive the director Tatia Rosenthal ($9.99, 2009); he also threatened to boycott the Edinburgh International Film Festival if they didn’t refuse funding from the Israeli embassy to cover the expenses of a an Israeli director. In the first case, the organisers stood by their position and Ken Loach withdrew his film, but the organisers maintained their schedule, and their credibility increased; the second festival, however, exposed itself to further criticism by giving way to the blackmail of this director. Consequently, we can see how difficult it is and yet how important it is for an organiser to always maintain control over its event, given the extent to which surrendering over certain points can open up the breach to other criticism. In order to protect the reputation of the festival as much as possible, the organisers need to have a great ability to adapt and react to situations.
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The film festival as an open system

Structurally, film festivals are exhibition venues where films are brought together to be shown to their public on a specific date, notably to be seen and judged. The films become more than just a film; from that point on, they are judged and a reputation is formed about them.

Given the large numbers of people involved, and the actions that become possible as a result, a film festival may be considered to be like a system, that’s to say a set of elements that form a complex whole. In order to develop his line of thinking, Alex Fischer compares the operational structure of a festival with the open system theory developed by Daniel Kratz and Robert Kahn in The Social Psychology of Organizations (1978). When an organisation has features similar to those of an open system, it depends completely on outside groups to work, unlike a closed (or integrated) system within which the organisation controls all stages of production. What makes festivals within the traditional open system category original is that they do not get in involved in the actual production cycle (they are merely a moment of the production), and the festival takes place over a very short time: showings, welcoming of the artists and awards ceremonies take place over a few days.

The open system model can be used to break down a process into four stages: importing the resource; transforming the resource; production; re-energisation and “negative entropy” (or return to order)

1/ Importing resources is the first stage, during which the organisation seeks, finds and secures the resources needed for it to operate: a sponsor’s money, the film of a participant, an actor or journalist to attend … This stage does not finish until the organisation has control of the resource (money on a bank account, film received, guest arrived...), and the resource remains fictitious until it is controlled by the organisers. For example, Roman Polanski was unable to attend the Zurich Film Festival because he was remanded in custody while he was on his way there. Equally, the exclusive showing rights of a film can be stolen right up to the last minute.

2/ Transforming the resource is the time during which the organiser manipulates it to accomplish a given task: for example, designing the programme, which constitutes a critical choice[+] NoteRobert KOEHLER, “Cinephilia and Film Festivals”, in Richard PORTON (ed.) Dekalog 3: On Film Festival, Wallflower Press, 2009.X [2] given that placing the films into themed groups offers a way of perceiving the chosen films.

3/ Production is the stage during which the resource goes back to its environment in a different way. For a festival, this means media coverage (an article, promotion photos), awards given to films competing with each other, and more generally, the creation of a film’s reputation. A festival is basically a way of creating a reputation.

4/ Re-energisation refers to the gratification that each resource provider receives in exchange for their input. The festival organisers must ensure that their resources come out with an observable recompense. An award is the main gratification sought and through a knock-on effect forms the main guarantee of the festival’s success. Even if the causal relationship between an award and public and critical acclaim cannot be proved, it is purported by the organisers who are keen to legitimise their institution (“your film was distributed thanks to the festival”, etc.).
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Strengthening the system

The main challenge faced by an organiser is to manage to stabilise this highly unstable process, to stabilise the festival’s “logistics chain”; but the film as a resource, like many resources – even though not a single-use product – is at the least perishable (Iordanova, 2009). The main asset of a producer is the première of his or her film because once the film has been watched, it’s already old. This phenomenon of “here and now” gives its value to the festival, but prevents the programme from being reused (a festival cannot show the same films every year). Given this situation, the organiser must seek to slow down the decline of the resource, because film resources are rare. A festival like the Berlin film festival selects almost 400 films every year  A festival like the Berlin film festival selects almost 400 films every year.  and if we consider that each of the main 12 festivals must be host to at least 14 world premières, that brings the number of exclusives being fought over by festivals each year to 168! There is therefore a great deal of competition for the resource, which is made more complicated by the uncertainty about the quality of each new film, even those by a renowned director.

Alex Fischer identifies three main resources required for film festivals to work: financial resources, operational resources (films and venues) and resources connected with participation. To make a festival’s success last, it is advisable to seek to diversify sources of income, especially since some kinds of financial backers only bear certain types of costs. From a sociological point of view, the festivals that work are repeated cycles of open systems.

Having completed this analysis, Fischer proposes eight strategic points to improve the potential benefits of the open system: forming alliances; adopting the correct timing; choosing the right place; having an identifiable function; encouraging affiliations that create legitimacy (Sundance and Robert Redford); promoting the participants; controlling resources; joining clubs and associations. Finally, he shows by way of a long example how redefining its identity and establishing a new offering enabled the Gold Coast Film Fantastic Festival (in Australia) to become successful once more.

This line of thinking, taking quite a conceptual approach, puts a very competitive and highly social business sector about which few theories have been expounded into perspective, and is likely to be of use in helping festival organisers (and organisers of most cultural events) to take a step back to view their activity with greater clarity and to make better decisions on the direction their activities should take.

Translated for French by Peter Moss

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  • 1. Marijke de Valck, Film Festivals: From European Geopolitics to Global Cinephilia, Amsterdam University Press, 2007
  • 2. Robert KOEHLER, “Cinephilia and Film Festivals”, in Richard PORTON (ed.) Dekalog 3: On Film Festival, Wallflower Press, 2009.

Book title: Sustainable Projections, Concepts in Film Festival Management
Author(s): Alex Fischer
Editor(s): St Andrews Film Studies
Release Date: 02/01/2013
Number of pages: 157 pages

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