With Hollywood’s “go digital or go dark” campaign well underway, small town theaters across the country are shutting their doors. The historic Ponca Theatre, however, won’t be one of them. A 1927 movie palace in Ponca City, OK, the Poncan installed an NEC 1200 projector earlier this year and kicked off its film programming this March with the Bison Bison Festival, a student-only juried festival. Although the Poncan has doubled as a stage since it opened its doors (the first night’s bill included a silent feature and two vaudeville acts), the nonprofit theater’s directors see film as central to the Poncan’s continued viability.
“It’s a question of how do we become relevant, how do we stay relevant and sustainable for the future so when we’re gone this wonderful facility is able to keep its doors open and continue providing entertainment for the community,” says Bison Bison festival coordinator Shanley Wells. “One way is to engage emerging artists and to engage the next generation.”
Ponca City’s not alone in perceiving film festivals as an opportunity, either to rally local arts communities or make a play for the money and profile that come with successful market-based fests like Sundance. In recent years, fests have sprung up everywhere, around the country and the globe. Exactly how many is difficult to say, but producer and writer Stephen Follows hazarded a guess on his blog. Compiling information from fest aggregators like Withoutabox.com, Follows figures there were 1,735 festivals held worldwide in 2013, 70 percent of them in the U.S. and Canada. And according to Follows, nearly 4,000 festivals were launched in just the last five years.
The explosive growth in festivals tracks well with what some critics, like the New York Times’ Manhola Dargis, are calling a glut of independent films. Aided by ever-more affordable digital tools and abetted by content-hungry on-demand services, a new generation of filmmakers is producing more content than ever. Digitization has aided festival organizers too, helping them find and connect with filmmakers and streamlining the submissions process. Withoutabox allows filmmakers to submit to multiple festivals at once (for a fee, of course). Bison Bison organizer Kelsey Wagner used video hosting site Pixorial to screen the fest’s entries for judges.
Still, running a festival is far from easy and rookie organizers may be surprised by the myriad costs and challenges that arise. From administration to promotion, Wells says, Bison Bison’s organizers “learned very quickly what we don’t know about running a film festival.” Indeed, Follows’ analysis found that 39 percent of the festivals held over the last 15 years ran just once.
Jason Gwynn and Jay Sheldon, whose short documentary, Going Dark: The Final Days of Film Projection, took first prize at Bison Bison, are keenly aware of the upheaval digitization has wrought on the industry. Going Dark follows two longtime projectionists in their last days on the job at an Oklahoma City theater forced to shut down because by the costs of converting to digital. The filmmakers say Going Dark was not intended as a pro-film argument, but rather an attempt to document the now-obsolete craft of projection.
“We just wanted to pay homage to this little world,” Gwynn says. “It’s something that’s been around for 125 years but [now that it’s gone away] no one’s really talking about it.”
Indeed, Gwynn and Sheldon, who shot Going Dark on a Panasonic AF100, are comfortable with the idea that digital is the new reality for low- or no-budget productions.
“We’re part of the digital revolution, and we’re okay with that,” Sheldon says. “Without digital equipment, we couldn’t have afforded to make this movie.”
Photo by Kelsey Wagner
The filmmakers acknowledge their contribution to the market saturation the industry’s currently experiencing. They’ve faced that quantitative reality every step of the way in their efforts to promote their film on the festival circuit. While Going Dark experienced modest successes, including a premiere at Oklahoma City’s well-regarded deadCenter fest and a best short film jury award at the United festival in San Francisco, access to the most prestigious festivals has proved elusive.
“Every time we got denied this year, they said, ‘Hey, thanks for your submission, but our number of submissions doubled this year,’” Gwynn says. “Every single one of them said that. You’re battling your next door neighbor to get in.”
At times, Sheldon adds, getting rejected from the top fests is frustrating. While there’s a plethora of more accessible smaller festivals, the very fact of their abundance reduces their value.
“It’s increasingly difficult to get into the top ten festivals and those are the platforms you want. If you get into a Sundance or a Slamdance or a Tribecca you’re definitely going to have important people seeing your movie on the business side. You don’t necessarily get that with a smaller festival.”
Still, Gwynn and Sheldon say their festival experience, including Bison Bison, was a positive one. If anything, it highlights the crucial distinction between market festivals, where distribution deals are at stake, and community-focused festivals like Bison Bison, which serve primarily to gather filmmakers and cineastes and screen work that might otherwise go unseen.
While the value of getting into a market fest is obvious, there is plenty to be said for the networking and community building that occurs at smaller festivals. Writing in the media journal NECSUS, film scholar Brendan Kredell notes, audience festivals provide “an opportunity for participants in secondary and tertiary film production markets to convene and perform the kind of cultural work upon which these communities are founded and thrive.”
Sheldon agrees, noting that at larger festivals like SXSW, “you can kind of get lost,” while smaller fests like Bison Bison offer “a sense of community. You just have different conversations and a different crowd of people.”
Festivals benefit the community at large too, both by offering new and hard-to-see films, and providing a chance for locals to get involved in the arts whether by volunteering or attending festival events like the filmmaking workshop Bison Bison held prior to its screenings.
“It’s a positive thing for an arts community,” Gwynn says. “You can get involved, make a film, bring your friends.”
Ultimately, Sheldon says, a festival can be successful without agents, press and distributors so long as it manages to put people in the seats and eyes on the screen.
“Having any outlet, especially if you can get a crowd there, is worthwhile. I don’t care what the size of the festival is or if it’s just one screening in a small community. If there are people in the theater, it’s a positive experience.”
Dave Zuckerman is a Brooklyn-based writer and frequent contributor to AV Technology magazine.