Producer John Sinno (Iraq In Fragments, Zombies of Mass Destruction) shares his thoughts after experiencing 18 Seattle International Film Festivals, echoing the complaints of many and sharing some unique insights:
…A lot has changed in the film industry in the last 35 years. We live in an age where accessibility to films is no longer an issue. A good festival sets an agenda of what is worthwhile among the dizzying array of films produced in the world each year. As the film industry moves into new and un-charted digital terrain where film revenues are dwindling and film output is at an all time high, film festivals all over the world are scrambling to keep filmmaking and film viewing relevant in the twenty-first century. Some of them, like SIFF, have ventured into the year-round exhibition business with varying degrees of success. Others are acting as mediators between funding agencies and filmmakers. However, with the plethora of entertainment options available to moviegoers these days, film festivals should be focusing on their audience more than ever and delivering a rich and rewarding festival experience. Due to its incredible size, SIFF experience centers around what was unfortunately missed rather than on what was seen and enjoyed. The feeling of community is lost that a smaller festival would engender. With their top-notch website, SIFF does its best to help attendees navigate its cinematic offerings; this year, SIFF even unveiled an iPhone application that allows attendees to sift through the festival’s nearly 400 films. Even so, the feeling is that one is never able to adequately cover the festival, nor therefore share that experience with others.
In addition to its unmanageable size, SIFF takes place at the wrong time of year. Just when most Seattleites are coming out of hibernation to salute the sun, filmgoers are asked to spend an entire month in a darkened theater. This year I could not convince a number of friends to check out SIFF’s offerings with me; I was turned down because those friends preferred to spend their time outdoors enjoying the season’s first gorgeous weather. I would bet that the festival would gain a 20-30% bump in attendance if it were rescheduled in the autumn, winter, or even sometime earlier in the spring.
On the curatorial front, the festival has had a history of discovering gems, (The Stunt Man, for example), and has been credited with promoting German cinema in the 1980s. Apart from its emphasis on size, however, it’s hard to see a distinct curatorial strategy of late. This comes at a time when many festivals are focusing their film selections to pursue an identifiable niche. I would argue that there is a niche for SIFF that would give it an edge nationally– internationally even– and that relying on size alone no longer works in this brave new world of 24-hour video-on-demand.
The festival has always made an effort to showcase local films and filmmakers, and the good that it does is incalculable. However, it does so in a way that segregates them from other festival films. This year’s local films were grouped together under the heading “Northwest Connections,” and included several fictional films, an array of accomplished documentaries and even a multi-million-dollar Hollywood film starring Robin Williams screened under “Northwest Connections” only because it was shot in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood and executive produced by a local producer. Another local film received no less than 13 one-star audience reviews at SIFF’s website with one viewer lamenting that two hours of sunny Seattle weather had been wasted on the film. I can’t help but wonder if this film, its filmmakers and Seattle audiences eager to support local film might not have been better served if this particular film had been left out of the festival altogether. One assumes that if a film has been chosen for inclusion in the festival, it is qualified to screen alongside any other film chosen from among the hundreds submitted– otherwise it would not be an official selection…