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Cannes: Festival experts offer key advice

Festival programming royalty sharing their knowledge at the UK Film Centre

May 2015

Wendy Mitchell sat in on the Inside Festival Programming session at the UK Film Centre and recaps the best advice from the festival's world's top experts.

One of the buzziest sessions at the UK Film Centre this year was the ‘Inside Festival Programming’ talk presented in association with British Council Film.

Our Director Briony Hanson moderated the session which featured top international festival experts — Piers Handling from Toronto, John Cooper from Sundance, Thomas Hailer from the Berlinale and Ivana Novotna from Karlovy Vary — offering advice about making the most of time in Cannes as well as overall festival strategies.

They all said Cannes was a must-attend for them, whether scouting for a few last minute additions to Karlovy Vary’s July programme or for Berlin just sitting down with producers and sales companies in a more relaxed way for next February’s programme.

As Berlin’s Hailer pointed out, “Here you have time to get coffee and sit down together with filmmakers and industry contacts. But for me it’s also important to do other festivals, Sarajevo is always a revelation, it’s the right size, they have wonderful hospitality.”

Handling noted there was a 20-strong delegation from Toronto in Cannes, including programmers, communications and board members. He said one goal in Cannes is to “steal good ideas” and also “seeing how we in Toronto fit into the festival world.” He continued, “We attack this like a military operation, every single film [in the festival] is covered by a programmer…and we have endless meetings in Cannes.”

But he noted that it can be hard to balance seeing films with taking meetings, the most common complaint in Cannes. “There is a big tension in wanting to see the films that the sales companies want you to see, and being in meetings talking with these sales companies about these films you don’t then have time to see.” 

All the programmers agreed that one reason to be in Cannes, or any other festival, is the chance for in-person meetings. “The face to face thing is very important,” Handling said. “Even the producers we know very very well we want to see them again.”

Cooper said programmers are also open to chance encounters alongside those rigid meeting schedules. He said parties are important for those kinds of introductions. “You have to balance out what is serendipity and what is planning. You can go to a party and meet people you didn’t know you needed to know. I go to a lot of parties. it’s interesting to be in informal situations too. sometimes the meetings can be too formal.”

On the films he says the more “Sundance type movies” are usually found in the Directors Fortnight, Critics Week and Un Certain Regard sections but noted with a laugh that “they are having their world premieres now so they are dead to us [to screen at Sundance in January].”

Cooper also looks for inspiration outside of the screening rooms, admitting he snaps photos of festival posters, designs in cinemas, and people-moving logistics to see if anything can be transferred to improving the experience Park City.

Film lovers

All the programmers are also film lovers, of course, and they love festivals for seeing films. As Handling said, “I want to see films that we probably won’t have in our festival, I want to keep in touch with world cinema. it’s important not to limit yourself to films that you think might be in your selection.”

Hailer added of his Cannes activities, “I will have seen 90% of the competition by the time I leave, not just for strategic reasons. Cannes my mind is opening up again.”

Sundance can sometimes offer a slot to a Cannes hit as soon as it screens, for instance with Wild Tales and The Tribe last year. For Toronto, Handling explained there are no invites issued during Cannes but in the weeks following. “It’s such a hothouse atmosphere [during the festival], we’ve got the privilege of stepping back,” he said.

Hailer said that festivals don’t “fight for films” as much as people assumes, although Handling admitted “we’re competitive in that we’re trying to find new films, discoveries, the new filmmakers.”

And Novotna was emphatic that festival programmers want what’s best for films. “A film can get lost in some festivals,” she warned. “It’s good to find the right platform to screen your film, especially the first film, second film.” For instance, Joachim Trier screened his debut feature Reprise in Karlovy Vary in 2006 and now has his third feature Louder Than Bombs in Cannes Competition.

Cooper revealed some daunting numbers — that Sundance receives 4,000 features submitted and 8,000 shorts (with Toronto probably garnering even more) but said the numbers are no reason for a film-maker to be afraid of the festival submission process. “It’s a cream-will-rise system with lots of check and balances,” he says of Sundance. “By the time they get to me someone [one of Sundance’s programmers] is trying to fight for that film.”

Handling said the same is hopefully true at Toronto. “The best films are almost always found. 99% of the time, talent will surface. if we’re doing a good job if you’ve made a really good film we will programme it. We have a really dense net. That’s why we put all these programers in place. It beats us up when a great film is out there and we don’t find it.”

The programmers and festival heads also paid tribute to the work of promotional bodies like British Council in showcasing films. “So many British films get out into the world because of that work that’s done,” Handling said. He also said organisations such as the Norwegian Film Institute, Unifrance and German Films are great about promoting work from those countries to festival selectors. Novotna agreed, “Great national institutes can really help filmmakers.”

In terms of practical advice, the panelists suggested that a filmmaker should show their work in the best version they can because programmers don't have time to watch multiple cuts; they should target one or two specific programmers not a whole organisation on emails; they should know how to send a concise email, and they should be prepared with great images for a film’s poster and catalogue photos.

Handling remembered Cannes highlights such as Aki Kaurismaki’s Shadows in Paradise and Michael Haneke’s debut film The Seventh Continent alongside more recent titles such as Dogtooth and Police, Adjective. One of Cooper’s highlights was Once Were Warriors and The Tribe. Novotna praised Petit Quilquin by Bruno Dumont last year. And Hailer spoke about his favorite discovery of Berlin 2015, Sebastian Schipper’s Victoria.

As Novotna said, “We all have those pleasures of discovering people. It’s great to make it happen for filmmakers or talents.” Cooper added, “That’s the drug that keeps you going, discovery.”

Before closing, Cooper reminded filmmakers about the golden rule: “Be nice. If you are nice, you can go 50% further.”

You can watch the panel discussion in full here.