I've really enjoyed reading AJ Schnack's discussion of the True/False film festival over the past few days. It sounds like a great festival: large audiences of enthusiastic moviegoers, a strong lineup of films, and a venue that's quite special. What I found most interesting about AJ's discussion, though, was not the "text" (what a great festival this is!), but the subtext: this went down in in Columbia, Missouri and was started by "kids." True/False, to hear AJ tell it, is not a festival with major celebrity backers (Sundance, TriBeCa). It's not in a major American city (Los Angeles, New York, Chicago). It's not even held in a city with a sizable film community (SXSW). That's what makes reading about screenings with 1,200 in attendance so exciting.
And yet I was not surprised at all. In fact, all this only confirms my own experiences on the festival circuit. Audiences in the so-called "fly-over" states do care quite a bit about alternative cinema, thank you very much. As a farmer once said to me at a festival in Minneapolis: You do what I do: It's called "Fresh and local."
To take the discussion a step farther, the question for filmmakers is, How do you tap into this craving these under-served moviegoers have? How do you reach these audiences?
Festivals, certainly, are one way, but from a regional distribution standpoint, festivals are a mixed bag. Festivals obviously lend prestige to your work. They also have the potential to generate a lot of excitement and, as a result, turnout (like at True/False).
But, there are downsides: On the front end, there is no guarantee of a festival accepting your film. On the back end, while you might expose your film to, say, 1200 people, it's unlikely you have seen any income from even a sell-out screening since few festivals share a cut of the ticket sales with the filmmakers. (I don't blame festivals for this -- they're expensive to run and non-profit funding in the States is desperate. Period.) On top of the income issue, your core audience -- the people that went to see your film -- have now paid to see it once. There is going to be a lot of fall-off, especially in smaller cities, if you now try to four-wall or even sell DVDs after a successful festival screening.
Microcinemas, where they exist, are the logical alternative to reach said audiences. The question is: Can they generate the audiences that a well-programmed and managed festival can? Some can. Some can't.
What might work best is a kind of microcinema circuit. (For those of us interested in music industry-to-film industry analogies, I'm thinking along the lines of the circuits that jazz and folk musicians traveled in those genre's 50s-60s heyday.) Certainly microcinema programmers talk to one another now. There is a network. But I'm thinking of something a bit more organized, which capitalizes on the kind of collective publicity that festivals are able to generate, but without the large costs.
For all I know, something like this might already exist and I'm not aware of it. If so, let me know. I want to hear about it. If it doesn't, and there are interested parties out there, let's bring you people together and talk about how this would work.
If nothing else, hopefully AJ's write-up will spur filmmakers to look at more than just the "big name" festivals. A moviegoer is a moviegoer, no matter where they live. In many ways, it's the hungriest of audiences that are the most likely to savor your work.