Geoff Gilmore on Venice, Toronto and the Changing Nature of the Marketplace
When you have a resource like Geoff Gilmore merely a phone call away, you take advantage. After over twenty years in the film business (UCLA, Sundance), Gilmore came to Tribeca in 2009 and has continued to be a force in the world of film and media. After he returned from his trips to the festivals in Toronto and Venice (where he served as a member of the jury), we jumped at the opportunity to pick his brain.
From the seemingly common practice of standing ovations at film festivals to current buying trends in the marketplace, Gilmore candidly discusses a wide array of topics. Want to know his opinion on the state of independent films, the current lack of critical prestige, and whether or not 2013 is truly the “year of the documentary?” Read on.
Tribeca: Movies like 12 Years a Slave and Dallas Buyers Club received standing ovations at this year’s Toronto Film Festival. When so much of the Festival atmosphere is pomp and circumstance, do you think that a standing ovation really means anything anymore?
Geoff Gilmore: It’s kind of a fun question to talk about because the truth is that the answer is yes and no. You’re absolutely right that standing ovations are in some ways a dime a dozen at festivals. They are given often. Audiences at certain festivals, like Toronto, give them even more frequently than audiences do at Sundance or Cannes.
That said, often times, standing ovations communicate respect more than awe. However, a standing ovation for a film like 12 Years a Slave probably does mean something. Sometimes ordinary films tend to get overhyped, and one has to consider whether an over the top response to the film constitutes what’s called “festival favor.” Whether films that get standing ovations at festivals will be films that the Academy celebrates is a very different question, because festivals and the Academy are very different organizations that don’t always share the same sensibility. The place that the standing ovation means the least is the mainstream marketplace.
I think that the "year of the documentary" phrase gets thrown around too arbitrarily.
Tribeca: Another hot topic that came out of Toronto was the cellphone incident that occurred during the press and industry screening of Ti West’s The Sacrament. As a buyer, is the ability to use your cellphone at an industry screening really that necessary?
GG: I’ll give you the answer that I really believe in—yes, it is. However, there’s a difference between having to use your cellphone and being on your cellphone for the whole screening. There’s a difference between doing it like I do it—I actually put it under my coat so as not to bother other people—just clicking away on it out in the open regardless of whether you bother anybody.
I’ve come out of movies ready to make an offer just to find out the film already has been sold.
If you’re a buyer, you may very well want to be communicating about bidding on the film, getting something arranged very quickly, even connecting with a sales agent. There are many cases where films have been bought during the screening. I’ve come out of movies ready to make an offer just to find out the film already has been sold.
Even in this hyper competitive atmosphere, you still should try to be discreet. Also, people at festivals don’t just use their phones during P&I screenings; they use them during public screenings, and really annoy people. So cell phones are sometimes necessary, particularly at P&I screenings, but what happened at Toronto this year was out of the ordinary.
Tribeca: I remember when David Edelstein wrote that piece for Vulture about two people who wouldn’t put away their cell phones at a Mother of George screening in Brooklyn.
GG: I think that’s totally different. People have gotten so used to using their phones whenever they want that they don’t recognize that they are disturbing people. Or if they do recognize it, they decide to ignore it. Obviously, there’s a degree to which this is not just a film or film festival problem; it’s a social problem.
The amount of money that’s spent on a film is never indicative of how good the film is.
Tribeca: Since you were able to take in movies at both Toronto and the Venice International Film Festival, what do you think when people dub this “the year of the documentary?” Our own Festival seems to put an emphasis on documentary filmmaking.
GG: I think that the "year of the documentary" phrase gets thrown around too arbitrarily. Someone sees a documentary that they like, a jury decides to award a prize to a documentary, and the next thing you know…Venice put two documentaries in their competition this year for the first time. That was unusual, that was a big deal. People didn’t necessarily expect for them to win, but they did. Does that make it the year of documentary? No. That just makes it something that happened in a specific situation.
I think documentaries have established themselves as part of the film festival marketplace in general. It is no longer important or necessary to talk about this or that year being the year of documentaries because that kind of silly moniker doesn’t help us think about what goes on in the world of documentary filmmaking.
Tribeca is not a documentary festival. Far from it. Do we treat documentaries here seriously? Absolutely, and maybe that’s important in the sense that many other festivals sometimes do not. At Tribeca, we highlight independent films, international films and even in some ways traditional, mainstream Hollywood story telling that we think is interesting. So our festival is eclectic, and that’s okay.
Often times, standing ovations communicate respect more than awe.
Tribeca: Are there some sort of merging trends and patterns that you’ve noticed this year, especially at these last two festivals that you’ve been to?
GG: This was a very good Toronto festival and I don’t always say that. I certainly will tell you that this year there are a lot of good films across many different categories, plus interesting work that could go far in the Academy nominations, etc. Plus, the responses from a number of people to a lot of different films were really strong. There were a lot of movies that surprised us at Toronto this year.
Venice was strong too. Its opening with Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity surprised a lot of people, primarily because it was so good. It mixes genres and is both a mainstream Hollywood movie with Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, but in some ways, a visual masterpiece. It’s incredibly vital and interesting to watch Cuaron paint this world of outer space and the drama that goes on inside of it. Plus, ultimately there’s not much dialogue.
Venice and Toronto are two very different festivals. Venice is much more concerned with art films—the program is very driven by its curators and its programmers. Toronto is still a festival but it’s now a place for real commerce, for sales, and for films to be launched to the market place. This year, Toronto was very much a place for films to be discovered and bought. That was interesting. I saw some things that I really liked being sold for a lot of money to different distributors. We’ll see how things come out in the wash.
The amount of money that’s spent on a film is never indicative of how good the film is. It really isn’t. I can tell you lots of different times where a bidding war took place over a movie that ends up not being special. When you see it and you go “wow, for that?” Films get driven up in terms of price for different reasons. There are good films that will play mainstream because they touch people’s sensibilities.
You have to consider who’s saying glowing things, and you have to consider why the film is being hyped.
Some films seem to have all the elements to make them really popular, and other films that are really being acknowledged as great. Those films may not turn out to be popular, but they may turn out to be something that within the film community and among critics are recognized for their excellence. Seeing really good films is a rarity.
Tribeca: I read a lot of glowing reviews of films I was pretty skeptical about before Toronto.
GG: Yes, but you have to consider who’s saying glowing things, and you have to consider why the film is being hyped. There’s an awful lot of empty hype at festivals. However, Toronto has become a much more important Festival than it was five years go. It’s as significant as any of the major ones. The only bad thing is there are so many films that good ones can get overlooked and marginalized. Really good foreign language films find it really hard to be visible. Sometimes you see critical hype that is just ridiculous, and I completely agree with you that you read and see hype and you don’t trust it—reviews are often just part of market campaigns.
I’ll say one other thing. I find it interesting these days to realize how disparate people’s tastes are. Sometimes a film that I think is great is just hated by others and vice versa. And it’s not just bad taste versus good taste. Some people have agendas and others just have a more narrow sensibility.
I’m very eclectic in my taste, which I think is one of my strengths. I think sometimes people aren’t. At times people don’t like a specific film because they don’t like the kind of film that it is. They essentially put the film down, not so much because it is not a good film, but because they just don’t like its aesthetic or they don’t like its formal visual quality or the fact that it is non-narrative character driven.
In the past, critics would adopt a critical sensibility and create a hierarchy of good films that they tried to impose on everyone. Now, there is a lack of critical prestige; in fact, not as many critics are defining what is good, what is a quality film. Juries struggle with evaluating films as well. It’s really interesting sometimes the debates you have in juries because they consist of presumably sophisticated people and yet, as I just experienced in Venice, there is an incredible diversity of opinion as to what is good and what isn’t.
Opening Venice with Alfonso Cuaron’s 'Gravity' surprised a lot of people, primarily because it was so good.
Tribeca: I always think the jury process is fascinating, especially our festival, there’s such an eclectic group of people that come together to discuss films in so many different categories…
GG: I’ve gotten to the point where I have to argue with people a little bit about their capacity for understanding a range of cinema. I never look at Hollywood and say “oh, bad films”—no, quite the opposite. There are good Hollywood films and there are bad Hollywood films in terms of blockbuster work. You can oftentimes appreciate the qualities of both the good and the bad. Conversely, we’ve gotten to a point with foreign language films where there’s not nearly as much of an understanding or realization about quality.
Independent filmmakers used to be adventurous and not afraid to take risks. Part of what you loved about their work was its originality. Even films that were fully acknowledged by a broad spectrum of people as being a really exciting original works—something like Beast of the Southern Wild—don’t necessarily get appreciated across the board. Often people scratch their heads and ask “what was that?”. That happens at a festival like Toronto, and certainly even more at a festival like Venice where works are dismissed that should not be dismissed.
Tribeca: So what are some of the film buying trends that you’ve noticed recently? Are prices higher or lower this year? Is there more of a frenzy with so many distributors in the game?
GG: There’s more frenzy, especially with the growing number of buyers attending festivals. However, new buyers aren’t necessarily contributing to the froth at the top. That happens among the established companies. The prices that were paid, I’d say were within the range of what’s been paid over the past few years. The prices were slightly up this year in a couple of cases but not necessarily across the board. In a way, prices have been trending upwards for the last couple of years after dropping significantly some five years ago.
What’s been significant in the last five years is that the theatrical universe and the independent world have been really down. The films that have broken through have been relatively few and far between. Again, they break out, but a lot of those films that you hear about or you hear some buzz on don’t necessarily have a broad audience. They make less than ten million dollars. They may very well be written about critically or become one of the nine nominated academy films, and they still don’t make more than ten million dollars.
Now, there is a lack of critical prestige; in fact, not as many critics are defining what is good, what is a quality film.
Tribeca: Do you think VOD has less of a stigma associated with it nowadays?
GG: Absolutely. That’s completely changed. You can’t even talk about stigma anymore. Filmmakers do, however, want the pride of having their films released theatrically. So they want the VOD and they want their theatrical release. The phrase “day and date,” which means a film that is released simultaneously on different platforms, used to be kind of an industry phrase that was known to very few people. It’s now just an accepted practice across a range of titles.
However, the major films that are coming out aren’t day and day. Most major films that are studio films and major independent films are released traditionally. So even though VOD isn’t stigmatized, it’s still a secondary marketplace. The status of having a theatrical release is just as important to a filmmaker as the money that can be made on VOD.
But things are evolving. Three or four years ago VOD was almost in some ways a marginal technology for a range of different kind of films. Now you can release films theatrically and on VOD. The theatre operators are still fighting that, there’s a great deal of choice that goes in whether to do day and day or what is called "Ultra VOD" where you release the film physically on VOD prior to theatrical or traditional releases.
At the end of the day, it depends on the movie. If you’re looking at a film, usually something that’s more marginal, you almost invariably are going to opt for a day and day type of multi-platform release, because that the way you get the most bang for your marketing bucks. If on the other hand you think a film is going to break out and go to a whole other level, you’re almost invariably going to order a traditional release.
There are examples that disprove that, and I don’t want to get too inside baseball here, but the fact of the matter is that VOD is evolving.
Tribeca: Is there one thing Venice does better than any other festival? And the same goes for Toronto.
GG: Well, I think Venice has become a very significant festival but as a part of the overall Venice Biennale. You go there to see artwork that is just mindboggling—really interesting work—but often at the cutting edge or the fringe of discovery. Venice is interesting because it’s a festival that probably spends most of its energies reflecting on the fact that it’s the oldest film festival in the world. It’s very carefully programmed, and they’ve done a terrific job these last couple of years.
Toronto is a marketplace that shows a staggering number of films. Everybody who’s trying to break through goes to Toronto because of the visibility. I’ve found that quality rises to the top and that good films surface across the board in Toronto. Ten years ago, Toronto was a festival that almost wasn’t viewed by the Europeans as important. That has completely changed.
Toronto is just as significant as a Festival as it is as a place for films to get into the North American marketplace. It’s tending a little bit to the celebrity driven world—that’s not all good—which tends to make mainstream work more important than you want in a festival context.
You also have to admire how Toronto is programmed. Bruce Hanley, Cameron Baily and their whole team of programmers do a tremendous job. I hope that it survives having too many films that aren’t that good. But this was not true this year at Toronto—the festival had an impressive run.