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Festivals Grow Up, Even as Screens Grow Small
September 24, 2010 | Manohla Dargis | New York Times
"For much of the world, film festivals remain impossibly glamorous affairs filled with rapturous beauties, flashing lights and the adoring cries of the public, an image that hews closer to a Federico Fellini film than the truth. These days, festivals tend to look very different, partly because their mission extends beyond the 10 or so days of the event itself. This might have interested the film theorist André Bazin, who in the early 1950s asked of the Cannes Film Festival, “Why can’t we have a serious geology as well as a flashy geography of our art?” At the time, Cannes didn’t present retrospective screenings that allowed festivalgoers to explore the history (geology) of cinema and not just its gaudy surface (geography). These days, the major festivals attend to both, and more.

Certainly Cannes, like other festivals, has greatly expanded on the familiar idea of what constitutes a film festival and now looks back at cinema’s history with retrospective screenings and toward the future with initiatives that support young filmmakers. Other festivals have expanded even further, including the Toronto International Film Festival, which ran from Sept. 9 to 19. One of the largest such events in the world (this year’s slate included 339 features and shorts), Toronto took what might be considered an enormous evolutionary step in the history of film festivals with the Sept. 12 opening of its new center, the T.I.F.F. Bell Lightbox, a step that reflects the increasingly expansive roles festivals play in world cinema culture.

Designed for maximum public attention and attendance, the Lightbox is wrapped in soaring glass walls intended to invite your gaze and comes with five screens (more than 1,300 seats), a pair of galleries, two restaurants, a bar and a gift shop — as well as three learning studios and a research center. The five-story complex and the 38-floor condo rising above it eat up 175,000 square feet in the city’s west downtown entertainment district. The site was recently named Reitman Square because once upon a time that’s where the parents of the director and producer Ivan Reitman (“Ghostbusters”) owned a carwash, a legacy that Mr. Reitman and his sisters, with the site’s developer, commemorated with a gift of more than $22 million. It’s too bad the Reitmans didn’t grow up on this side of the border, where famous directors seem inclined to slap their name on anything except public film institutions.

Ever hear of Elinor Bunin-Munroe, filmmaker and philanthropist? Neither had I before she wrote a honking big check for the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s new complex on West 65th Street, across from the Walter Reade Theater. Scheduled to open in the spring, the Elinor Bunin-Munroe Film Center will have two theaters (240 total seats), an amphitheater and a cafe. After decades of being hidden away in the backyard of the Lincoln Center campus, tucked in the rear of the second-floor plaza, film has been allowed to step forward. In case you were wondering where Hollywood, or any of the major directors who call New York home, figures into the Film Center, some studio types might end up with their names on a lobby plaque. (The northern 65th Street sidewalk flanking Lincoln Center, meanwhile, will be christened Disney Walk.)

How this expansion will affect the Film Society, which does well with the New York Film Festival (through Oct. 10) but has sometimes struggled to fill the Walter Reade (268 seats), is the big question, though its new visibility can’t hurt. (The society was created in 1969, six years after the first festival.) Among other demands, the Film Society has yet to raise all the money for its $40 million capital campaign. The Web site (futureoffilm.org) dedicated to the expansion comes with the hopeful tag “Building the future of film,” a dual message that speaks to the literal development and the Film Society’s urgent need for new blood. I once came out of a press screening at the Walter Reade to face a sea of white-haired moviegoers. Who are all these people, I asked. “Our donors,” an employee cracked.

Hooking young viewers accustomed to watching movies on computers and television is critical for a film culture that insists on the difference between cinema and screens. For Noah Cowan, the artistic director of the Lightbox back in Toronto, the big-screen experience remains crucial. Movies might be produced to be seen on smaller and smaller devices, but, he said, “size and groups of people should form the basis of our advocacy” (quality, too, he later added). I had to wonder what Bell, which ran advertisements in front of most of the Toronto festival selections promoting the smaller-screen experience (“Be entertained anywhere”), would say about that. In one ad, a smiling family gazes into a laptop playing “Up in the Air,” which was directed by Jason Reitman, son of Ivan.

“Up in the Air” had its official premiere at the 2009 Toronto, the first leg on its ultimately disappointing long march toward the Academy Awards. It’s a good bet that at least some of the higher-profile titles at this year’s event, including “Black Swan” and “The King’s Speech,” will be among those on track to be championed, dismissed and, following the inevitable backlash, reclaimed for your consideration in time for the next Oscars. That Toronto has become a significant launching pad for the American industry’s new releases and award hopefuls might seem paradoxical or worse, but it’s hard not to wonder if the Lightbox could have been built without Hollywood and its red-carpet imperatives. Bazin likened festivals to religious orders, but there’s always more than devotion at stake.

Those who help pay for festivals have other interests, including cultural capital. Festivals give the wealthy something to spend their money on and everyone else who can afford a ticket a place to gather in common cause. Festivals also serve cities, refurbish neighborhoods, attract tourists: as Mr. Cowan noted, the Toronto International Film Festival and its host city evolved together. The roles festivals play, however, reach beyond civic boosterism — it’s worth remembering, as the scholar Thomas Elsaesser does in his study “European Cinema: Face to Face With Hollywood,” that Venice, the world’s first festival, was partly a propaganda exercise by Benito Mussolini. It’s from that inglorious beginning that an extraordinary system — a network, to borrow Mr. Elsaesser’s word — has emerged as a genuine rival to contemporary Hollywood.

Festivals have long complemented traditional distribution channels by generating early public word of mouth (positive and negative) and by stirring up valuable publicity for movies before they hit theaters. Now, however, festivals constitute a web of relations that lasts the entire year, during which films and their makers travel the world (from Berlin to Toronto) attracting audiences and media attention. “This originally European phenomenon,” Mr. Elsaesser writes, “has globalized itself,
and in the process has created not only a self-sustaining, highly self-referential world for the art cinema, the independent cinema and the documentary film, but a sort of ‘alternative’ to the Hollywood studio system” in its current incarnation.

It may be that the Toronto International Film Festival has emerged as one of the biggest, most influential festivals in the world specifically because it learned how to bridge that art-cinema world and those conglomerate-owned movie studios we nostalgically refer to as Hollywood. (Other factors doubtless have played a role, including support from the Canadian government and the festival’s location: it’s an easy flight for New York journalists.) To judge from the Lightbox, this balancing act has paid off nicely. It remains to be seen whether the Lightbox, like the new film complex at Lincoln Center, can fill its theaters year-round with viewers who are as eager to dig into cinema’s past as they are to take part in its uncertain future."

Manohla Dargis, New York Times, September 24th 2010
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/26/movies/26dargis.html?_r=1&scp=2&sq=TIFF&st=cse