How To Read The Festival Seasons

This Wednesday, La La Land will officially kick off the Venice Film Festival and, with it, the Fall Film Festival season. These festivals are often talked about, but rarely understood. What are these festivals? What do they mean? What merit do they have? And what can they tell us about the upcoming Oscar race? Well, I’ll help you understand these races a little better, and pretty soon, you’ll be able to trace these races as clearly as I can. I’m going to divide these sections into three parts: the Early Festivals, the Fall Festivals, and the Festivals Yet To Happen. This way, you can have a basic understanding for what’s occurred so far this year.

Early Festivals

Sundance Film Festival

sundanceLet’s start with the Most Well-Known American Film Festival out there: the Sundance Film Festival. Started by beloved actor Robert Redford (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid-I wonder if that’s important), the Sundance Festival is held every January as a way of promoting lesser-known films to studios and producers. Over time, it grew to be a major force, with all sorts of critics and studios showing up, hoping to get the latest scoop on the newest indie film to champion. At the beginning, it was nothing, and not many people paid it any thought. However, in the late nineties, something strange happened: the Indie Wave hit. Soon, first-time directors with nothing budgets began hitting it big. These are films like Reservoir Dogs, The Blair Witch Project, The Grifters, sex, lies and videotape, and Bottle Rocket, effectively launching the careers of Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, Kevin Smith, Steven Soderbergh, Darren Aronofsky, Wes Anderson and David O. Russell. As these directors broke out, Hollywood was irreversibly changed.

Soon, Sundance became the indie capital of the world, for better or worse. The better is the fact the world became more acquainted with unknown films like Napoleon Dynamite, Donnie Darko, American Psycho, Waking Life, Memento, Garden State, and, in successful news, Little Miss Sunshine (the biggest bidding war in Sundance history), Precious, Fruitvale Station, and Whiplash. The worse is the fact that Sundance has become, to put it mildly, predicable. I don’t mean this in a formulaic way, although there is a bit of a formula there. No, I mean in the worst possible way. Every film must be highly depressing-or worse, a “dramedy.” It must center on a poor or depressed person, usually male in dramedies, females in dramas. They’ll have some sort of personal tragedy or discovery, usually someone in their life dying or coming out, and then they learn a life lesson as things go south. Sure, some of these are entertaining, like last year’s Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, but when films become that predictable, it can become tedious. I have one friend who calls all Sundance films “Little Miss Sunshine-y,” as he is not a fan of the genre.* South Park, meanwhile, has described Sundance as “Gay Cowboys Eating Pudding,” which would be offensive if Brokeback Mountain didn’t come along shortly afterwards and prove them right. So the festival has a bit of a dry streak.

That being said, there’s still a lot of high points for the festival. They still consistently put out great works, like last year’s Brooklyn, and the year before had Boyhood. Yet, despite such a successful streak of great films, and many documentary contenders (I won’t write about these because if you think the winners are depressing, you don’t even want to see these categories), no film from Sundance has ever won Best Picture. Sure, many have come close, but the indie scene has, to this day, never had a champion of its own. This year, they have two potential contenders. There’s The Birth of a Nation, which broke Little Miss Sunshine’s record for highest bid, and would be the frontrunner if it weren’t for recent controversies surrounding Nate Parker, and there’s Manchester by the Sea, which received strong reviews and then held back to watch as Parker and co. fell apart before making its move. Time will tell if either can go the distance, but both film show the triumphs and tribulations of the most indie festival on the scene, Sundance.


Laura Mac Darby, left, and Emer Ryam, both from Dublin, Ireland, attend the free concert at Auditorium Shores headlined by Spoon at SXSW on Thursday, March 19, 2015.  (AP Photo/Austin American-Statesman, Jay Janner)

This won’t be a long section, but I should mention it for its rising success. The South by Southwest Film Festival is the hottest young festival on the scene right now. Look, nothing you see here will go on to win an Oscar (although The Hurt Locker DID have its premiere here). You aren’t looking at the next Sundance or Toronto here. But what you are looking at is one of the hippest places to be. Set in Austin, Texas, the festival has a laid-back college vibe. Instead of a bunch of square intellectuals discussing what it was like to die in a shipyard and what the film’s “ambiance” says about today’s society (which is me after most films, lest you think I’m insulting said group of people), you get a bunch of young college kids wandering one of the coolest cities on Earth, listening to great bands, eating BBQ, observing talks from Mark Zuckerberg, Louis Black and Barack Obama, and seeing practice runs of a variety of films, from dramas and horrors like Tiny Furniture (Lena Dunham’s debut), The Cabin in the Woods, Spring Breakers, Short Term 12, Ex Machina and Don’t Think Twice to actions and comedies like Furious 7, Bridesmaids, Neighbors, Trainwreck and Everybody Wants Some!! It’s towards the middle in terms of the pricey side-which is to say, not cheap. But, unlike other festivals that sell individual tickets, one pass gets you into everything. In case I wasn’t clear enough, EVERYTHING. If you’re a member of the public just looking for a good time, this is the most important festival on your lineup. After that, just look for reviews of enjoyable indies and comedies, nothing more.

Cannes Film Festival

snooty french manMon dieu! The Cannes Film Festival! Yes, leave it to the French to host the most hoity-toity festival known to man. Gathering about three films from America, then the most artsy of directors from around the world, Cannes is renowned as the most…artistic…of the contenders. Indeed, several great films have premiered on the French Riviera, including Black Orpheus, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Blowup, MASH, Taxi Driver, Apocalypse Now, All That Jazz, sex, lies and videotape, Wild at Heart, Barton Fink, Pulp Fiction, and Dancer in the Dark. These are films that compete for the prestigious Palme d’Or.

Of course, there are three downsides to the Palme d’Or. The first is how biased the jury is. Normally, once a judge is picked, and depending on the jury, the best film can be ignored for a more specific “style.” For example, in 2011, a more American judge and jury (Rober De Niro), teamed up with a more avant-garde group to declare the Palme d’Or winner The Tree of Life the best film of the festival, despite a lukewarm response (the film is now regarded as an all time best, but I think it’s debatable over whether it is actually deserving of this praise, and this award served as validation for such thinking), over films like Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, the future Oscar winner The Artist, and the vastly superior film Drive. Worse is when the jury overrules the president, such as the case in 2004 when Quentin Tarantino’s pick, the now beloved Oldboy, was vetoed by his jury in favor of the blatant political statement (which Tarantino admits) Fahrenheit 9/11. The jury brings me to my second point, which is the favoritism towards “artsier” films. Cannes has played host to many a fantastic film, including subtle love stories, like Carol and Loving, and insanely stylized action/thriller films, like Drive, Oldboy and Mad Max: Fury Road. However, picking one of these films as “best,” even if they truly meet that standard, is like picking a burger as the winner of a cook-off. It doesn’t matter if it’s a Kobe Beef burger cooked perfectly and seasoned with the finest of salts and flavorings, the judges just look down on it. Instead, we get two hours of a woman dying or a poor immigrant slowly marching towards death (Amour and Dancer in the Dark). Hell, even when we get a love story, it’s a three-hour anatomically correct lesbian drama (I liked Blue is the Warmest Colour, but come on). You’ll never get a true determination of taste if you only look at the paleo-friendly clay. Most importantly, though, you have to look at audience response. You’ll hear all these responses about crazy reactions to the films at Cannes, and honestly, it’s just best to ignore them. It may sound like a big deal to hear about audience booing and swearing at the premiere of The Neon Demon, but it changes things to learn they do this at almost every film, and it makes things worse to learn that they started booing it the minute it said “An Amazon Produced Film.” Likewise, hearing they gave The Tree of Life a 30-minute standing ovation is deterred by the fact that the film also met with very vocal boos, as well as the fact that the audience stands for more than 10 minutes for almost every film. If every film is the greatest or worst film ever, then no film is the greatest or worst ever. It’s that simple (except for The Sea of Trees. That one actually was).

So where does this leave Cannes in terms of Oscars. Honestly…about average. Sure, only two films have ever won Best Picture after winning the Palme d’Or, and they were way back in the 1940s and 1950s, but look at all the films since. Palme winners alone, there have been 13 Best Picture nominees, including a shocking foreign nominee back in 2012 (sadly, it was Amour). And that’s not including all the other premieres, including The Artist, Nebraska Inglourious Basterds, No Country for Old Men, Babel and Mad Max in the past ten years alone. At the very least, the festival is a great indicator of the Best Foreign Film category, as it gives audiences a taste of fantastic upcoming foreign films. Hell, this year’s big snub (as in it should have won the Palme if the jury hadn’t been a bunch of softies) is now Germany’s frontrunner for Best Foreign Film, Toni Erdmann. And considering it got great raves, and appeared on the recent BBC Top 100 Films of the Century List, I would say it has a pretty decent shot.

And that does it for the first half of the year. Things really began swinging, however, once we cross over into:

Fall Festival Season

Venice Film Festival

veniceAh Venice. The stoner older brother philosopher of the Festival scene. Where Cannes tries to be as snooty as possible, the Venice Film Festival likes to look for the films with a little more thought, to match the style. Sure, the films that win are the more artsy philosophical pieces, but they’re also the good philosophic pieces. Odds are you won’t hear of their Golden Lion winner ever again, but if you do, it’s a classic. AND they’re more likely to award the best actors of the festival than they’re French counterparts. Previous Golden Lion winners include The Battle of Algiers, Au revoir les enfants, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, Three Colours: Blue, Vera Drake, The Wrestler, and most famously, Brokeback Mountain and Somewhere (albeit controversially, as Tarantino and Coppola had famously been a couple shortly before the festival), while Volpi Cup winners include Joaquin Phoenix and Phillip Seymour Hoffman for The Master, Michael Fassbender for Shame, Colin Firth for A Single Man, and Helen Mirren for The Queen.

While the festival hasn’t had a major impact on the awards in the past, due to their more European tendencies, there’s been a more recent importance that hasn’t existed before. The trend really began in 2005, when two Best Picture nominees and three other contenders made their debut in Italy. The trend has really taken root in the past three years, starting in 2013, when we saw minor contender Philomena premiere alongside major contender Gravity, which, despite losing Best Picture to 12 Years a Slave, won a mere seven awards at that year’s Oscar ceremony. In 2014, the talk of the festival was a little film titled Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). Then last year provided us the first viewing of a film no one really thought anything of titled Spotlight. I don’t know about you, but I’m sensing something of a pattern. This year’s festival will show major contender La La Land, Arrival, Jackie, Nocturnal Animals and Hacksaw Ridge. However, who knows? Maybe this year’s champion is waiting in the wings, lurking under the surf, letting the massive wave take out the bigger surfers as it rides to glory.


tiffAh, yes. The granddaddy of them all. The Toronto International Film Festival. TIFF is most well-known as the proper Oscar whisperer. Sure, they play it safe, pick biopics and friendly fare, but then again, so does the Academy. The festival is a cultural who’s who of commercial and foreign films, each attempting some level of artistic merit (there are plenty of bombs, however. Like The Fifth Estate. Or Demolition). And it has made itself the Kings of Oscar Foreshadowing.

You see, the top prize of the festival is the Audience Choice Award. And for the past ten years, seven out of the ten winners of this prize went on to be nominated for Best Picture, with three of them winning. Furthermore, eight of the last ten Best Picture winners appeared at the last ten festivals (although The Hurt Locker appeared at the 2008 festival before being held back). In fact, the only reason the 2014 winner didn’t appear at TIFF was because of a controversial moment in the festival’s history (see Telluride), where movie politics got in the way. So there’s clearly a level of talent on display, and it would be reasonable to assume that the next Best Picture winner will be at this year’s festival.

One of the high points of the festival, though, is the Midnight Madness portion. Every night, at midnight, the audiences are treated to the best of the year’s genre films. I’m talking the newest, smartest horrors, slashers, shoot-em-ups and exploitations. Dredd, What We Do In The Shadows, It Follows, The Guest, Insidious, and You’re Next, some of the best films of the past decade, appeared in this slot. Basically, if you’re looking for the future of the Halloween Classics, all you have to do is wait for this lineup and take your pick.

Of course, no festival is perfect, and TIFF’s biggest problem is the audience. Filled with the biggest critics in the business, there’s clearly a shroud of intelligence at the festival. This is good, as it allows great films to be noticed. However, due to this self-importance, you must consistently put up with exhausted individuals who have the ok to pull their phones out in the middle of the movie to talk and text. It’s obnoxious, and it’s the worst policy at any festival. But it all depends on if you think it’s worth the hassle-and I’m sure most movie fans would say yes.


nyffAnd now, the last of the already-known fall festival season: the New York Film Festival. This is where the thinking American’s best films appear. Sure, it isn’t the greatest gauge of the Oscar race, but there are still lots of great films that start here. Heck, my favorite film of last year premiered at the festival, as did Her in 2013, which I always refer to as my all time favorite. It’s more focused on the future classics than what everyone’s going to “like,” and while that mean these films won’t take home many Oscars…or make any money, sigh…it does make for a fantastic lineup. While they stack it with some of the best from other countries and festivals, they are known for their Opening, Centerpiece, and Closing Films. The Opening Film is usually a crowd-pleaser, like Captain Phillips, Gone Girl, or The Walk. The Centerpiece is their big draw, the film they think will be a critical and commercial hit. Usually it will be one, but not the other. Which is ok, it just shows they’re not the best at that kind of thinking. Past examples include The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Inherent Vice, and Steve Jobs. Finally, you have the Closing Film. This is usually a niche film, a wildcard, something that is an unknown quantity that the studios wish to test out. It could be Her, Birdman or Miles Ahead (if you’re response is “What’s Miles Ahead?” then you finally understand the NYFF). If I had to pick, Toronto is the most fun festival, but the NYFF is the one nearest and dearest to my own heart.

This year’s festival has all sorts of goodies, including Opening Film The 13th and indie film Moonlight. However, if you ask me what I’m most likely to appreciate from the festival, it would have to be their centerpiece film: 20th Century Women. I’m sure I just jinxed it for commercial failure, but if this festival has any clout whatsoever, these should be films you don’t want to miss.

That really sums up everything we know about the festivals that have been announced up to this point. However, there are still two left unaccounted for. So how about a quick rundown on…

The Wild Card Rounds

Telluride Film Festival

tellurideIf there’s one festival that has properly ridden in under the radar, it’s the Telluride Film Festival. Going on for many years, it wasn’t until about 2009 that the small Colorado fest began making waves. You see, Telluride has a very interesting setup. They don’t go after massive films, settling for smaller, indie fare and films studios don’t really care about, almost like Sundance does. However, they then get Secret Screenings, some big event shrouded in secrecy that you won’t know about until the night of. Therefore, major critics will have to make sure they reach Telluride on time, spending tons of money, in order to be amongst the first to see/review said films.

Famously, this resulted in one of the oddest moments in Festival history. You see, in 2013, 12 Years a Slave was famously supposed to have its big debut at the Toronto International Film Festival. That is, until it was the Secret Screening in Telluride. This didn’t dampen the acclaim it received in Toronto, but it did take the wind out of Toronto’s sails just a bit. Toronto was furious, especially when it was revealed that the film won Best Picture and they could no longer claim that they’d host the premiere of the Oscar winner. So Toronto changed their rules. They came out with a big announcement: Any film that wanted the prime slot at their festival had to promise they wouldn’t have a North American premiere at another festival. Otherwise, they would only be allowed to run the final week, in the crap slots, when people have to catch planes. They thought this would scare studios into staying true to them, and effectively strangle Telluride out of the business. A funny thing happened: the studios chose Telluride. Toronto lost Birdman and a slew of other great films, ran the weakest lineup in their history, and lost buckets of money. They did away with the rule the following year, running away with their tail between their legs. It goes to show both how petty the industry is and how powerful Telluride has become as a King Maker.

This year, the festival is going an even ballsier route, choosing not to announce their lineup until the Festival actually begins. That takes guts, and I can respect that. However, based on other festivals, and the current trend of studios, I’d expect La La Land, Arrival, and Una to stick their heads out at Telluride. Heck, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Billy Lynn make an appearance. When the Oscar is on the line, anything’s possible.

Speaking of Oscars, there’s one more thing worth noting about Telluride. In 2010, a little film titled The King’s Speech premiered at the Telluride Festival. The next year, a little French film called The Artist made its American debut. In 2012, Ben Affleck showed off his 70s throwback Argo for the first time. In 2013, the Secret Screening was 12 Years a Slave. In 2014, Birdman made an appearance. And last year, Spotlight made it’s North American debut right there in Colorado. That’s five years in a row. That’s enough evidence to say that there is an excellent chance that this year’s Oscar winner will be amongst the films to screen in Telluride later this week.

AFI Fest

afiNow we come to the final festival in the calendar year: the American Film Institute Festival. The AFI is one of the most respected film groups in the world. They are most well known for their respective lists of the Best American Films, as well as their spinoffs for Comedy, Actors, Characters, Horrors, Animated, Musicals and so on (these lists helped lay the brickwork for this site). However, what many people don’t realize is that the AFI hosts a festival each year that often gives viewers a last minute adrenaline boost.

The AFI takes on a sort of “Best of Each Festival” approach in their setup. They have segments in a similar manner to Toronto. Their lineup is mostly lesser known indies like Sundance. Their films are usually brainier like New York. And they have Secret Surprise Screenings like Telluride. However, this is where the fun comes in: due to the festival being the last stop before Awards Season, the films that make surprise appearances (actually announced about a week in advance, building last minute hype) are often last minute Oscar pushes by studios. Take the last two years. In 2014, two films made appearances that no one expected to come out that year. The first was supposed to be a rough cut of a lesser-known biopic directed by a woman. That night, she came out on stage to announce she’d completed the film and would actually show the audience the whole thing, to see how they liked it. The film was Selma, and it went on to be the Best Film of the year (ignored by the Academy). Later that night, a Hollywood veteran came out to show his newest film, a war movie no one realized was even done. He showed it to the crowd to a mixed response, but there was enough support from the screening to warrant an awards push. That film was American Sniper, which overcame some very vocal critics (myself included) to get an ostentatious six Academy Award nominations. Meanwhile, last year, some comedy director announced that his passion project was not only completed, but would premiere at the festival and come out that December. It shook Oscar pundits to their core, but many chose to ignore the news. Until the screening, that is, when it made major waves and created an Oscar campaign for itself. The film was The Big Short. (The other Secret Screening from last year was Concussion, which I will mercifully ignore based on its reviews and successes, or lack thereof). So as you can see, getting in some last minute attention can be make or break for a campaign. I won’t even pretend to try and predict what films will appear here later this year, because you never know what’s going to end up dropping. However, if I had to guess, based on release dates and styles, I would assume that Warren Beatty’s Rules Don’t Apply will stick it’s head out at some point. The same goes for Ben Affleck’s Live By Night. However, no matter what the lineup consists of, I would keep an eye on it, as you never know what film might sneak into 2016 and ruin your Top Ten.

And now you have some grasp on the Festival Slate. Sure, true understanding comes with years of studying the signs and the trades. I mean, I only have figured all of this out by following them for seven years. But every little bit helps, and now you have enough information to find yourselves great films and to win your personal Oscar Leagues. The Fall Festival slate kicks off soon, and I’ll be providing updates based on Rotten Tomato scores and critics I trust, so I can keep you all updated. And I’ll have a Telluride list posted later this week. Until then, study hard and get ready to buy your tickets for next year early!


*Credit here goes to my friend Evan Hagedorn, whose only request was for acknowledgment


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