Film Festivals Step Up To Help Us Resume Our Conversation

Film festivals are coming back to life this summer – and not a moment too soon.  No industry was more dramatically impacted than the businesses of producing and presenting films and the performing arts.  As these vital but fragile enterprises re-open, I’ve got my fingers crossed.  We need them.

Film festivals introduce new talent, stimulate dynamic conversations and analysis – and cultivate the shaping of a “film culture” that sustains variety and imagination among filmmakers. Without a richly diverse film culture, we’d be stuck watching only big budget blockbusters in our theaters.  Film festivals also enliven the towns they inhabit – and stimulate the lodging and hospitality business.  People, including filmmakers, who go to a festival often fall in love with the place – and come back.

The independent film world’s leading news source, IndieWire, believes that film festivals are essential to the preservation of film viewing as a collective endeavor.  “Without a thriving global film festival scene, the film industry won’t thrive,” wrote IndieWire senior writers, Eric Kohn and Anne Thompson.  “This coming season will show how relevant and vital festivals are.”

Of course, it’s not like no one watched media during the lockdown.  On the contrary, Netflix and other streaming services benefitted from a huge increase in online viewing.  Many people have become so used to the convenience of their extensive online offerings, that pundits wonder if a broad, movie-going public will return to the shared experience of watching films with strangers, in the dark.

But watching at home is just not the same experience.  I recently showed my own new film, “Jack London’s Martin Eden,” at the Nantucket Film Festival, where most screenings were still online and ours was one of only two films that were shown in-person, outdoors, under a tent.  I’d never seen the film projected onto a large screen – and it was a revelation to see and hear things I hadn’t seen before.  Not only that, people laughed in a dozen places and my cinematographer who had watched the film before came up to me afterwards. 

“The most surprising thing for me was seeing how people all laughed at certain moments,” he said.  “I had watched the film alone – many times – but I hadn’t really laughed like I did tonight.  Seeing it with a group, sensing their presence and reactions and the experience of the film as a shared “event,” was a totally different experience.”

All of this is to simply say that a screened film provides this kind of rare collective encounter – with the film and with each other.  Not only that, people talk about it later.  I compared this to an experience I had recently at The Woods Hole Film Festival where, after a screening of our film, I went out to dinner with our producer Elena Greenlee, one of our film’s actors, Jeff Zinn, and my sister.   

When our conversation turned toward media we’d seen, it was entirely hit and miss.  Most of the films and, more to the point, multi-part series we’d each watched had not been viewed by anyone else in our group of like-minded people.  We finally settled on “Mare of Easttown”, starring Kate Winslet as an intrepid small town Pennsylvania detective.  Most of us had seen and liked it.

“Have you seen “Happy Valley?” I said.  “It’s a terrific British series that seems like it inspired “Mare of Eastown.”  No one had seen it. Yes, film festivals get us talking – and comparing notes on our shared experience of time and place. Welcome back.

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