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Locarno and the Future of Film Festivals

September 7, 2022
(For those of you wondering where I've been - I take off the entire month of Aug from writing the news or reading social media. You should do the same. I'm also publishing this early this week, due to the Toronto Film Fest).

I was lucky enough to attend the Locarno Film Festival for my second time, in August of this year. It’s hard to go wrong with this festival – 75 years old, professionally run, nestled in the lower Alps where Switzerland meets Italy, on the shores of beautiful Lake Maggiore – the only complaint you often hear is about the sometimes oppressive heat as the climate warms. But this year, the heat broke early and it was amazing. On my first trip to Locarno many years ago, I was a little less than impressed, to be honest, as my hotel was far away and there were transportation problems and the heat was at an all-time high (which was broken during the first days of this year’s fest before I arrived). But for every little grumble I had last time, this visit rewarded me with incredible new things, and I came away quite impressed. Most importantly, however, are the things I learned about how this festival is thinking about the future, and I think they matter for the entire industry.
They’re doing a few things that I think show they’re thinking seriously about the future of film festivals – perhaps more than any festival I’ve spoken with, or heard about. I know they’re doing even more, as I met with the folks in charge of thinking about this stuff while there and was a guest of the festival specifically to think about this stuff, but some of it remains confidential. Here’s five big, public things they’re doing:
Innovation at the Leadership Table: First, they have a high-ranking staff person dedicated to the future in their Deputy COO and Chief Innovation Officer, Simona Gamba. How many festivals have dedicated an entire position to innovation? I have no idea, but I bet it’s not many, and I don’t know of any within the US. Simona is working with the Managing Director, Raphaël Brunschwig, no slouch himself when it comes to innovation, and an entire team on thinking about how to innovate for the future of film festivals. In my experience, it’s hard for organizations to think about innovating for the future, because they’re busy putting on the show. Having a team member who is 100% focused on this aspect is super smart, and more festivals - and other for- and non-profits should do the same. I’ve seen a copy of her planning for the future, and it’s a deck that is 75+ pages long, but every one of those pages is part of a smart plan, with room for changes as the world shifts.
With Academic Support: She’s lucky to be able to collaborate with an academic focused on the same thing, as Locarno now has a professor in residence at a local university. Kevin B. Lee is the Locarno Film Festival Professor for the Future of Cinema and Audiovisual Arts at USI Università della Svizzera Italiana. If few fests have a Chief Innovation Officer, I’m betting fewer still have a professor for the future of cinema in residence at their festival. In fact, at most film fests, the connection to the academic world is usually limited to having someone from the academy on their selection committee, or maybe on their board. But Locarno is taking this many steps further, by having an academic focused on the future who can advise them on where they should be going with their programs, as well as working with those programs, starting new ones and hosting a ton of panels and Q&A’s with a much smarter perspective than is the norm. This is yet another sign that the fest is focused on the future.
Artistic Experimentation. I bumped into Kevin and Simona at a reception, and the first thing they brought me to was an event held as part of a “pop-up” experience at the festival, the Basecamp. The Basecamp has been held at least once before, and it’s pretty radical. They give free accommodations and passes to about 200 young artists from multiple disciplines, who live together, create art together, and think about the future. This isn’t just filmmakers, but rather cutting-edge artists, critics, thinkers, and more from across disciplines. They make the concept of what the Basecamp should be, together. And of course, compared to the staid, formal affairs that are most festival receptions, they put on some awesome dance parties. They also experiment. For example, this year they held a mini-conference on the Future of Attention, testing your attention span by running it for 24 hours, with a new speaker/artist every hour, and it was livestreamed on Twitch. Some of the participating artists included big names, like Laurie Anderson (who was being awarded at the festival, too), and Hito Steyrl (who also spoke with Kevin Lee on this panel), and they had heavy thinkers, like Abby Sun, who is at IDA and is programming forward-thinking programs at their Getting Real conference soon. To be honest, I couldn’t get myself to listen to enough of this program, as it would have required less hours biking around the lake, and jumping in for swims (another highlight, proving a good festival), but I loved the idea. It’s risky – who knows what will happen, what will be of value, but it’s much more exciting than your typical festival conference sidebar. And this is just one aspect of their experimentation – I could go on for paragraphs about how original they are in their artistic curation, and many other programs, but it’s just one great example.
Partners, not Sponsors. On multiple occasions, I was speaking to staff and they’d mention they were introducing me to important person x who was a sponsor… oops, we mean partner, they’d quickly say. And it became clear this wasn’t just some marketing babble, but a true new way of thinking about their sponsors, as more than just companies giving  money, but rather partners in creating a great festival. Subtle change, but one that speaks volumes about where Locarno wants to go with its infrastructure. There are multiple instances where the corporate benefactors are enabling the change Locarno wants to see. I can’t go into detail here, as much of it remains in the works, but as someone coming from the brands making films side of things, it was refreshing to talk to European marketing folks about how they want to tell more genuine stories, support films in new ways, and push the future of the field, especially as it comes to engaging new and more diverse audiences. Too many fests focus on getting the dollars, giving them badges and slapping logos all over the place. Locarno has to do this too, but they’re taking it another step by thinking about their partners for the future. 
Going Green. Locarno is not alone in thinking about going green, and being more sustainable, but they’re definitely leading the way. They went carbon neutral back in 2010, and publish a sustainability report. This year, they collaborated with the WWF to launch a new award, the Pardo Verde WWF, or Green Pardo, for the film best reflecting their environmental themes. And everywhere you turn at the festival were smart new recycling boxes, with clever messaging to encourage more recycling (not exactly hard in Europe, let’s admit). True, getting festivals and the film world to true “green” futures won’t be easy, as this local reporter noted, but you have to start somewhere. Even bigger, they’re launching a Green Film Fund, which will actually award development funds for films in this space, with more news on that to be announced soon. You can read about all of this here, but this would be (ahem) a great place for forward-thinking brands to join the cause with a leading fest and forward thinking partner. (Note, after I wrote this but before I published it, the Hollywood Reporter ran this article on film fest’s need to adapt to climate change, which also references Locarno. I’d note further that the buzz I heard in Europe is that the EU might force fests and theaters to cut screenings due to the situation with Russia and gas (and the need to conserve it for more “essential” activities), which will bring this to a head quicker than you can say…).
This is all important because I don’t believe film fests can sit around on their butts for another set of decades and not find themselves disrupted and/or irrelevant to all but the most committed cinephiles. Who is who in the pecking order is more up for grabs than anyone realizes. An entire generation barely knows we film festivals exist, and can’t afford to attend if they wanted to visit. The entirety of the enterprise is on shakier ground than most will admit. We have a chance to build the festival of tomorrow, but only if we act today. Locarno is several steps ahead of everyone else when it comes to plotting how to get there. I hope to be back next year, and am excited to see what else they build next. I'd also be excited if more organizations I work with - both for and non-profit - were thinking this far into the future.
During August, I also spoke as part of this panel on the Future of Social Impact Film Financing at the Sarajevo Film Festival - another great fest on the circuit, and my first time there. Check out the video of the panel in Screen International. I was joined by awesome panelists (in order to my left on the stage) Danielle Turkov-Wilson, founder and ceo of the UK’s Think-film Impact Production; Sara Mosses, founder an ceo of Together Films, and Patricia Finneran, executive director of US impact producer Story Matters. The moderator and organizer to my right in this photo was Paula Vaccaro - Producer and Scriptwriter, Pinball London Ltd, UK and the panel was presented in partnership with the Documentary Campus.
AI Drives Artists Nuts:

AI Art Drives Artists Nuts: Kevin Roose of the NYT reports on artist Jason M. Allen, who used the AI program Midjourney to create an AI artwork which won a Blue Ribbon at the Colorado State Fair, which predictably set off a furor among artists who are scared of what AI means for the future of art, creativity and their careers. His piece, “Théåtre D’opéra Spatial,” is purty but a bit pedestrian if you ask me (that's it in the photo from the NYT above), but the whole thing shows what a can of worms this one's gonna be. And you thought photography took a long time to be accepted (as Roose notes)! 

But that's just the tip of the iceberg, as things are moving fast in AI art. Head over to this article from Kevin Geiger in AWN, and learn more about Steve Coulson's experiments making an entire comic book with Midjourney, and what it means for the future. Steve used Midjourney to create the artwork for Summer Island, a comic he wrote to mimic the style of Wicker Man, among other things, and the results are pretty incredible:

But more importantly, here's a sneak-peek of what Steve thinks is next, and I agree 1000%:

STEVE: To all the concept artists and storyboard artists looking at this today, wondering if you’ll have a job a year from now… I don’t think you’re thinking big enough. Because the next logical step is full AI video output from user prompts.

KEVIN: No concept art. No storyboards.

STEVE: Why would you need concept art or storyboards when you can produce and re-produce full video output instantaneously? That’s where this is going. There won’t be a “pipeline” or a “workflow.” You’ll feed a 90-page script into a machine and get a full movie out the other end. And from there, how about feeding the AI a story outline and seeing what it does with that? What if Netflix offers an option for you to synthesize a new movie based upon selections from your playlist? So when you start to think exponentially, the question of whether you will still have a job as an artist in your current form is a bit meaningless, right?

What this means for the future of art making, the destruction of gatekeepers of all kinds, and the empowerment of the "creator" in all of us is going to be pretty profound.

Me, I think tech enabled art is great, and yes, even if a monkey uses it to create Shakespeare, it counts as real art. And things are gonna start getting interesting. Expect to hear a lot more from me and others on this stuff soon. (BN) 

Other Stuff I'm Reading

The Evolution of Impact: The Future of Social Change and Nonfiction Storytelling: Today, it’s fairly common — if not expected — for a social impact documentary to be accompanied by an impact campaign. But impact campaigns, both large and small, require funding and resources, and filmmakers of color and other filmmakers who face structural barriers often don’t find the support they need to be effective. Why? Sahar Driver and Sonya Childress write and Op-Ed piece for Filmmaker Magazine explaining that those in power, namely streaming giants driven by commercial dominance “[privilege] films that will garner broad reach, pushing what they perceive as more “relatable” content.” What’s the problem with pushing “relatable content” and reaching broad audiences? (1) Campaigns oriented around smaller/specific communities and outcomes tend to suffer; (2) campaigns tend to be more educational than intervention-based; (3) a campaign that is “relatable” and “broad reaching” really means that it’ll “focus on shifting the hearts, minds and actions of mainstream Americans (read: white audiences) who hold positional power”, thus communicating to POC filmmakers and audiences that the most valuable audiences are white. Give Driver and Childress’ piece a read to learn about past successful impact campaigns, problematic campaigns molded around the white gaze, and solutions to the problems in documentary impact campaigns today (hint: solutions elevate and empower POC voices, provide resources to real people, and change the documentary community’s practices surrounding impact campaigns). (GSH)

Educational Distribution for Docs: I don't usually promote things before I've watched/listened to them, but I trust with all involved here that this is a good one. The D-Word recently hosted Rachel Gordon and James-Michael Boyer for a panel on how to distribute your doc to educational audiences - either with an educational distributor or on your own. This is usually a great market and income sources for docs, and I bet the panel is worth checking out here at the D-Word. (BN)
Branded Content
“IT’S A GOLD MINE”: INSIDE THE WASHINGTON POST’S BIG HOLLYWOOD DEAL: The News is the big news this week: The Washington Post just signed a partnership with Imagine Entertainment and Creative Artists Agency, to “create scripted and non-scripted film and television properties derived from The Post’s vast archives, current reporting, and ongoing investigations.” The goal for the collaboration is to connect producers with Post journalists to create meaningful stories with podcasts, series, films, and other formats. The partnership isn’t going to generate much profit for the Post, however. But that’s okay, as the newspaper cares more about brand image/reputation and positioning itself in front of as many audiences as possible, according to Publisher Fred Ryan. The takeaway: When you glue together a journalistic powerhouse with two Hollywood heavyweights, (hopefully) you get a gold mine of storytelling and entertainment. Joe Pompep for VanityFair has the story.  (H/T Redef) (GSH)

One of This Movie’s Stars: A Really Big Emerald: Bulgari’s emerald necklace worn by Zendaya on the red carpet for “Dune” at the 2021 Venice International Film Festival is the main character in a new documentary called “Inside the Dream.” Made by a French independent production company called Terminal 9 Studios, the movie documents the lifespan of the expensive piece of Buldgari jewelry, from when it was cut from a 9-pound stone, to its design, to its premiere on the red carpet. The film is scheduled to debut on Sep. 12 at the Toronto International Film Fest (though is not on the official program). A couple notes: (1) The film is arguably not technically a piece of branded content as Bulgari is not funding its production. (2) The screening solidifies Bulgari’s connection to cinema – Bulgari, a loyal sponsor and supporter of film festivals, now hits the big screen. Rachel Felder for The New York Times has the news. (GSH)

GSH = Articles written by Sub-Genre's Gabriel Schillinger-Hyman, not Brian Newman (BN)
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