Coming Soon to a Festival Near You: Programming Film Festivals

Jeffrey Ruoff (ed.),
Coming Soon to a Festival Near You: Programming Film Festivals.
St Andrews, Scotland: St Andrews Film Studies, 2012.
ISBN: 978-1-908437-02-0
UK£19.99 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by St Andrews Film Studies publishing house)

Reduced to their most basic level, film festivals are about programming. Not only encompassing the selection and scheduling of films, the programming of film festivals also extends to the choreographing of a wide variety of events, seminars, cinephile interactions and live experiences that, when combined, culminate in the festival as immersive cinematic feast. More than this, festival programming informs our understanding and experience of cinema in a much broader sense. It directs our attention toward particular films, directors and trends and ultimately produces meaning for texts both individually and collectively, categorising films as the works of auteurs or examples of new waves and movements.

Despite the primacy that programming holds within the functioning of film festivals (not to mention its wider implications for film theory), this area represents a relatively under-examined aspect of film festival operation. While there has been a great expansion in film festival research over the past decade, the mechanics, politics, influence and impact of programming remain areas in need of direct critical attention. Coming Soon to a Festival Near You: Programming Film Festivals addresses this need.

Edited by Jeffrey Ruoff, the anthology marks another contribution from St Andrews Film Studies, the publishing house that has contributed the largest number of titles to the expanding collection of books addressing research into film festivals. The volume gathers together contributions from academics, critics, industry professionals and festival insiders to interrogate what is understood by film festival programming, and how this programming shapes our experience and understanding of festivals, as well as of cinema in a broader sense. Unfolding across thirteen chapters, Coming Soon to a Festival Near You is arranged into three parts, each of which seek to direct a more focussed eye towards the effects of programming.

The first part of the volume – “Finding Audiences for Films” – takes a wide view of festivals, examining programming practices throughout history and across various festival types. Opening the section, Marijke de Valck reprises her historical analysis of film festival development (explored more thoroughly in her 2007 monograph Film Festivals: From European Geopolitics to Global Cinephilia), identifying three periods in film festival history that were distinguished by pervasive approaches to programming. This is followed by a series of anecdotes and recollections from festival regular Gerald Peary, who offers an account of programming from the critic’s and filmmaker’s viewpoints. Marcin Gizycki examines the state of animation festivals and their role in defining the area of animated cinema, while James Schamus offers an industry view of the role that gala screenings hold at prestigious festivals. Focusing on the interaction between festival programs and those who observe them, part one of the book thus emphasises the role programming plays in shaping how audiences attribute meaning to the films that festivals display.

Part two narrows the field of enquiry from a consideration of festivals in general to an interrogation of particular events. Entitled “Finding Films for Festivals,” the section examines the programming logic of specific events and emphasises the impact that the histories, ideologies and locations of different festivals can have on the programs they produce. Featuring contributions from festival insiders Richard Peña, director of the New York Film Festival, Zoë Elton, director of programming at the Mill Valley Film Festival, as well as an interview between Jeffrey Ruoff and two of Telluride Film Festival’s founders – Bill and Stella Pence – the section offers insight into the challenges involved in developing a festival and its character through its program over a number of decades.

Two contributions from film scholars round out part two. Toby Lee examines the effects of programming disruptions on festivals – specifically the boycott by Greek filmmakers of the 2009 Thessaloniki International Film Festival – while Gönül Dönmez-Colin surveys a number of film festivals in Turkey, looking at their proliferation as well as at the political environment that challenges their ability to produce programs free from state censorship. “Finding Films for Festivals” foregrounds programming within the operation of festivals and reveals the importance that film selection and presentation holds in defining the enduring character of these events.

The volume’s final part, “Programming Identity and Themed Festivals,” maintains the focus on particular festivals and, as the title suggests, extends this focus to embrace thematic and community based events, examining the particular cases of queer programming strategies at LGBT identity film festivals (Skadi Loist), the Asia-Pacific Film Festival (Sanghoon Lee), the New York African Film Festival (Mahen Bonetti) and the Hiroshima International Animation Festival (Sayoko Kinoshita). As Loist explains in the context of LGBT events, the programming of identity and thematic film events must not only embrace considerations of cinematic (aesthetic/artistic) quality, but must also consider how these works engage with broader cultural imperatives of the community around which the event is formed (162). Thematic and community film festivals are thus not only one thing.

Across its thirteen chapters, Ruoff’s anthology offers a look at festival programming as an articulation of the various histories, motivations and ideologies that inform and enable film festivals to develop and function. Through focusing particular examples, taken primarily from festivals outside of the elite few that form the highest level of the international festival circuit (and which therefore receive the greatest amount of critical attention), the volume examines how programs can influence the experience of particular forms of cinema. The volume does not offer a nuts-and-bolts approach to what is involved in festival programming. It stops short of detailing the process by which films are submitted for selection, weighed on their merits and accepted by programmers. While aspects of this are covered anecdotally, it is by no means the goal to provide an inside glimpse into the mechanics of festival program selection and articulation.

Rather, the overall objective of this volume is to look at the effect that programming has on festivals and their participants. Programming, as argued in this book, is much more than the scheduling of film times and the selection of individual titles. It is, rather, the combination of experiences, films, seminars, celebrity sightings, Q&A sessions and all other activities that have come to form what we understand as a film festival. Through exploring programming, Coming Soon to a Festival Near You provides an essential step in expanding our understanding of film festivals and their place in the global development of cinema and film theory.

About the Author

Kirsten Stevens

About the Author

Kirsten Stevens

Dr Kirsten Stevens completed her PhD in Film and Television Studies at Monash University. Her thesis examined the development of film festivals in Melbourne as a practice in film exhibition, comparing and contrasting this to established histories of international film festivals. Her work has appeared in issues of Media International Australia and Studies in Australasian Cinema.View all posts by Kirsten Stevens →