Just prior to Sundance and Slamdance, I conducted a very unscientific experiment and asked my Facebook friends – many of whom are programmers for film festivals who could all be expected to have long lists of “must-see’s” at the fest, and who are very opinionated when you speak to them in line for a film– what films they recommended at the festival.
I got back exactly what I expected – nothing. Now, there’s a chance that none of them like me enough to read my post and respond, and an equal chance that because it wasn’t about #metoo or Drumpf, they couldn’t be bothered. But I don’t think this was the issue.
When I was working with Ted Hope to build Flicklist (which failed miserably for other reasons), we encountered this same problem. We thought it would be great to showcase the greatest asset any film festival has – the expertise of their curators – as a way to help audiences find great new films. Who has a better handle on the films you should see in theaters and online? Who could better tell you to add that movie to your queue months before it gets written about? It seemed like a no-brainer – if I trust my local film programmer at the festival, I might trust their recommendations year-round, and take a chance on a film because of that – maybe even going to see a film at another film festival when I’m visiting another town, for just one example. And it would be a simple way to further the brand equity of those film festivals and their programmers, perhaps giving great curatorial “power” to the awesome programmer in Atlanta as well as the one at Cannes.
We approached a lot of film festivals and their programmers behind the scenes, and nearly every one of them said the same thing – oh, our programmers we would never share their real lists. They didn’t want to give away their possible programming choices, didn’t want to seem to privilege one film or filmmaker above another, especially early in the game, or didn’t want to be so public about their tastes. We made it clear they could hide their programming choices and only share other recommendations, but there was still concern. The lists of reasons went on and on – even when we suggested paying for the service. Programmers just weren’t accustomed to sharing their recommendations and favorites except in two places – in the festival selections, and possibly in end-of-the-year, best-of lists.
We gave up, but I’m convinced that part of our idea was a good one, and I’ve hoped for a long time that someone else would crack that nut and tap into the collective curatorial power of those festivals and give them a new type of relevance outside of the time of the film-fest taking place. It hasn’t happened. No one has built any kind of curatorial machine that takes advantage of actual film curators. Not only that – no film festival, to my knowledge, has done it on their own. Not even the ones with the most power – Sundance, Cannes, Hot Docs, SXSW, or anyone else.
It seems to me like a lost opportunity, and it seems like a big, gaping hole in the services that festivals should be offering their audiences – not to mention a potential revenue stream. As content proliferates online, consumers need curators to help them cut through the noise to find the best stuff. Critics are part of this, but so are festival programmers, and they have a lot less baggage and more good-will already. And you don’t have to be a rocket-scientist to figure this out – everyone talks about the importance of curators to the future of content online. And every festival seems to think their programmers are good at finding good films, or presumably they wouldn’t pay them.
I would pay them for this service, and many of my film-going friends would do the same. If I could get a weekly email of recommendations from trusted programmers at my local festival, with a mix of things that played their festival, but also things they couldn’t program that they liked, I’d add all of those films to my queue and happily pay for it. Or I might even become a member of their festival – and festivals need reasons to convince me to become a member beyond a discount on tickets at the festival and an email newsletter (…talking about their next festival or their next fundraiser). Turn this into an app, and I’d pay for that app, and I don’t pay for anything now. Everyone I know wants help cutting through the garbage to discover the best films to watch, and fest programmers could be that guide online, year-round. And they should be, because as I’ve argued before (in 2013, jeesh), in a world of super-abundance, film festivals need to think beyond their old missions of just bringing undiscovered films to their locale.
Right now, the leading websites for finding films are Rotten Tomatoes and IMDB. These are helpful to some extent, and I use them, but they’re not really curatorial or based on any curator’s knowledge. I can’t easily follow just the reviewers I trust, and none of these focus on curation, which is very different than criticism.
Yes, a few people have taken to Letterboxd to share the films they’ve seen, and for a long time, I hoped this would become the curatorial service that I think we need. Here’s my favorite programmer Tom Hall’s list of films he saw at Sundance, for example. But aside from Tom, I don’t find many actual curators telling me what to see online. Instead, Letterboxd seems mainly used by critics (here’s David Ehrlich of IndieWire posting his reviews and rankings as just one good example). But again, this is different than the curation a festival programmer could bring, and I think its lacking from the discovery process online.
But I’ve given up hoping for that world to come along. I think most of the fest industry is focused on their current model, not thinking about what they should be doing in a new paradigm. If they won’t take on that curatorial role, then we’ll need someone else to do it.
I suspect these new curators and curatorial services are developing now, being built, will launch, and they won’t include many of the experts or the expertise of these film festivals. The curatorial app of the future will probably be built on celebrity, an algorithm or some other system of trust. Once it launches, a few festivals will try to launch their own version, to jump on the bandwagon, but it will be too late. We’ll all get our recommendations from someone else – and in a world where almost any film ends up online eventually, I’ll have less and less reason to show up at the festival in person, when someone else will curate it for me in a more convenient form.
I’ve always argued that back in 2005, Sundance could have, and should have built YouTube. The technology and the need were there. The writing was on the wall, and everyone could sense what needed to be built, but nonprofits (which most festivals are) don’t think that way. They do the same old thing instead of the new. So we got a very different YouTube, and have no idea what that alternate one, informed by the curation, artistry and artist-centric thinking they had might have become. (To be clear, I’m only picking on Sundance here because they’re the most famous name, you could insert almost any other name; and Sundance has been plenty busy doing a lot of other good things).
This is another one of those moments. The need is clear. The history of the internet is search, the future is find – finding exactly what you need, hopefully with some curatorial help. I think we have just a few more years before someone builds the perfect curation system, and a short window where this could be done by the existing players in this space. I’d much rather have that service be built by those with the curatorial vision found in our film festivals than on the backs of some algorithm or the whims of some brand or celebrity (or both). And I’d rather that the money it makes benefits these festivals than some new version of Facebook, and that this data informs better art, not more advertising. The technology exists, and festival programmers have the expertise we need.Who will pick up the charge?