The race to premiere: The folly of film festivals

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SCREEN AFRICA EXCLUSIVE: As we approach film festival season in South Africa, festivals including the Durban International Film Festival, The Cape Town International Film Market and Festival, Encounters, The Jozi Film Festival, and others will all start to announce their programming selections – and in the process try to best position themselves to secure whatever world or African film premieres that they can.

Within the global network of festivals, a hierarchy exists among high-profile events, especially those in Europe or North America, and the currency of status for many of these events is premieres and celebrity. The more world premieres they can host and the more celebrities that walk the red carpet, the more attention, and subsequently the more funding and sponsors these festivals can secure.

More and more festivals in Africa are buying into this globalised strategy, equating premieres and stars with status and funding, however, there is an inherent folly in this approach, especially when dealing with African produced films.

It is still the case that the majority of high-profile African films premiere in Europe or North America, not at any African festival. The sheer economic and marketing benefits of a major international festival premiere outside of Africa simply outweigh the desire of a filmmaker to premiere the film in their home country.

So film festivals across Africa are vying for the second-place spot of an African premiere – and with only so many high profile African films released each year, the competition to secure the first African screening grows every year.

I have heard many film festival programmers state that they won’t accept certain films into competition if they do not receive the African premiere, putting filmmakers in the awkward position of having to choose amongst an array of equally placed festivals across the continent. There is yet to be one film festival in Africa that can guarantee exponentially more media and economic returns than another, so how is a filmmaker to choose?

This narrow-minded approach, I believe, is detrimental to both filmmakers and film festivals in Africa, whose mandate should be more than just to be the most high-profile festival on the continent. The filmmaking and film-viewing cultures in Africa are widely divergent, and even more so in relation to their Western counterparts. Across most of Africa, and for many people, film festivals are one of the only ways where people are able to gather to watch films together, and with the possibility of the filmmaker in attendance.

Film festivals globally have become alternative distribution mechanisms for many types of independent films, and within Africa, film festivals have long played this role, due to the lack of comprehensive cinema networks across Africa. Even in countries whose urban centres do have cinemas and multiplexes, for the most part – with the exception of Ethiopia and a handful of other locations – African films never make it to these screens, or if they do it is for exceptionally limited runs.

With this context in mind, film festivals in Africa often talk of audience development alongside any mandate to support and promote filmmakers. In fact, audience development is a key role of film festivals across the continent, and one of the best ways to grow audiences and to support filmmakers is to screen African-produced stories and content.

Often, the film festival is the only place for audiences to experience African stories, and certainly, the only place where they can often meet and engage with the filmmaker. It is therefore imperative, in my view, for film festivals in Africa to feature as many quality African films as possible.

Whether a film has had its world premiere in Europe, and/or its African premiere elsewhere, film festivals in Africa should actively and enthusiastically promote quality content that can resonate with local audiences, and in doing so, help to promote the filmmakers and to drive the development of audiences.

In fact, I would argue further, that instead of competing with each other for the premiere of films, and for a perceived status within the festival network hierarchy, film festivals across South Africa, and across the continent should cooperate and support each other.

While this might seem a naïve point of view given the scarce resources available for film festivals, I do believe that in certain areas, and specifically in programming African content, that film festivals can and should do everything possible collectively to support the industry and provide local audiences with as much quality African content as possible.

Let’s see how this plays out in festivals throughout the year…. Watch this space.

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Lara Preston
Lara Preston is a passionately committed marketer and strategist with a focus on promoting African content and events. Two decades of working across Africa have provided her with insights and experience that she puts to work for the projects she manages. In 2006, Lara founded, and still personally manages, Red Flag Content Relations, a full service below-the-line agency that also focuses on African entertainment and lifestyle brand marketing, strategy, and publicity.

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