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A Flower that Blooms Once a Year-The Mechanism of Film Festivals

Ryoko Misonou
Assistant Professor, Faculty of Human Sciences, Waseda University

What Is a Film Festival?

When you hear the word film festival, what kinds of images come to mind? Stars walking down red carpets, throngs of reporters crowded around them, a glamorous competition among new films, and an award ceremony conducted with solemnity by prominent critics and famous actors-this is the superficial fa巽ade, as it were, of the film festival. A film festival, however, is not just a one-off event. The film festival serves a role in bringing together various fields that set films in motion, and this networking is possibly even more important than the glitter of the stars or the outcome of the competition. From this point onward, I will explain what I mean by this, weaving in my own white-knuckled experience working as a low-level assistant at a film festival office.

A Film Festival Is One Year of Continuous Work

First of all, I would like to emphasize the fact that a film festival is not just the period the event is held, but involves work carried out over an entire year. When I was asked if I would like to work as an assistant for a film festival, it was at the beginning of the summer of that year, while the actual film festival was to be held over two weeks at the end of the year. What the organization called the office of the film festival does during the intervening time is, needless to say, not all fun and games. For a film festival office, the work that goes into the film festival is not a matter of stressing the importance of the period when the festival is held; it is a question of how productive the year leading up to those two weeks is. There are probably hundreds of film festivals throughout the world, and we think of them as having unique features and their own plans and policies that add glamor to the screening of films, but it goes without saying that the ones at the top are the so-called Big Three international film festivals: the Cannes Film Festival, the Venice Film Festival and the Berlin Film Festival. Trends set by the line-up of contending films nominated for the Big Three film festivals, their selection of judges, and the accompanying retrospectives on famous directors and special screenings of films based on specific themes determine the subsequent policies of all the other film festivals, large and small. For example, going back to the film festival I was involved with, more than half the year was spent researching films being shown at other major film festivals and reviewing special screenings that had been held in the past. In many cases, the films shown at the Big Three film festivals are nominated as prestigious works at other film festivals as well. These surrounding conditions are ascertained while carefully selecting the films that will be presented at a given festival.

The Business of Film Festivals

Then, once the candidate films have been decided, negotiations for the rights to show the films begin. This is often an extremely difficult process because it involves dealing with films that range across many different cultures and languages. Ensuring that the lineup of films constituting the superficial fa巽ade of the film festival is as rich as possible, however, is directly linked to raising the quality of the film festival itself. This work takes place approximately two or three months before the film festival is held. In addition, negotiations with supporting companies are essential for collecting admission fees and staging a show for a fixed period of time. Even though film festivals are cultural events, they are also a form of business. Figuring out how to raise money and how to develop promotional strategies to this end is also a major part of the work that goes into film festivals. There is one more important aspect of the point that film festivals are a business: the promotion of new films among film distribution companies. While it may seem surprising, films are not shown at film festivals for general audiences alone. During the screening period, film companies come from all over the world looking for new films to distribute. Previews of new films are frequently held for them during the festival, leading to business negotiations over the film rights. Finally, how to attract guests who will add glamor to the festival is deliberated, teach-ins are held as needed, and the guests are received in such a way as to ensure that their stay in Japan is comfortable. This is yet another burdensome task that inevitably accompanies the film festival.

How to Make a Film Festival Exciting and Successful

Then, once the program for the film festival has been decided, the work of publicizing the film festival begins. Even if you have assembled a good program of films, nothing will come of it if people don't know about the screenings. When this time approaches-about a month or so before the festival is held-the film festival office must throw all its energy into working out plans for posters and flyers, as well as announcements on television and the Internet about guests who will appear on the platform. There is also an increase in middle management-type work, such as figuring out how to gather the large number of volunteers that will be needed to staff the film festival and what kind of work to assign to them. The film festival office becomes packed with flyers and postcards, and just when all the staff members are completely exhausted, the actual film festival finally begins. The film festival, then, is not a flower that blooms in all its glory for only a short time. It is like a mole that finally makes its way above ground after a preparation period that lasts a year, or if that seems in bad taste, it is like a flower bulb that finally blooms in the spring after weathering the winter under the earth. When described this way, the film festival loses some of its luster as a glamorous event, which may disappoint some people. It may not be such a bad idea, however, to arrive at the scene of a film festival with this perspective in mind and enjoy the films while thinking about the staff members swamped with work and the business negotiations that go on behind the scenes.

Ryoko Misonou
Assistant Professor, Faculty of Human Sciences, Waseda University

Graduated from the Faculty of Letters, University of Tokyo in 1997.
Completed the DEA course at the Department of Formation and Culture, Universit辿 Paris 8.
Completed the Doctoral Program at the Graduate School of Arts and Science, University of Tokyo in 2006.
Served as a research fellow at the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, visiting researcher at New York University and a lecturer at Hosei University and Meiji University, before she assume the current position as Assistant Professor, Faculty of Human Sciences, Waseda University.

[Major publication]
"Film and War - Desire for Shooting/Desire for Watching" [Eiga to Senso - Toru Yokubo/Miru Yokubo] (Japanese Cinema Collection 10, co-authored, shinwasha, 2009)
"Chikage Awashima - Prism of Being an Actress" [Awashima Chikage - Jyoyu Toiu Prism] (Co-edited, Seikyusha, 2009)
"Film and Nation" [Eiga to Nation] (Film Study Collection, co-authored, Minervashobo, 2010)
"Society inside the Film/Film inside the Society" [Eiga No Nakano Shakai/Shakai No Nakano Eiga] (Film Study Collection, co-authored, Minervashobo, 2011)
"Film and Nation State - Shochiku Melodrama Films in the 1930" [Eiga to Kokumin Kokka - 1930 Nenndai Shochiku Melodrama Eiga] (To be published from University of Tokyo Press in this May)