Positionality of Film Festivals: Hierarchies of Attendees and Ranking of Importance

According to John Goldstein, managing partner of the Maple Theatre in West Bloomfield, Michigan, “Consumer habits are changing and the experience is becoming a bigger part of the equation.” The experience meaning the tangible perks audiences can engage with at a cinema aside from the film: reclining chairs, larger screens, alcoholic beverages, restaurant quality food and live music in the lobby, among other perks. Goldstein shared this observation during a cinema studies master class he gave at Oakland University in early 2015. Goldstein’s statement points to the constantly evolving film industry where its once highly anticipated and much talked about event, the midnight premier, has been eclipsed by the ultimate cultural experience for cinephiles: the film festival.

According to Andy Swinnerton, Movie Pilot critic, “For as long as I can remember, a midnight premier was the ultimate litmus test for whether or not a movie could be counted as a ‘big deal’.”[1] More recently, the importance of a film is recognized by the buzz of its bootlegged festival screenings or the stamp of the Palme d’Or on promotional posters to signify its presence at Cannes for example. Perhaps this is due to a festival’s exclusivity to both time and space. The typical multiplex midnight premier is exclusive to time only (relative to time zones of course), though theatres in different cities, states and countries will show the same premiering film.

In that light, commuting to a movie theatre to see a midnight premier is a short drive for most cinephiles. On the other hand, The Toronto International Film Festival, always and only, takes place in Toronto for one week in September. Despite the unscripted nature and possibly intimidating rituals of film festivals, the number of existing festivals is in exponential growth across the globe. As film scholars such as Diane Burgess, Daniel Dayan and Brendan Kredell frequently note, this phenomenon raises a crucial question currently circulating the conversation: who goes to film festivals?

By using textual analysis in support of my own participant observations from The Toronto International Film Festival 2015, I will support the notion that a hierarchy of positions exists and understanding film festivals does not require positionality as an industry insider. I will also elaborate on as many hierarchal and cultural complexities as possible of film festival attendance.

The audience of a festival is compartmentalized into hierarchies. Before exploring the interest groups that make up the sum of festival attendees, it is important to first recognize the notion of “positionality.” In this context, the term refers to one’s degree of industry event access within a festival circuit. This variance of access inevitably slopes the experience from person to person, though does not detract from understanding the rituals that take place at a festival. A binary model separates “industry insiders” from “industry outsiders.” Examples of insiders are distributors, critics and filmmakers who attend festivals for business reasons. Outsiders include the public audience, local businesses and even non-attendees.

Aside from ranking groups of attendees by their importance to the particular culture, know that taking any one interest group away from the equation will dismantle the structure of a festival. For instance, at first glance it may be difficult to process how important a non-attendee is to the workings of a festival. Brendan Kredell puts this phenomenon into perspective. “…In the case of a large urban festival like TIFF, the scope of its marketing campaigns and the attendant local media coverage means that one can safely assume that even though the majority of Torontonians do not attend any festival events, they are nonetheless aware of the festival’s existence.”[2]

Observing promotional advertisements, sharing social media posts and word of mouth buzz are sound enough contributions to a festival’s operations. The festival events mentioned by Kredell are the activities that separate industry insiders from industry outsiders. I will center my focus on TIFF due to my previous attendance.

At TIFF, the screenings were categorized as either press and industry screenings (insider specific) or public screenings (outsider specific). Industry panels, conferences, happy hour mixers and question and answer sessions are among the other main events that take place all of which require a festival pass of certain authority to enter. Anyone can attend a red carpet event, though the same cannot be said about an after party, the crème de la crème of insider access.

In order to understand film festivals it is important to understand the jargon associated with them. Daniel Dayan refers to festival events as performances in his article, “Looking for Sundance: The Social Construction of a Film Festival.” “The word ‘performance’ can be used as a synonym of ‘activity’ but adds an essential nuance to that term. Speaking of ‘performance’ instead of ‘activity’ points to that fact that all social activities are modeled on cultural scripts… I saw the very existence of the festival as a collective performance; as an ensemble of behaviors that were referred to norms, watched as spectacles, and submitted to critical evaluation.”[3] The film festival performances themselves are the scripts, which are by no means everyday life ‘activities’. Performances may be solo or collective. Examples of solo performances from TIFF include, but are not limited to, attending screenings (public/ press and industry), attending panels, attending industry conferences and attending question and answer sessions. These are performances that I attended by myself and was part of an audience with undivided attention focused on a smaller entity in a particular place in the room.

On the other hand, according to Dayan, “The festival acquires a collective dimension through a number of features that serve as providers of unity, catalysts for community, propositions for a shared experience.”[4] Examples of collective performances include red carpet events, happy hours, photo ops and after parties. These are performances that entail the inner workings of multiple layers of interaction by insiders and outsiders alike. It is much more than attending a public screening alone. Collective performances are more often leisure activities that require less attention on a particular area of the environment. They allow for more engagement amongst all faces of the totem pole.

Now that I’ve established what festival attendees are doing, it helps to recognize where they are doing these things before I can describe who they are.

Roya Rastegar argues that festivals themselves vary in scope via size and mission. For example, the difference in size between TIFF and The Film Festival of Rochester, or the difference in their missions regarding their business practices. Relative to business, festivals have a similar binary to their attendees and it is scholarly supported to be the most relevant difference in scope. Rastegar refers to the separate festival types as community-based festivals and industry-based festivals. “Festivals organized around the film industry are programmed and organized according to a different set of resources, expectations and goals than community-based festivals; yet, the commitment to a clearly articulated mission is necessary for guiding the curatorial process for all festivals.”[5] Rastegar makes a valid contribution to the conversation by referring to festivals in terms of scale and practice. Mark Peranson’s model breaks down the issue even further.

Peranson refers to the binary as audience festivals and business festivals. “Examples of the business festival, then, would be major festivals with markets or de facto markets (Cannes, Berlin, Venice, Toronto, Pusan), plus, to a lesser extent, the largest festival in a country, while examples of audience festivals would be the greater number of the world’s festivals, the one in a city near you.”[6] At large, distribution is the most important separation of this binary model. Filmmakers and distributors negotiate exhibition deals at TIFF, whereas The Film Festival of Rochester is for local cinephiles to express their talents to the public community. Examples of business festival characteristics according to Peranson are: high budget, operating revenue not primarily audience/ticket sales, major corporate sponsorship and large staff. On the other hand, characteristics of audience festivals include: low budget, a good deal of operating revenue comes from attendance, no investment in films and little business presence.

It is finally time to zero in on the separate interest groups that make up festival attendance. Peranson’s essay, First You Get the Power, consists of another model that breaks these groups down in rank of importance. “…Note that the interest groups are all interrelated, as when you are appeasing one, you’re ill-treating another, so it’s impossible to look at them in isolation. I’ve also numbered them in ideal importance, so that the distributor would be the most important interest group in the business festival, and fourth in the audience festival (in this schematic).”[7] Peranson’s seven interest groups in rank of greatest to least importance for business festivals are: distributor/ buyer, sales agent, sponsors, government, audience, critics and filmmakers. Peranson’s model does great justice by organizing these interest groups into seven rows divided by two columns. The columns designate where the interest groups are congregating (audience festivals or business festivals) and in turn, what they are doing there. There are merits of each interest group depending on their mission.

For organization’s sake, I will start with distribution/buyer and work my way down the list following order of importance. Distributors and buyers use business festivals domestically as a catalyst for soon to be released films. The presence of industry insiders (actors, filmmakers, directors, producers) at business festivals is a large marketing and advertising advantage for distributors.

Distributors are able to organize press junkets and do interviews – Which are later included as behind the scenes segments on upcoming releases. At TIFF, distributors occupy hotel rooms in the central business district and utilize them as pop-up shops for studio/production clientele. Cannes, which is strictly recognized for business, operates via the Marché Du Film. French for film market, this maze of opportunity for both buyer and seller is a department store – like building dedicated to distribution negotiation. Audience festivals on the other hand contain little distribution business unless there are selections of a specialty genre that may be difficult to find elsewhere (documentaries, national cinema…). These types of films are easier to market to audience-based festivals because their central mission is less focused on major blockbuster success. Word of mouth is typically the only distribution happening at audience festivals. These festivals are more of a communal platform for art culture and thus not business savvy, especially if the festival doesn’t have a market; Most do not.

All markets though are completely different from one another. According to film scholar and industry insider Hannah McGill, “The lack of an official market precludes neither industry activity nor the establishment of closed screenings for buyers alone. Toronto claims an ‘unofficial market’, while Sundance has become known for its all-night haggling sessions and multi-million dollar deals.”[8] As McGill explains, although festivals are unique in the way that not all festivals have markets, business festivals that do have markets are unique in their practices from festival to festival. No two markets have the same practices. When I attended TIFF there was no physical market that I could visit and explore like there is at Cannes for example. The unofficial market at TIFF was one that existed in Toronto hotel rooms beyond the sight of industry outsiders.

Closely related to the distributor/buyer is the second most important interest group of festival attendance. According to Peranson’s model, sales agents use business festivals as a promotional catalyst to sell films to distributors. Peranson offers a clear comparison of sales agents and distributors to illustrate a relationship between the two groups. “In this economy, the term ‘audience’ only matters to a sales agent as a negative: meaning, the more people have seen the film in a territory, the less they can charge to a potential distributor. (Some distributors also have this policy – the alternative argument when it comes to distributors has to do with festivals generating good word of mouth).”[9] Sales agents at audience festivals simply use the event as a foot in the door for revenue stream at major/ business festivals.

The next group of interest is sponsorship. What Peranson refers to as sponsorship and government presence are more often referred to as the stakeholders. This is where festivals find funding (corporate and private). Peranson explains that sponsorship at business festivals must be appeased with celebrity presence as opposed to audience festivals, which are more concerned with ‘sponsor films’ that are commercially audience friendly. McGill separates corporate sponsorship from public sponsorship as so, “Corporate sponsorship – always indispensable for festivals, in both its cash and in-kind manifestations- takes on even greater importance during a public funding drought…even public funding, where it can be found at all, is increasingly allocated on a project basis… rather than for the core purpose of putting films on in cinemas, with filmmakers there to present them[10] In the case of TIFF, corporate sponsorships include Bell, Royal Bank and Telefilm. On the other hand, private funding comes from private firms, local businesses and cinephile donations).

While Peranson’s model sets sponsorship ahead of government in terms of importance, they are similar entities of equal importance. A festival’s government presence usually exists by way of film funding firms such Canada’s Telefilm. As Kredell points out, “Telefilm Canada – the agency tasked with both funding the production of films in Canada and also promoting Canadian cinema at home and abroad – supports 49 festivals across the country, which in their sum represent the diversity of the contemporary international film circuit.”[11] Peranson’s model suggests that the intention of government presence at both business and audience festivals is to promote the existence of a national cinema.

Before moving on, it is crucial to recognize the term stakeholder on a broader wavelength. In theory, a stakeholder need not be someone who throws a dollar in the basket. A stakeholder can be as simple as a food truck employee or a non-Torontonian that notices a promotional poster for a TIFF release on a daily commute to work. Consumers are all stakeholders. Although the term is typically associated with monetary funding, word of mouth, visual observation and contribution to local business are performances that suffice just as well to keep a festival’s gears turning.

The fifth most important group to a festival’s attendance is the audience. Audiences at business festivals are of lesser concern to the binary. This is because of the films that are programmed at business festivals (audiences don’t need help becoming interested in films with big talent seeking international distribution). Audience festivals however, rely more on the size of their audience as a vehicle for recognition and progress.

Liz Czach explains the importance of festival audience reception further. “TIFF’s success as one of the world’s leading international film festivals has been heavily weighted toward two intertwined phenomena: the claim to being the world’s biggest publicly attended festival and the audience’s film savviness…a key element in the success of TIFF, and a significant selling point, then, is that it delivers film-literate spectators to filmmakers, distributors, producers and sponsors.”[12] Czach supports the festival binary in terms of audience contribution, though continues to break audience down into smaller subgroups (specific to TIFF). According to Czach, TIFF’s audience consists of diehards, festival staffers, cineaste stargazer and scenester. Where the cineaste is the stereotyped cinephile, the diehard enjoys watching films but is not necessarily as interested in the industry scope of the event as the cineaste. Naturally, festival staffers are too busy to catch many screenings, though they make up an exceptional portion of audience at a festival like TIFF. The stargazer’s primary motive is to spot celebrities whereas the scenester has a peculiar insider/outsider position. These are individuals who have a connection in the industry to after parties and after hour-festival events. The audiences of audience-based festivals are more of a concern for festival programmers and coordinators due to varying general taste. I attended TIFF as a student/public attendee and not a filmmaker premiering my work. However, that didn’t take away from my experience. I was able to participate in most performances that occurred during the week. Processing TIFF as an understanding of film festivals did not require me to be an industry insider. Rather I observed and asked myself questions about what was happening around me and how interaction was being performed on several levels of the circuit spectrum. Throughout the hustle and bustle of the Toronto streets were several TIFF staff volunteers who were available to answer questions about where to find a theatre or how to navigate the screening schedule. Attending the festival as an outsider may have been a perk in itself. Although I didn’t have unlimited access to all performances, I was able to make my own schedule because I had no industry related business holding me back. Though it must not be forgotten that my role in the festival’s success would have been equally cooperative if I was a local resident of Toronto and hadn’t even attended a screening.

The last two interests groups are critics and filmmakers. Film critics use business festivals to showcase major releases for special press and contribute to the Hollywood hype machine. In contrast, local critics cover the audience festivals as a whole to help gain recognition as a promotional tool for selling tickets. “Critics are, furthermore often far less broadminded about audiences than about work that is either experimental and flawed: the enthusiasm with which an audience will embrace newness is not always reflected by a tired and cynical press corps that remembers when it was all Fassbinder round here. On the industry side, meanwhile, there is the fierce focus upon money, which can interact awkwardly with organizations that regard their main purpose as cultural and educational.”[13] Like that of distributor and sales agent, the job of critic varies depending on the scope of the festival.

Filmmakers – according to Peranson see attending business festivals as more or less a chore. They can show up and watch audience reactions to their work though don’t have much to do with ancillary negotiations (as this is the job of a sales agent). However, a filmmaker’s presence is important to critics, sponsors and distributors for press junkets. On the other hand, filmmakers treat audience festivals as a vacation where they can mingle with attendees and promote their work.

Film festivals are extremely complex events and are all organized differently being exclusively original to themselves. Despite a variance of experience, festivals are sanctioned categorically as either business or audience-based festivals. Both models of festivals contain the same interest groups of audience, though the cultural practices of these groups are skewed between festival types. The main interest groups of film festival audience are distributor/buyer, sales agent, sponsorship, government, audience, critics and filmmakers. It is crucial to culturally break down attendance groups to gain a more educational insight to the separate types of festivals, what is happening there, and most importantly who goes there.


[1]Andy Swinnerton, Midnight Premiers Coming To An End Moviepilot, accessed December 7, 2015, http://moviepilot.com/posts/946685.

[2] Brendan Kredell and Diane Burgess, “Positionality and Film Festival Research, Conversation. (2015): 1-10.

[3] Daniel Dayan, “Looking for Sundance: The Social Construction of a Film Festival,” The Film Festival Reader (Great Britain: University of St. Andrews, 2013), 49.

[4] Dayan, “Looking For Sundance,” 46-49.

[5] Roya Rastegar, “Seeing Differently: The Curatorial Potential of Film Festival Programming,” in Film Festivals: History, Theory, Method, Practice, ed. Marijke de Valck et al. (London: Routledge, 2016), 181-195.

[6] Mark Peranson, “First You Get the Power, Then You Get the Money: Two models of Film Festivals,” Cineaste. (2008): 26.

[7] Peranson, “First You Get The Power,” 26.

[8] Hannah McGill, “Film Festivals: A View From The Inside,” Screen. (2011): 283.

[9] Peranson, “First You Get The Power,” 31.

[10] McGill, “A View From The Inside,” 282.

[11] Brendan Kredell, “The Business of Audience Festivals: Calgary International Film Festival 2012,” Necsus. (2013): 1-8.

[12] Liz Czach, “Cinephilia, Stars and Film Festivals,” Cinema Journal. (2010): 284.

[13] Czach, “Cinephilia,” 282.