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Film critic tt stern-enzi reflects on his 10-day stay at the Tribeca Film Festival


Zac Efron in ‘Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile.’ // Courtesy of Netflix

Film festivals are big business. Several markets — exhibition, sales, events — exist within their purview. Largely, as a regular audience member, film critic and even now as a festival programmer, I have focused on the exhibition/screening side.

And I’ve been intrigued by the early history of the Toronto International Film Festival, back when they touted themselves as “the best of the fests” because they presented celebrated films from other festivals held prior to their late-summer, early-fall event. Or how Sundance laid claim to the first landing spot in the calendar year, thus guaranteeing that they would be in a position to premiere the films we would spend the rest of the season talking about.

Ultimately this all matters even more because, at their core, film fests still serve an almost archaic communal function. Festivals provide an old-school rollout for audiences before streaming. More pointedly, fests are akin to traveling religious revivals: big tents full of fervor that are no longer possible through the new normal of the release schedule because larger audiences don’t have the same kind of faith in film as a shared experience.

We have spent a great deal of time debating whether or not streaming will kill the film-going experience. Maybe it’s time we start figuring out how to prop up our film festivals, since they look like the last real opportunity we have to keep a viable exhibition window open.

My recent 10-day stay at the Tribeca Film Festival reinforced the importance of these fests. Outside of red carpet premieres, exclusive conversations with the likes of Questlove and Boots Riley (a decidedly iconoclastic pair of artistic rebels with causes) and opportunities to attend screenings with filmmakers, it takes a near-miraculous event — like the massive opening of Avengers: Endgame — to inspire audiences to look away from their devices and step outside the comfort of their mounted flat screens.

Festivals are facing off against these new market forces in different ways. Pressure exists to draw lines in the sand and dare both streaming services and audiences to take a stand. And it has truly just begun to alter distribution and exhibition rules.

The Cannes Film Festival won’t allow streaming titles to play in competition without a guarantee of a specified theatrical release in French theaters. Films distributed by streaming services encounter other difficulties as well. In the case of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, which snagged three Academy Awards (Best Foreign Language Film, Best Cinematography and Best Director), the film was not screened at AMC Theatres and Regal Cinemas as part of their awards season programming due to licensing concerns and the chain’s refusal to show films without a minimum 90-day period between theatrical exhibition and home viewing.

Roma, obviously, was not adversely impacted by these select industry decisions to restrict the streaming service model. But it points to a battle still in its infancy, the divisions of which have left many industry players in dubious positions. Major festivals like Venice, Telluride, Toronto and New York displayed no qualms about including Netflix or other streaming service titles.

Tribeca, as an earlier festival with healthy industry cred, featured a number of titles in their programming, just days or weeks before they were scheduled to debut via streaming (or, to a lesser extent, on premium cable outlets like HBO). I personally saw Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile less than 24-hours before its premiere on Netflix.

I, of course, was compelled to seek the film out for viewing on a big screen because of its status as a regional production, which has been a real calling card for me on the major festival circuit. I long to see our city and the surrounding community writ large and share that with far-flung audiences.

So caught up with that factor, it wasn’t until after the screening that I realized how quickly the film would end up streaming. I took to social media to comment on this far more common occurrence. This wasn’t necessarily in a judgmental way, but rather to pose a question about how the shortened windows between festival debuts and their streaming release will impact audiences.

Without festival screenings, films available to be streamed at home like Extremely Wicked, Stefon Bristol’s See You Yesterday (expanded from a short film with production support from Spike Lee) and Antoine Fuqua’s HBO documentary What’s My Name: Muhammad Ali would never reach a hushed and eager congregation of the faithful in theaters.