For most of us, early September means the start of school and football season, friends sharing photos of their kid’s first day or predicting how their hometown team will fare. But it means something else entirely to a small coterie of journalists, critics, and pop-culture obsessives: the start of the Oscar race and the fall film festival season, from Venice (which sometimes starts in late August) on into Telluride and Toronto.
The way films are received at major festivals, most of which date back to the 1960s and ’70s (Venice, one of the oldest, celebrated its 74th anniversary this year), dictates how independent and prestige titles will be positioned for the rest of the year. That positioning will then influence the Oscars, which govern in turn the types of films that get made and celebrated. While most big film festivals are built on good intentions, the atmosphere around them has become oddly reductive. The same tightly knit group of critics gushes over the same dozen or so films, while ignoring movies that have no star power or a guarantee of later wide release. Sometimes this hype fails spectacularly: The Birth of a Nation was met at Sundance with standing ovations, only to wind up generating more controversy than box office dollars or awards nominations. And for every wave of breathless hype, there are strong films that fall through the cracks, either because their premise is unsexy or the performances are workmanlike. A United Kingdom, a superior historical drama about race relations, arrived in theaters without much fanfare months after its Toronto premiere. It was too straightforward and understated to leave a mark in a festival environment where strong impressions are everything.
Telluride, Venice, and Toronto are the most egregious offenders of a culture that values hype over quality. Summer blockbusters needn’t rely on effusive praise to drum up hype, but festival attendees suggest that medium-sized films practically depend on them. The trailer for La La Land, which screened at Venice, Telluride, and Toronto, informed us that it was "A Musical Masterpiece," "Soaring and gorgeous," and that "They don't make movies like this anymore." You have to wonder if those critics blush at those quotes now, especially after the multiple backlashes that followed the movie’s anointment as a presumptive Best Picture winner. The reverse effect—an overhyped movie that turns out to be a fiasco—is even more maddening. There were breathless reports about Ben Wheatley’s violent action comedy Free Fire after its premiere at Toronto in 2016, and it ended up being one of the dullest, most meandering films of 2017. The theatrical reviews of The Beguiled roundly criticized Sofia Coppola’s decision to excise a female slave from the original novel—something the glowing reviews out of its Cannes premiere rarely saw fit to mention.
There is no one group to blame for the hype cycle governing these festivals. Or maybe they are all to blame. Programmers will argue that they need draws like Alexander Payne or George Clooney—whose Downsizing and Suburbicon met with rougher-than-expected reactions at Toronto this year—because publications have a disincentive to write about esoteric world cinema. Journalists will object that if they only highlight smaller movies, no one reads it. As for festival-goers, they’re eager to dominate movie-themed watercooler conversation or their office Oscar pool. Did you know that Margot Robbie is a front runner for Best Actress? Or that Gary Oldman might finally get the Oscar he deserves? Like a modern art exhibit that succeeds through its potential to create Instagram-ready experiences, these festivals are defined by what can go viral.
In a recent IndieWire essay, David Ehrlich makes a case for the benefits of Oscar hype:
Films that score “Oscar buzz” immediately transform into something bigger than just another piece of content. At worst, they become relevant. More often, they become almost mandatory, at least for the percentage of the population who cares about such things. Oscars may not have the power to singlehandedly turn a micro-budget indie into a box office smash — if everyone who talked about Moonlight in terms of its awards potential actually saw the film, it wouldn’t have topped out at $27 million — but they are one of the very few remaining ways for movies to generate success and excitement.
Ehrlich is right that “Oscar buzz” can be a tool to elevate a film from the art house to a broader cultural conversation. But insta-takes from big festivals lose their power when, year after year, they’re eventually revealed to be misleading, or deluded. The traditional cycle of movie coverage, centered on a movie’s release date, is more conducive to substantive feedback. If Free Fire had been show to critics outside the heated atmosphere of a film-festival premiere, first impressions might not have been so inflated. Similarly, A United Kingdom might have had a better shot without its Toronto premiere: Festival dispatches wrote if off long before other critics got to have their say.
All over the world, there are countless smaller so-called “regional” festivals, covering every conceivable genre and niche, that give their communities a chance to experience fare beyond what Hollywood offers, whether it's a slate of short films, documentaries, or even horror. The crucial difference is that many of these films at these smaller festivals would never been seen without them, while everyone will get a chance to weigh in on the most-discussed films at Venice, Telluride, and Toronto, even if they have to wait a few months.
In his IndieWire essay, Ehrlich writes, “Now, after one of the most dismal summers in Hollywood history, the sight of 650 people filing into a theater is naggingly discordant, let alone the sight of 650 people filing into a theater for an R-rated fairy tale about a horny janitor who falls in love with a merman.” He couldn’t have known that after a dismal summer, one where studios blamed Rotten Tomatoes for box office failure, hundreds of thousands later filed into a theater for an R-rated horror film about a psychotic clown who terrorizes foul-mouthed, horny children. Medium-sized films indeed get a festival a boost, but imperfect buzz is what dictates that boost, not their actual quality. If we truncated the Oscar race by a couple months and instead celebrated smaller films at these big festivals, the short list of Oscar and box office hopefuls would still eventually find an audience. And who knows? Maybe we’d discover the next great filmmaker entirely by mistake. How exciting would that be?