BIFFes 2019: Streaming portals hitting film festivals?

There was a time when film societies and festivals created cinephiles in the country. That age is gone.
Last Updated 22 February 2019, 19:02 IST

The 2017 Cannes film festival looked like a make-it-or-break-it moment for online streaming services like Netflix. And it seemed that they had broken it.

Booing is common at film festivals, sometimes because the film is bad and sometimes because the film is shocking, but jeers at some films at Cannes 2017 had started even before they were screened.

The attack had come from “purists” who seemed to have an issue with the “streaming films” - which they believed are for the small screen - getting representation at Cannes.

The small screen, which in the 20th century only meant television, was a retirement home for films to go to when they stop making big money. The metaphor is painfully accurate.

However, the films lived out a separate life on television.

Many good films were ignored in theatres thanks to inept public relations, bad advertising and ignorant film critics.

But many of these ugly ducklings went on to be gauged purely on the basis of merit on TV, attaining the ‘classic’ status denied to their financially successful sisters.

Of course, the ‘TV film’ as a genre did exist, but those were mostly unambitious ventures by the channel itself or simply served as a rough book for aspiring filmmakers.

While the purists were defending what they believed was “the way a movie should be watched” and decrying “the death of cinema”, they were also opposing a more democratic way of watching cinema.

Although Cannes imposed a ban on streaming films in 2017, the fact that the streaming services were not just hoping for quick money but also invested in artistic quality, meant the festival would be losing out on the top films of the year because of the ban.

And no other film has given as much a dilemma to purists as Alfonso Cuaron’s ‘Roma’ (2018) produced by Netflix, which, like a slap in their faces, went on to win the Golden Lion at the Venice film festival, one of the top three festival awards in the world. The other two are the Golden Palm, or Palm d’Or, at Cannes and the Golden Bear at Berlin.

The ripples of this resounding success has reached BIFFes too, where ‘Roma’ will be screened in the coming days.

While screening streaming films at festivals may mean that they are more welcome to other ways to consume cinema, it poses a very different dilemma for the festivals.

A film like ‘Roma’ would usually generate a lot of excitement. But the fact that the film has been freely available for streaming in India for months means that it may not be as sought after at BIFFes as, say ‘Shoplifters’ (2018), which won the 2018 Golden Palm and an Oscar nomination, but is much less talked about.

BIFFes 2019’s artistic director N Vidyashankar, when talking to DH, said it doesn’t matter that ‘Roma’ has been available for streaming and that “movies should be watched in a theatre for the experience of cinema”. But given that there are parallel screens at BIFFes, even a fan of ‘Roma’ may choose a good movie on another screen rather than the big theatre experience of a familiar film.

Online streaming services may also affect the screening of classics at festivals.

While there was a generation that was dependent on film societies for the great films of the world, the status of film societies have steadily declined with the rise of the internet.

The country’s youngest generation of cinephiles owe their exposure to Ingmar Bergman and Mrinal Sen - whose films will be screened at BIFFes this time - to pirate websites rather than film societies or festivals.

When streaming services are making unprecedented contributions, such as with<br />Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind, BIFFes is celebrating the success of<br />KGF, already the most celebrated film of last year.
When streaming services are making unprecedented contributions, such as with
Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind, BIFFes is celebrating the success of
KGF, already the most celebrated film of last year.

The advent of streaming sites has only made the situation worse for festivals. While BIFFes will screen only two of Sen’s film, Amazon Prime, a cheaper substitute to Netflix, is already streaming six top films by the director. Not just that, subscribers do not have to wait for another BIFFes edition for the homages to Indian greats like Satyajit Ray or Ritwik Ghatak because Prime is streaming their films, too.

The reason producers, distributors and film festivals are having a tough time with this innovation is perhaps because streaming websites are all of those things at once. And more.

Last year, Netflix did something none of these guys do. They picked up the unfinished last film of the great American filmmaker Orson Welles, ‘The Other Side of the Wind’, which was barely in post-production at the time of the director’s death, stitched together scattered shots, tied up the loose ends and streamed it to great acclaim.

It does not help the situation that film festivals, once an asylum for off-beat and rare films, are now reserving part of their limited space for commercial films.

The Kannada Popular Entertainment section at BIFFes 2019 will screen many films that have had a good run at the city’s theatres. A session on the success of KGF Part 1 will celebrate a film that was already last year’s most celebrated.

There is, however, no easy solution. Streaming films are a double-edged sword: excluding them will make film festivals dated, while including them will make festivals redundant.

Film festivals will have to adapt to the times. The internet has stripped them of their halo and there is no undo button.

(Published 22 February 2019, 12:44 IST)

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