"See the movie before everyone else has seen the trailer"... or not, as the case will be

02 October 2011

Later this month I'm heading to London for a short annual trip to its 55th Film Festival. Last year - my fifth visit - was the first I'd spent the weekend seeing five films all in one building, the BFI Southbank, as opposed to hopping to and fro between different and sprawling venues. This year, the focus is even narrower: I'm seeing four films across two days not only in the same building, but the same screen (NFT1). They're also all "Treasures From the Archives", that festival strand that shows preserved and restored classics: The Caine Mutiny (1954) and Cry Danger (1951), and America, America and Bye Bye Birdie (both 1963). Should both finances and geography permit, I might in the future be able to afford more films over a longer visit, but as it is, the four film tickets alone come to £42 (minus booking fee), and a return trip on the train will be a further £60 or so - with a young persons rail card. One might dream of some delegates pass in years to come, but for now, one makes do with travelling, attending and viewing with the mortals...

But I'm not writing to complain about money. November's issue of Sight & Sound - which I'm reading before non-subscribers pick it up soon from a supplier near to them - is dedicated to this year's London Film Festival (alongside reports from its recent equivalents in Toronto and Venice). The magazine's back cover, always sold as advertising space (usually but not always to an upcoming film), features the festival's partner, American Express. (Am I meant to put an ® sign after that like American Express itself does?) You can see the advert at the top of this piece, but for the sake of writing I'll repeat the selling point here: in all caps, the advert reads, "see the movie before everyone else has seen the trailer".

Forget the awkward lexis ("anyone" would have sounded better and would have been no more false in its advertising than "everyone"). The immediate point of contention here is why seeing a film before its general theatrical release (which is what the "trailer" bit basically implies) should necessarily be the main draw of this or indeed any other festival. Especially, it should be noted, since by the time the LFF arrives on the cinephile's calendar, most if not all of its big draws have screened at other film festivals, have already wooed critics, and are set, more or less, for a theatrical release not long after the festival ends.

In short, as I reasoned to someone on Twitter on September 26, "'Tween lesser films w/ oversold write-ups and bigger films set for release anyway, the 'treasures' are all I've got". Indeed, six of the forty new films reviewed in the magazine this month are - as emblems preceding each appropriate review tell us - "also showing at the London Film Festival". Granted, that's not that many, but considering that by the time the November issue appears on selected newsagents' shelves on Tuesday, festival tickets will have been on sale to the public for over a week (they went public October 26, but have been available for "priority booking" to BFI members since October 19). It's worth noting some telling figures, then.

The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, which is theatrically released on October 21 and features as Sight & Sound's Film of the Month, has two screenings at the LFF, both in the 450-seat NFT1. It's not possible to say how many tickets were bought before opening to non-BFI members, but at the time of writing, I roughly count 56 seats left - at £13 each before booking fee - for the October 14 screening, which is roughly 12%. That screening's at 9pm on a Friday evening; predictably, there are significantly more seats left for the Monday afternoon screening on October 17.

Anonymous, theatrically released on October 28, has three screenings at the LFF. The first, at the Odeon in Leicester Square, is already fully booked; for the less prestigious follow-ups at the Vue, 70 of the 413-seat Screen 5 showing are still available and just over a third of the 297-seat Screen 6 showing are still available.

The Ides of March, theatrically released on October 28, has two screenings. Both are fully booked. (Which, in fairness, means you can sign up for an e-letter to be informed on October 7 if there are still some seats left after tickets have been given to "contributors"; it'd be unreasonable not to look after those who've put money toward the festival.)

Miss Bala, also released theatrically on October 28, has three screenings at the LFF. Of the two screenings in the Vue's 411-seat Screen 7, I count 16 seats left in the first and over half left in the second (the former is at 8.45pm on a Wednesday evening, the latter at 12.15pm on a Thursday). The third screening is at the Ritzy's 179-seat Screen 2; there is one seat still available!

Restless, theatrically released on October 21, has three screenings. The first is in the Vue's 413-seat Screen 5; I count five seats still available. The second screening is in the Vue's 264-seat Screen 6; I count twelve seats still available; the third screening is on a Monay afternoon in the Vue's 411-seat Screen 7; predictably for its showing time, there are plenty of seats left.

We Need to Talk About Kevin has two screenings; as with The Ides of March, they're both fully booked.

But We Need to Talk About Kevin's theatrical release is three days after the second of these festival showings. (Ides opens less than a week after its October 22 LFF screening.) Also, we've all been able to view Kevin's trailer for months now: click here if you haven't seen it already. (Here's the trailer for Ides, also viewable for months.)

Enough with the figures

We can forgive American Express for its misleading advert, but what its chief appeal speaks to is a kind of critical fetish that I've noted in recent weeks, simply by viewing the constant Twitter feed of film critics - professional or unpaid, it doesn't matter - who'll Tweet on-the-go about this "preview screening" and that "advance screening", almost all of which are in London. (They'll Tweet asking, "Who else is here?" which amounts to saying, "I'm here!")

There's a barely conscious exclusivity on display with film critics - those informed enough (though some, for my money, seem more informed than others) to have been granted access to screenings "before everyone else has seen the trailer". There's something red-carpeted about critics whose lives and professions (Twitter makes a distinction between the two more and more difficult) are made readable by anyone and everyone who wishes to follow them, be that for the purpose of back-patting, brown-nosing, overawed silent reading, or barking like a puppy at the bigger and more expensive dog on the other side of the window - all of which constitutes "social networking".

But the advert on the back cover of Sight & Sound speaks not only to those delegates who seek and are granted professional accreditation from the festival, but to all the online bloggers trying to "make it". Indeed, if you want to be read by someone who doesn't know you from Adam, you have to offer something immediate, which is why headlines matter for those whose name alone isn't enough to pull a reader in. In film criticism, headlines are simply those news snippets whose titles tell you everything the article verbosely tells you again and those reviews of "films released this week". Fewer seem interested in reading (or should that read "writing"?) about a film that's already six months old; or to put it another way, is commentary inherently concerned with the contemporary?

So, access to advance screenings begets the kind of careerism whereby it's not necessarily what you say or how you say it, but how fast you can get your critique out there, which determines where it shows up in the "external reviews" list on the film's IMDb page, for instance, and perhaps how far up a Google search it appears. As an indicative example, Srini's review of The White Meadows is frequently clicked to via the film's IMDb page, I assume because it is only one of 12 listed there, whereas my piece on The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is linked to far less via its IMDb page because it's 246th on a list of 260.

Can't miss, won't... access 

As part of its feature on this year's festival, Sight & Sound - whose Nick James gives a faintly (that is, understandable if frustrating) compromisist slant to the celebrity fetish of festivals in the same issue's editorial - offers its readers the traditional, obligatory "selection of 20 films not to miss at this year's festival". Just as the LFF in general lacks its own identity precisely because it acts as a kind of "Best of" summary of the year's preceding festivals, so the Sight & Sound Top 20 is no doubt based on its writers' enjoyment of these films at said preceding festivals.

It's disappointing that the selection features films destined for theatrical release anyway, but I've said enough on this. Instead, let's briefly question the absurd inclusion of films already fully booked, so that readers - subcribers or not - can't possibly catch them at the festival anyway. This is the case for The Deep Blue Sea, whose sole screening is the festival's Closing Gala, as well as for The Kid With a Bike (2 screenings, both fully booked), The Descendants (3 screenings, all fully booked), Martha Marcy May Marlene (2 of three screenings fully booked), Snowtown (1 of two screenings fully booked), Faust (1 of two screenings fully booked), Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (1 screening, fully booked), Alps (1 of two screenings fully booked, the other with six seats still available), Shame (three screenings, all fully booked), This Must Be the Place (2 screenings, both fully booked), The Artist (2 screenings, both fully booked), and I Wish (2 screenings, one of which has one seat left).

In short, nearly half of the "films not to miss at this year's festival" can't possibly be seen unless you've managed to get a ticket - by being a paid BFI member, a festival contributor or an accredited industry or press delegate.

Clearly, at a time when the wealth divide couldn't be any clearer, the BFI (and proud partner American Express) knows to whom it caters.

Film festivals, as social and cultural events, only highlight the vast gulf in social wealth, only highlight who has access to art and who does not have access to art. At the same events, you see the same privileged people giving talks to other privileged people about often mediocre or disappointing films removed from everyday life, bolstered by vague promotional write-ups that try to cash in on some recent precedent. That's just the nature of film exhibition, I suppose... or at least the nature of film exhibition under specific historical conditions.

This might be conquered by a less exclusive exhibition process; making festival films viewable online for a lesser cost (than £10-13 a ticket), for instance. But hey, what do I know?

As a brief parting comment, consider the "Galas & Special Screenings" page: you'll see only eight (at the time of writing) of the 33 screenings are not already sold out. Special, indeed; "special" meaning, of course, prestigious enough to be celebrated by those with bought or inherited access. But imagine how the line reads if you change it to "Galas & Privileged Screenings"... Nah, that'd be too self-conscious an acknowledgement for an industry determined primarily by profit.

C.R.E.A.M., as the Wu-Tang said.