The Vancouver International Film Festival
OverReview by Michael Brockington
For 10 years now the Vancouver Film Festival has presented a three-day convention for film industry professionals. The Film & Television Trade Forum runs concurrently with the Festival, and is easy to overlook amid the media hyperactivity surrounding the festival proper. Each year, it seems to score a slightly higher profile, but it remains an event targeted at the industry rather than the general public.
I've attended the Forum since 1992, and now that it's all over for another year, I find myself asking a familiar question. Why do I find it all so damn depressing?
Is it simple bitterness? The knowledge that -- unlike myself -- many of these well-dressed people are actually making a decent living in the film business? Fair enough. It's true that people in suits make me nervous, and I generally feel like a trespasser slinking through the pseudo-rococo opulence of the Hotel Vancouver's ballrooms.
Let me clarify my position. I'm what Canada's cultural funding agencies generously refer to as an "emerging filmmaker." "Unemployed" would be the StatsCan designation. I prefer the term scrounge lizard -- modus operandi: beg, borrow and steal. The Trade Forum is directed at a level of production involving sums of money that are beyond reason. It excites and nauseates me. I feel like a loyal Soviet citizen at the height of the Cold War taking a tour of Western High Society. The Ninotchka factor is high. Decadence! Decadence! Appalling lavish indulgence. At a certain economic level, moviemaking becomes something like counterfeiting in reverse, a means by which great wads of loot are made to vanish into nothing.
This is news to nobody, of course, but there's a big difference between accepting the idea in the abstract and facing it in the flesh. Although, to be fair, the attendees at the Forum are overwhelmingly Canadian producers whose budgets are modest by the standard of American moviemaking.
The Trade Forum bills itself as a convention for mid-level producers. Perhaps it's just the word 'convention' that alienates me. Conventions are such a business thing. Shriners are big on conventions. Conventions are where dentists go to get drunk and get laid, then write the whole thing off on their taxes. The Forum is emphatically devoted to film as business -- financing, cash flows, merchandising. If your interest runs to culture, or art, you're definitely in the wrong hotel. Going in, I know this, but it still gets me down. I'll admit that a couple days discussing toy tie-ins can be an excellent dose of reality for film school grads and would-be artists. But it's not useful in any concrete way, merely instructive.
The programming format changes little year to year. You can expect 1-1/2 to 2 hour sessions with a handful of established industry panellists, discussing some fairly narrow topic, with a Q & A for the last 30-45 minutes. Throw in a few luncheons with individual guest speakers, and you've pretty much blown your weekend.
But I always get the impression -- which I think is true of any convention -- that nobody who's serious about the business actually cares much about the programming. The action always happens off-stage, like the murder in an Agatha Christie mystery. The real energy is elsewhere, at private suite parties or down in the bar. The only reason to go to the programming is so you can approach a panellist afterwards, arrange a meeting, or at least flash a few business cards. The rush to the podium at the conclusion of a session marks a clear division between the curious and the ambitious.
The Forum organizers recognize this dynamic. Which is why you can purchase audio recordings of any panels that look promising, thus maximizing your valuable networking time.
There's also the minor fact that the Forum exists largely for wheeling and dealing, cruising and schmoozing. If you aren't there to sell or be sold, then you're missing out on the underlying buzz of commerce that beats the free coffee hands down when it comes down to getting the adrenaline flowing.
So why was I there impersonating a journalist, if I had nothing to peddle? Freebies, to start with. There are usually booths set up to promote various local film organizations -- B.C. Film, Women in Focus, the Academy of Canadian Cinema & Television, and many others. It's a good one-stop shop to update your list of film resources. There's also a few tables of free goodies -- copies of the Reel West Digest, issues of industry-related magazines like MovieMaker, Film Crew and Reel West Magazine, along with a generous selection of slick little pamphlets. It's only advertising, admittedly, but the buffet table approach makes it accessible without being intrusive.
Of course, you can get away with cruising the huckster tables without being an official Forum attendee. Good scrounge is only a side benefit.
Essentially, I was there in hopes of scoring some uncommon knowledge. I have a perverse information fetish, a desire to know absolutely everything. It's a dangerous affliction. Curiousity killed the cat, and it had nine lives to work with. Still, there's a hole in my head that's greedy for data, and the only information really worth having is the stuff that hasn't got into general circulation. Conferences like this one hold out the hope of inside dope, and that's the reason they can charge $275 to attend. It's hard to pass up that chance to be in the know, especially when it comes in the form of a media pass which bypasses the delegate fees.
In a sense, though, the cost of attending is a Catch-22 illusion. The general public is effectively excluded by cost, sure. But the target audience of producers can write off the expense on their taxes. The panellists get a better deal - they're comped for their hotel and travel. And the professional journalists, who filter the information back to the outside world, are paid to be in attendance. The only people who can't afford it are the ones who don't belong there in the first place. People, in short, like myself.
It's probably a sign of my own paranoia, but I can't help feeling that a structure so exclusive must exist for a reason. Where there are guards there must be treasure, information reserved for the privileged insiders. And ultimately, what makes the Forum such a downer is the fact that it just ain't so. There's not many hard facts here you couldn't find elsewhere, and what there is so diluted with hype that you hardly get a buzz off it.
No doubt this is why I fall back on the belief that the real action must be elsewhere, under the surface.
So what can be said about the surface?
Any individual's perception of the Forum is going to be very different, depending on where your interest lies. With two simultaneous tracks of programming, it's impossible to cover everything. I've developed a few guidelines to help decide what sessions to attend, and share them in the hope they may be useful.
If your interest runs to low-budget filmmaking, avoid any session that includes a banker on the panel. Their ante starts around a million bucks, and they gobble up documents like a bulimic paper shredder.
Beware celebrities. Most of the panellists are people you've never heard of. This is a good thing. The few widely recognizable names bolster the Forum's profile, but they rarely have anything interesting to say. A session with John Badham, (director of Saturday Night Fever, WarGames, Point of no Return, etc.) attracted a lot of TV cameras, but offered no more insight than your average Georgia Straight press junket interview. The big finish was a trailer for Badham's upcoming movie release, reinforcing the feeling his appearance was a promotional exercise.
Badham is an American director well-known for his shot-in-B.C. Hollywood blockbusters Stakeout and Bird on a Wire. He's a master of disguising B.C. as Seattle, Chicago and other American locales. The other big-name creative talent at the Forum, screenwriter Robin Swicord (Little Women), is likewise a successful American who has worked in B.C. and is willing to say nice things about us.
It's hard not to see this as part of a generic absence of self-confidence that afflicts English Canadian filmmaking. In the case of the Badham session, even the interviewer, Harlan Jacobson, was an American import.
Given that this was a Canadian event, directed at domestic producers, it's appalling that there were no well-known Canadian writers or directors to be found among the panellists. Surely people like David Cronenberg, Atom Egoyan, Don McKellar, or Sandy Wilson might have sufficient marquee value, and maybe even something intelligent to say about film-making in Canada. Something more penetrating than observations on how difficult it is to find enough garbage to make Vancouver a convincing stand-in for New York.
Passing for American is an affliction particularly endemic in our local film industry; why should the Trade Forum be an exception? The majority of B.C.'s industry revolves around U.S. service productions. America is the master of the game, the home of the big money. As far as I'm concerned, that's one more reason to stay low-budget. But as film funding gets tighter, there is an increasingly narrow margin for Canadian nationalism when it comes to the budget levels the Forum addresses. For domestic producers, though, Canadian content remains an important piece of the financing puzzle, conferring significant tax advantages, higher broadcast fees within Canada and a shot at government money.
It's a schizoid dilemma. At the Canadian Financing seminar, one local producer mentioned a proposed database to track US-resident Canadian talent -- with the idea of slipping them into projects for US TV, without the network execs necessarily being aware they weren't American. Canadian content regulations could be satisfied on the sly, without the stigma of Canuck identification. I even know someone in the local industry who uses an 800 number so potential clients won't recognize his 604 area code and think he's one of those laid-back cappuccino-swilling Vancouver slackers. Myself, I'm considering boosting my credibility by taking lessons with a voice coach to develop a Bronx accent.
Unfortunately, when you ask American producers why they like us so much up here, the first thing they mention is the cheap dollar. Everything else is secondary, even our chameleon scenery. If our currency ever gains strength, the tide will go out with a vengeance. We'll have nothing left to sell, because we haven't established an identity of our own, just a pathological flexibility in imitating elsewhere.
The Forum does like to throw in a panel or two of successful feature filmmakers from outside North America as a half-hearted antidote to the Yankeecentric tone of the proceedings. Last year it was the Brits, this year a lively panel of Ozzies and Kiwis moderated by local Australian ex-patriate, producer Richard Davis. Channel Four from Britain was also well represented. These are English-speaking countries that must deal with the cultural onslaught of the States, but unlike Canada they've been successful in carving out a distinct national profile for their own films, even in the face of an indifferent home audience.
The message from these various corners of the world is sensible and consistent. Don't try to compete with the Yanks; don't waste time with cut-rate imitations of Hollywood flex-epics. The moral, which never seems to take root here, is that the more idiosyncratic and particular to its locale a film remains, the better it plays -- both in its own country and for an export audience.
It's astonishing to learn that Simply Ballroom, the recent Australian hit, managed to recoup its production costs in domestic release. I doubt any English-Canadian film has managed that feat since Porky's. And such self-sufficiency is absolutely essential to the long-term existence of a domestic film industry.
The only way to achieve that independence is to produce films that are better than the American mainstream. We don't have the money to buy bigger stars, sleeker cars or flashier pyrotechnics. About the only thing we can afford to be better at is just being Canadian. And if we do too good a job of passing for American, we lose even that slim advantage.
Having said all that, the Forum's big Canadian name was a washout. The opening luncheon keynote address by MTV guru Moses Znaimer proved to be an even more disappointing exercise in self-promotion than the Badham interview. The "address" was a 30 minute video about Znaimer's CITY-TV operation. Well here's a news flash for you, Moses: it's not much fun watching TV when you can't change the channel. After the infomercial, Znaimer appeared in the flesh for about 15 minutes to take questions, and finished up by suggesting the assembled flock should write the CRTC in support of his application for a TV license in Vancouver.
There was a kernel of interesting information in all this. I'm glad to know that his Latin American music channel is called MuchaMusica, and it's kicking MTV butt in Mexico; this is useful fodder for party conversation. Nor was I aware of the degree of support CITY provides for Canadian feature filmmaking. Still, the slim trickle of useable info was largely obscured by propaganda and posing. It left me with the same used feeling I get from being forced to watch Calvin Klein ads in the movie theatre before a film.
Panels like the one on Digital Filmmaking weren't as outrageously irritating, although they offer a similar sort of advertising with a corporate slant. In this case the panel was sponsored by AVID -- the market leader in digital film/video editing equipment. Two of the panellists happened to be Avid employees, and the third was an editor offering a testimonial to the virtues of non-linear. Their presentation was a reasonably interesting sketch of various areas where filmmaking is going digital -- not just at the editing stage, but in preproduction and production as well. All in all, the promotional push wasn't as outrageous as, say, Subliminal Man off Saturday Night Live (Buy Avid.) The sales pitch was hard to ignore, though, and the kind of thing I'd be considerably annoyed by if I'd actually paid to get in. One such session was plenty. A panel on the Dreamworks ubercorp founded by Spielberg, David Geffen and Jeff Katzenberg (ex head of Disney) looked to be much the same sort of thing, so I gave it a wide berth.
Promotion has a place at events like this, but not when it's disguised as part of the programming. In fact, one of the more interesting things I stumbled across at the Forum was a pitch for the Virtual Film Festival, tucked away among the huckster tables where it belonged.
The Virtual Film Fest falls into the JAWS category. You know: Just Another Web Site. It's set up to provide distribution and promotional information about recent Canadian films, offering video clips, cast & crew lists, and distributor contact info for download. Currently featured films include Double Happiness, Le Confessional, Soul Survivor, Blood & Donuts and many more. Around this kernel, the web designers have built a tasty little simulacrum of a film festival, complete with screening room, cafe, washrooms, press conference room and an on-line magazine of media commentary called Magnet. Better yet, they've added interactive facilities to allow the virtual filmgoers to chat with one another in real time, and contribute to the environment.
Now if you've spent much time on the World Wide Web, likely you've already visited sites the larger American film distributors have created to push their flicks. So what makes this one better? It's coalition of Canadians, number one, not a commercial monolith. It's encouraging to see our independent filmmakers staking a claim on the Internet, given its huge potential as a cheap alternative for international distribution and feedback. At least I encountered one thing at the Forum that appeals to my cheapskate soul. Number two, the perpetrators are film and media artists, not a corporate marketing department, and they seem to have some strange notion that the Web has the potential to be more than the mall in the living room wall. Interactivity doesn't just mean typing in your Mastercard number. Considerable effort has gone into building a virtual environment where users can contribute their own creativity. Consuming is passive interaction, and the Web mainstream is trending hard in this direction. The Virtual Film Festival is more actively interactive, let us say. You can check it out at http://www.virtualfilm.com
Of all the Forum programming, only a breakfast session with Douglas Gayeton gave me a taste of the cutting-edge information I was hungry for. Gayeton is a filmmaker who has detoured into interactive film production. Among other projects he co-designed, co-wrote and directed the interactive CD-ROM feature Johnny Mnemonic that was released as a companion to the movie that came out earlier this year. This project has full motion video cut together on the fly, with the viewer-slash-user determining how the film unfolds by directing the actions of the title character. It's a formidable challenge from a film-making point of view, with every scene needing 360-degree coverage to allow the user freedom of action.
The area of interactive media design is something of a black art. Answers are scarce; few people have even considered what questions need to be asked. Plot is the sequencing of events that make up a story, the organizing principle for the vast majority of films we see. How do you tell a story when the plot is determined by the user? What's your organizing principle if you don't control the plot? Gayeton's approach is to break the story down into Lego-like units, which the user can reassemble in many different ways. Time sequencing becomes much more flexible; emphasis shifts to exploring an environment in which a story is embedded.
Up to now, who has been addressing these questions? For the most part the area has been the preserve of techheads and game designers. A few people on the interface of art and academia have been experimenting with interactive fiction, but then literature has a lot more leeway in terms of its formal structure.
Film is always present tense, real-time. This gives it immediacy, but also tends to lock it into a much more rigid structure of linear cause and effect. There's no shortage of experimental filmmaking, but because it's never made any money, it hasn't had much effect on mainstream film. This new medium allows old questions about dramatic structure to be answered in different ways. More importantly, it has the potential to rake in loads of loot, which means these variant patterns of thought might be reabsorbed by mainstream filmmakers, liberating them from their plot slavery.
Gayeton is among the first filmmakers to tackle this strange new beast, but he's looking for company. He wasn't there to sell himself, or his product. If anything he was pushing the possibilities of an expanded medium. Clearly he's having great fun exploring the grammar of this emerging language. His genuine willingness to share information, and perhaps even bend a few non-disclosure agreements, made this session a Forum highlight.
Gayeton happened to be a holdover guest from the day-long Multimedia conference that preceded the regular Forum programming. He makes me wonder what else I may have missed. Next year I think I'll be skipping the latter in favour of the former. Who knows? Maybe I'll even have enough income to make use of the tax deduction.