Reel change

What's in the future for our old-school film fest?

SLAP TWO TAPES together, pulled randomly off the shelves at Blockbuster, and you've got yourself a film festival. Stream a few more off the Internet and you can even call yourself international. Heck, if you're willing to give out a couple yard-sale bowling trophies as awards, a crew from Entertainment Tonight will show up at your door, with Joan Rivers yapping at their heels. Therein lies the problem for our beloved SIFF, which celebrated its 25th anniversary only last year and now stares uneasily into a new millennium. Film festivals have never been so popular, so pervasive, so—well—devalued by their sheer number. Today, SIFF cofounder and festival director Darryl Macdonald bemoans "the spread of the film festival virus," which has infected "every podunk town in America." Yet SIFF played its part in that growth, he notes, providing a studio-plus-art-film model that bigger fests have emulated then overshadowed. "The marketplace has changed," Macdonald observes, "There's more industry that attends those festivals than here . . . which can create a feeding frenzy." The bidding wars and stretch limos at Cannes and Sundance prove him right, yet the medium of film itself is already over 100 years old. SIFF is young by that standard but old by comparison to the newer and more profitable paradigms of entertainment: video, pay-per-view, cable, home satellite, DVD, video games, computer games, handheld computer games, computers themselves, the Internet, digital convergence, digital video, digital this, digital that . . . the digital list goes on and on. Moreover, the $9.5 billion domestic home video market exceeds the $7.4 billion theatrical box office—per Variety's 1999 figures—precisely because technology has made it so much easier to watch movies from your couch. Given all the talk about bandwidth and kbps, with cable and phone companies furiously competing to bring the fat pipe to your door, won't all the movies ever made soon be one click away? You can already search for the most esoteric titles on IMDB (a division of Amazon), you can already see short flicks on Seattle's AtomFilms, and you know you're lusting after that wall-size, flat-screen digital TV. No more standing in movie lines. No more parking hassles. No more sticky floors. No more stale popcorn. No more fat-assed moviegoers pressing their butts into you as they clamber down the row, spilling their soda in your lap. Wait a minute, you ask, does that mean no more film festivals? SO WHITHER SIFF? How does the venerable institution adjust to our breathlessly busy age of entertainment overload and online movies? Macdonald speaks of outreach programs and targeted marketing to maintain SIFF's attendance. (Last year 140,000 pushed through the turnstiles.) "We routinely seem to grow by between 5 and 8 percent per year," he boasts, noting that SIFF has "the largest audience size of any festival in the US—by far." Macdonald seems convinced that bookish, arts-loving Seattle can continue to support what graying boomer cin顳tes may still refer to as film culture, the sense of community and discovery that values motion picture art—gasp!--over commerce. Yet in recent years, he concedes, "Our concern, particularly with youth, was that they're only interested in Scream 3, Batman 5, whatever, the big Hollywood blockbusters, and [that unlike] the early days of the festival, college students aren't by and large interested in alternative cinema or foreign films." Call them VCR babies, call them the MP3 generation, call them the Run Lola Run crowd, more familiar with browsers than The Searchers. This year SIFF hopes to lure them with the Aussie slasher film parody Cut plus some Hong Kong action flicks, but clever marketing can't reverse the social trends of our time-strapped, techbesotted culture. Significantly, SIFF has begun to show video works and employ digital projection, despite—or perhaps because of—what some critics have called its snooty bias toward traditional film. Now, at least, Macdonald professes to be unfazed by the threat of the digital. "We embrace it," he declares, and the fest significantly includes iFilm and AtomFilms among this year's sponsors. "I believe that just like with film, the dot-coms that are streaming movies over the Web—they will find their exact niche," says Macdonald. "Certainly short films are an ideal format to be streaming over the Web. But I don't know that I'd want to watch a feature film in that format." Or, to put it another way, if you're at home alone watching a movie, is it still a movie? Doesn't the filmgoing experience itself—the social aspect—count as much as the distribution technology and content? "There's no question that the theatrical experience is richer, the sense of community around a festival is richer," Macdonald enthuses. Indeed, like those old Pioneer Square office buildings being rewired with T1 lines, SIFF's somewhat stogy bricks-andmortar image could turn out to be the key to its continued survival. Tired from a day of staring at little glowing screens, do office workers really want to go home to more of the same? Look at the people seated around you before the lights dim and the music swells. You may not laugh or cry when they do, you may not even like the same movies, but for better or worse, they're part of the show.

 
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