At first glance, Australia appears to be experiencing a golden age of film festivals.
In Melbourne alone, myriad events beyond the Melbourne International Film Festival jostle for cinema lovers’ attention — and dollars.
There are Italian, French, German, Scandinavian, Human Rights and Arts, Young at Heart, Football, Turkish, American Essentials and Great British film festivals, to name a few, each running for sometimes weeks at a time throughout the year.
Amid the deluge, it’s easy to miss that many of these aren’t independent events, but are run by one chain: Palace Cinemas.
“We do try to promote them as their own distinct identities,” says festivals co-ordinator Alice McShane, one of five Palace staff members working year-round on festivals.
Elysia Zeccola, a member of the family that founded and continues to run Palace, serves as festivals director, alongside a festivals manager, two co-ordinators and an assistant.
McShane says the festivals are an economical means of “testing the waters, because it’s so expensive to distribute film . . . enormously, enormously expensive.”
She cites the example of Icelandic film Rams to demonstrate how Palace uses festivals as a proving ground to identify films ripe for wider release. The group’s distribution arm, Palace Films, acquired it for their Scandinavian Film Festival, where it was so successful that they later released it into the broader art house circuit.
McShane notes that other distributors also use Palace’s festivals as launching pads. British war dramedy Their Finest, distributed by Transmission films, screened once at each venue during the Young At Heart Seniors Film Festival, with every session selling out. The film has since been given a general cinema release.
“It’s one of those things where word gets out somehow . . . and every weekend I keep seeing that it’s selling out.”
Palace has niche swagger beyond its raw numbers. It has 107 screens nationwide, around five per cent of the total. But a major expansion is under way, with the chain planning to more than double its screens in the next two years.
In a sign of how convoluted film exhibition can be, the Palace expansion is being made possible in part by the Hoyts group. Its cinema technologies division is supplying and servicing the movie projectors that Palace will be installing.
The expansion comes amid intensifying commercial pressures on cinemas. By some counts, just 16 per cent of cinema seats in Australia are sold each year. Hollywood franchises continue to dominate box office takings, squeezing smaller films out of cinemas and into festivals or other events.
Researcher Lauren Carroll Harris has found that while the number of independent cinemas across Australia continues to decline, the number of festivals has dramatically risen: from 29 in 2004 to 83 a decade later.
For every breakthrough like Rams or Their Finest, countless other films both begin and end their runs on the festival circuit. Screening a film as part of a packaged event, as opposed to standard release, concentrates limited marketing resources and helps maximise the chance for films to draw an audience.
Carroll Harris says that Palace’s festivals are the most notable example of an “exhibitor-driven” approach to festivals, as opposed to the traditional “curator-driven” model. While curator-driven festivals such as the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) are not-for-profit, exhibitor-driven festivals are complicated by the bottom line of the exhibitor.
McShane notes that Palace’s festivals are attended by the chain’s core audience, along with members of the various diasporas with cultural connections to specific festivals.
“Palace has always been a European-aligned brand,” she says. “We do find that audiences really respond well to films from Europe. There’s an appetite.”
She notes that the appetite continues to grow as the broader cinema audiences become used to the stars, directors and film output of other countries.
“People are becoming familiar with actors; they know them from previous years . . . they’re not as terrified of subtitles.”
Figures including Juliette Binoche, Isabelle Huppert and Judi Dench have become stars of the art-house circuit, virtually guaranteeing interest in a
certain kind of movie the way that Emma Stone or Ryan Gosling do for others.
McShane argues that Palace’s festivals pick up a lot of films that would otherwise go unscreened in Australia.
“We were finding that there’s an enormous amount of films from certain regions of the world that weren’t getting screened . . . There’s only so many films that the Melbourne International Film Festival or Sydney can screen.”
Some industry figures also observe that Palace is also able to exclude from those festivals some of the titles for which it has distribution rights.
“The benefit for Palace of being in exhibition and distribution is that they can keep a lot of their titles out of MIFF, or other festivals, and save them for their own,” notes critic and festival director Cerise Howard. A spokesperson for Palace declined to comment on Howard’s claim, except to say that it does send certain films to festivals.
Palace also unashamedly programs more commercially-minded fare for its festivals. The “bread and butter” of Palace’s offering is, according to Howard, “the more middlebrow end of art-house film.”
McShane argues that “things like putting [foreign] thrillers and action movies on the big screen, that’s important for the expat community to see. They relish the opportunity.”
In the chain’s biggest coup to date, the Queensland Government has announced that Screen Queensland will be partnering with Palace for the resurrected Brisbane International Film Festival (BIFF). It’s the first time in recent memory that a major state-supported festival has been run in partnership with a single cinema chain.
The last BIFF took place in 2013. It was replaced by the ill-fated Brisbane Asia Pacific Film Festival, which ended its brief run last year.
At the same time, a group of academics associated with the University of Queensland started the well-received Queensland Film Festival. Their festival was supported by Screen Queensland to the tune of $4000 this year. The new BIFF is getting $250,000 in funding.
“The Brisbane film ecosystem is about to receive a big jolt,” says Howard.
It is also a major shift for how state-based film festivals are run. Festivals such as MIFF and the Sydney Film Festival take place across multiple screening venues and neither is run with just a single cinema chain as partner.
Carroll Harris notes that while publicly subsidising cinemas is common practice in countries like France, it’s almost unheard of here, with the exception of Melbourne’s Australian Centre for the Moving Image.
Richard Sowada, the co-director of the new BIFF, recently curated the program for Palace’s “American Essentials” festival, and agrees that BIFF represents a significant shift in how major film festivals are run.
“There’s no question about it,” he says. “[But] people need to look deeper than a commercial exhibition chain partnering with the government. It’s not a surface relationship like that.”
The festival has a number of “outputs” it’s striving to meet, he says. “Some of them are commercial . . . and some of them [are] utterly cultural and community-based.
“Palace — or whoever might be involved — can learn a lot about the cultural sector, and the cultural sector can learn a lot from the commercial sector, and they have been until, potentially, right now, completely separate.”
Doubts have been raised about whether the Brisbane film ecosystem is large enough to sustain both festivals. ABC Radio National film critic Jason Di Rosso has said that the new BIFF will mean that the Queensland Film Festival “has probably reached the end of the road . . . It no longer has a reason to exist, really,” he told listeners a few weeks ago.
But Sowada disagrees. “Look, the proximity of dates can be a discussion point, because they’re on soon and we’re a month following,” he says. But on the whole, he argues, there are “a lot of films to go around, and there’s a lot of audience to go around as well.”
Some film insiders are concerned that the new BIFF template gives one film exhibitor and distributor disproportionate influence over programming, as opposed to the independent model that is currently the norm for major film festivals.
Sowada says that Palace will provide “program input”, but says that the other primary link is “really the logistics structure.”
“They have a great economy of scale with a whole range of internal things — printing and freight and business structures, and a built in audience which takes a long, long time to develop.”
He also argues that unlike Palace’s in-house festivals, BIFF will be “as independent as much as it can possibly be. The challenge is to marry commercial sustainability to cultural impact.”
► This story was also published by The Guardian.