- Coming Soon to a Festival Near You ed. by Jeffrey Ruoff
Blurbs on the back of Jeffrey Ruoff’s edited collection Coming Soon to a Festival Near You: Programming Film Festivals, as well as contributors within the work, describe (and promote) the collection as the ‘first book to make film festival programming its main focus.’ With claims for film festivals as the emerging pre-eminent force determining current cinematic experience and tastes (TIFF director Cameron Bailey’s mildly bombastic quotation, opening the book, states that festivals have become “the single most important arbiter of taste in cinema – more important than scholars, or critics, more important even than film schools.” One could be forgiven for wondering what vacuum Bailey’s envisioned festivals spring from, fully formed and originating all that follows them), and with the corollary development of an academic sub-field of ‘film festival studies,’ a discussion of programming work and its role in film festivals feels like a pressing concern. There is a double sense here, then, at this professed christening of a new area of study, of both discovery and explication in the face of the wide range of ideas and questions underpinning the concept of ‘programming.’ This double sense no doubt contributes to the feeling that there are two ways to view Coming Soon. In the first, the book is a thorough success, bringing together scholars, films critics, filmmakers and festival insiders to give an overview of festival practices that covers a wide geographical and historical range in a manner that serves the cinephilic joy that the best festival experiences inculcate. From the other side, the book feels, perhaps unavoidably, like a first step on a much longer journey.
The most impressive aspects of Coming Soon reside in Ruoff’s ability to bring together various figures working in the both the film and film festival industries, and offer their accounts of experiences particular to the festival world. These articles include Mahen Bonetti’s recounting of her founding and development of the New York African Film Festival, James Schamus’ brief but informative-for-festival-novices discussion of the motivations and costs behind the creation of red carpet spectacles, and New York Film Festival director Richard Peña’s detailed discussion of that festival’s history, with its Auteurist and Modernist programming mandate. Ruoff’s interview with Bill and Stella Pence, founders and programmers for thirty-three years of the Telluride Film Festival, presents an opportunity for the Pences to offer up their astute observations about the major turning points and pressures that have lead that festival to its current form. Animator Sayoko Kinoshita provides an account, both illuminating and touching, of her and other’s efforts to found and maintain an International Animation festival in Japan, which ultimately resulted in the creation of the Hiroshima International Animation Festival in 1985. [End Page 79]
Rounding out this group of first person accounts is Zoë Elton’s great piece, “24 Hours @ 24FPS: A Programme Director’s Day.” Elton’s entertaining chapter, describing a ‘composite’ full festival day in her position as Director of Programming for Mill Valley Film Festival, captures something of the particular experience of elation, exhaustion, panic, and simultaneously slow and fast moving time, familiar to anyone who has worked within a large festival context. Beyond that, though, Elton’s piece, in its clear-eyed description of the multiple roles that a programmer must play in a festival (scheduler, shipping coordinator, manager of employees and volunteers, cheerleader, fundraiser, film announcer and pedagogue, among many others), offers compelling primary material for a critical discussion addressing the different concepts that must come into play in developing research modalities for ‘programming’ as a distinct avenue of study. Coming Soon, for the most part, leaves such a critical discussion to future works. Marijke De Valck’s strong opening chapter, “Finding Audiences for Film: Programming in Historical Perspective,” along with Skadi Loist’s chapter detailing queer programming strategies within LGBT festivals, constitute the majority of the book’s reflexive analysis about the nature of programming and the methodological...