The End of Premiere Status — and other musings from the frontlines of GFF 2020

An Editorial by Aaron Zeghers, Festival Director, Gimli Film Festival

The Gimli Film Festival is done playing the “Premiere Status Game” – as I call it – and I couldn’t be happier for it!  Premiere Status has been a disservice to our Festival for years.  It means little-to-nothing to our audience, and as a filmmaker, I abhor it.

For those of you not so familiar with this strange, fetishistic custom, allow me to explain.  When someone releases a film, Film Festivals in Canada and around the world will vie over first a World Premiere, then a North American Premiere, then a Canadian Premiere, then a Regional Premiere (for GFF, Western Canada), then a Provincial Premiere.  The game luckily times out before we reach Postal Codes.

Let us not confuse this with the importance of Festivals programming works that local audiences have not yet had the chance to see.  Providing access to cinematic visions to audiences must be the core goal of any Festival.  But subscribing to a system that puts emphasis on a convoluted determination of a film’s screening history over its artistic vision and overall merits is something completely else.

This is what I call the “Premiere Status Game”. It is a destructive force for the vast majority of us taking part in independent film exhibition, and this statement is more true than ever in the post-COVID film exhibition landscape.  Allow me to explain further…

The Premiere Status Game – A Case Study

You make a film.  Let’s say a documentary film.  Let’s say this film manages to get into a decent Festival for its World Premiere… Not a top tier international festival, but a highly-regarded regional Festival that you are pleased to take part in… like BAFICI in Buenos Aires, Argentina.  You are delighted!  You scrape together funds to attend, have a wonderful time, and as a surprise bonus your film wins an award at this Festival!  All of a sudden, many other Festivals take notice of your film and start requesting to view it or program it, including a few in Europe.  After agreeing to take part in a much respected Festival in Germany and a few other Festivals in mainland Europe, you get an email from Sheffield Doc/Fest explaining that your film has been accepted, so long as you can guarantee them the European Premiere of your Film.

The whistle blows and the Premiere Status Game begins!  Now you must choose… pull your film from a number of other European Festivals you have been accepted into (many of which are actually offering screening fees, unlike Sheffield), or turn down this opportunity to screen at Sheffield Doc/Fest, one of the largest Documentary Film Festivals in the world.  Checkmate!

This – believe it or not – is the true story of a film I released in 2019 called DANNY.  Because I chose to screen at Sheffield Doc/Fest (which involved pulling my film from other European Festivals), Sheffield remains the only European Festival to ever screen this film.  By the time I had the opportunity to re-submit to some of the Festivals that were interested in the film in the first place (Festivals that were likely a better fit for the film to begin with), the film was “too old”.  Welcome to the nightmare that is the dreaded Premiere Status Game.

When confronted with decisions like this, either way your hard work suffers and is seen by fewer people.  Either way, audiences somewhere will lose the opportunity to see your work. Either way, there are festivals that aren’t able to program the work that they wanted to in the first place.  This is how the Premiere Status Game is a lose-lose-lose situation for filmmakers, filmgoers and film festivals.  Only a small portion of Festivals and Filmmakers – let’s call them the 1% – actually benefit from these exclusionary and outdated practices.

The Premiere Status Game basically pits Festivals against one another in a hubris-fuelled competition to beat each other to the proverbial punch, bragging about their World Premiere of this film, or North American premiere of that film.  In a time of global pandemic, it is more important perhaps than ever for Film Festivals and indeed Arts Organizations across the sector to be working together, supporting each other, learning from each others innovations, vibing off each others programming and most importantly collaborating.  Instead, the Premiere Status Game encourages Festivals to embattle and undermine one another in a pitiful attempt at one upmanship.

Premieres during a Pandemic…

Sadly, the COVID-19 pandemic has amplified the destructive nature of the Premiere Status Game.  Many distributors have opted to not release their films until they secure a “good premiere” at an in-person Festival.  While I can understand and sympathize with this rationale, it’s a dangerous prospect to choose not to adapt and simply wait instead for the old world to re-open.  Of businesses, movie theatres will be among the last to reopen normally. And in the Film Festival circuit, the biggest Film Festivals will be the last to be able to properly resume operations, and these are tragically the Festivals that filmmakers are waiting on to secure their prestigious premieres.  Case in point, the Toronto International Film Festival is offering “a reduced number of films” this year, meaning more filmmakers than ever will NOT get the glorious premiere that they surely deserve.  Where do these films go then?

Many Festivals are going online – like GFF this year – because it is the only alternative aside from shutting down completely.  Some films are holding out, awaiting their premiere-worthy Festival opportunity, which I can empathize with but which would worry me as a filmmaker.  Many other films that aspire to be sold to the Netflix oligarchy are refusing to take part in Online Film Festivals, as this may jeopardize their prospects as being purchased by the streaming giant – or so they think.  However, the vast majority of independent films aren’t picked up by Netflix – let’s call them the 99% – and for those films that reject online film festival opportunities, they are losing screening fees and exposure to regional audiences and the promotion and press that can come with exhibiting.

All of this is why GFF has announced this year: “There will be NO premieres at GFF 2020”.  We consider NONE of our online screenings as premieres despite the film’s screening history, and the only time the word “premiere” will be muttered at GFF 2020 is in an effort to pummel this useless concept into obscurity, where it belongs.

Film Festivals have a duty to do what is best for Filmmakers, Audiences

Nearly all major Film Festivals in Canada are charities, and as such according the Canada Revenue Agency, “the organization’s purposes must be exclusively and legally charitable” and “it must be established for the benefit of the public”.  In my understanding this means that as Festival Administrators we must operate at all times with the best interests of our filmgoers and our filmmakers at heart, as well as our staff, volunteers, etc.

In my opinion, this means that all filmmakers should be paid a fair minimum wage for their work – something that an incredible amount of government funded Festivals across Canada still fail to do.  It also means that we should be paying our staff a fair liveable wage, and doing our best to show our appreciation and guarantee a safe work environment for our volunteers as well as staff.  And of course it means that we must program the best films we are able to: films that we believe will resonate with our audiences, challenge them, delight them, and leave a lasting impact on them. These films more than ever must include diverse perspectives that truly represent not just our regions or countries but in fact the entire globe – the entirety of humanity.

And with this in mind, I have a plea for all Film Festivals still engaged in the Premiere Status Game: “Please, just stop.”  Join GFF in recusing ourselves from the Premiere Status Game and instead let us revel in the actual tangible beauties of cinematic visions, not the pompous protocol and self-congratulatory ritual of a bygone era.  Death to Premiere Status! And good riddance.

Please note, the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s, and do no necessarily reflect the view of the Gimli Film Festival.


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