Increasingly it seems film festivals have to be about more than just the films. That isn’t to say they’re becoming carnivalesque in their additional gimmicks, from live music to crazy events involving roller skating or a mix of debate and boxing; but there is a lot of that stuff going on, too. Film festivals have to be about the experience of watching films, because today there are so many options for seeing the stuff they’re programming, eventually.
And lately there are even ways to see festival films outside of a festival during the festival, from crowdfunder reward streams to special theatrical showings around the U.S. Not all the selected films go on to have distribution, but those that don’t aren’t the ones attracting audiences to festivals anyway. There has to be a reason for people to attend in order to see those smaller works, and simply having larger works they already want to see isn’t enough.
The best means of getting us there is quite plain and probably obvious: present the films well and develop a strong sense of community in which those films can be enjoyed collectively and discussed. Sheffield Doc/Fest has that appeal down pat, which is important as the event garners more competition from London’s Open City Docs Fest, also held in June, and Sundance London, which takes place in April, not to mention the theatrical, television and Netflix releases of many of its own films.
In addition to some new favorites, I saw docs this week I didn’t care for, and I saw docs I’d already seen, and almost always there was still something worthwhile involved. It’s a place where you can appreciate the enjoyment others are having with a film you’re not into, because you have a sense of who these docuphiles are and why they’re there. And afterward you can have a great time arguing against and then hearing their case.