Film Festival History in Top 6 Major Historical Events

The film festival history and its twisty-turny past are filled with notable incidents and tie in with some of the most integral political and historical events of the last century. We’ve dived into this melange, to give you a crash-course in the film festival history, the lifeblood of FilmFestivalLife. Here’s our essential six major events you should know.

The modern film festival conjures up many impressions in the popular imagination – a whirlwind of red carpets, gala premieres, yacht parties and yes – don’t forget it! – outstanding filmmaking. That’s not it though. There are more of these cinematic extravaganza’s than you’d expect (FYI: nobody’s quite sure of the real number) and they cater for all types of audiences – whether industry or public, short or feature, documentary or animation, the modern film festival is a dynamic, not-always-mega-glam beast.

ONE – It all begun in Venice

Memories of this year’s trip to the Lido are still fresh in the memory. But cast your mind back 84 years(!), as that’s when the Venice International Film Festival started it all.

Inaugurated in 1932, it was part of the city’s annual International Art Exhibition, with the countries of Italy, France, Germany, Great Britain, USA and USSR represented. However, despite the number of film coming from different countries, the festival was mainly used by Mussolini as a tool of fascist propaganda to showcase and legitimize the Italian fascist national identity. Politics 1st. Filmmaking 2nd.

TWO – Cannes got started a bit later than intended

Discontent with Venice’s fascist undertones led to the foundation of the grand dame, the Cannes Film Festival. Originally scheduled for September 1939, the German invasion of Poland saw the festival cancelled and it did not start up again until 1946, a whole 7 years later.

Back in the 30’s only three film festivals were operating: the Venice International Film Festival, Moscow International Film Festival and Cannes. Today? Not even your most wild guess will match the actual number.

THREE – It used to be an “Olympics of cinema” rather than a true “celebration of filmmaking”

Get ready for a raft of big names in the film festival history.

In the 40’s and 50’s many other major international film festivals got going – including Karlovy Vary, an initiative of a newly nationalized Czech film industry, Edinburgh, Locarno (born as a continuation of Venice), Berlin, followed in 1956 by the San Sebastian Film Festival in Spain and the BFI London Film Festival.

The Film Festival started as a European phenomenon combining political and nationalistic affairs – an attempt by states to appropriate filmmaking, like a World Fair for trade or the Olympics for sport. In nearly all of the festivals mentioned, they typically had national selection committees that chose films that represented their country at the festivals – just like national committees select athletes to compete at the Olympics. The 60’s saw this change somewhat with the advent of the “New Wave” and counter-culture, but something bigger awaits…

FOUR – How Cannes changed the game, twice

Next up, two big earth-shattering changes in the film festival history.

In 1972, the Cannes Film Festival made the Festival Director responsible for the entire selection of official entries, eliminating from the selection process the national committees. In 1972, at the request of General Delegate Maurice Bessy, the Festival President, Favre le Bret and the Board of Directors made a resolution. From then on, the festival would be the sole decision-maker and would select those films from all over the world it wanted to present. This reformation in the film selection process allowed for a variety of alternative content – promoting art and avant-garde cinema – to enter the festival. Modern-day film festival programming was born.

Here’s the 2nd biggie. In the late 70’s, big business started to play a role with the Le Marche du Film, which, whilst initiated in 1959, started to be more regulated in the 1976 and then acquired more cred. Ever since, the Film Market has become the leading market place in the world for the more suited, booted and deal-breaking part of the whole soirée.

FIVE – European Film Circuit? Nope, it’s a Global Film Circuit now

Welcome to the 80’s, the time of spandex tights, Top Gun and err…bad haircuts?

Away from these snazzy 80’s clichés, festivals became professionalized. Film professionals discovered the value of the festivals beyond their function as cinematic showcases – they were a place where they could meet international colleagues, compare situations and strategies across borders, and exchange ideas to improve business. Film festivals became central sites and meeting points for players in the global film industry.

Yes, you read that correctly – global. Europe wasn’t the center of gravity anymore. Say hello to Sundance, Toronto, Telluride, and Montreal. An international film festival circuit started to be shaped out of this increasingly intricate network of events: one including major international film festivals, regional film festivals, and themed or specialised festivals (for docs, experimental and much much more).

SIX – Art cinema can make money too

Oh, the late 80’s and 90’s, the time when people realized that it not only the star-heavy blockbusters, but “art cinema” could be economically viable too. Check out the Weinstein brothers, whose films paired festival prestige with aggressive marketing techniques – most notably, Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape (’89 Palme d’Or winner) and Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (’95 Palme d’Or winner). Both films went on to receive awards attention and became indie blockbusters. With pre-sales film financing introduced at this time period too, it became clear that “festival films” could be also profitable. As they should be.

Long live the film festival!

Simona Patrizi

Simona Patrizi is project and communication manager at FFL. If you wanna join FFL as a contributor, share your expertise in festival submissions management and film festival career just reach her at simona@filmfestivallife.com