Why Are There Bad Movies at Film Festivals?

May 24, 2017
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Early summer is a great time to be a film festival connoisseur. Sundance, Cannes, and SXSW bring tantalizing announcements and reviews that will define much of the film conversation for the rest of the year. Love of cinema is in the air, but the promise of greatness raises an interesting question:

Why are there bad movies at film festivals?

Yes, film is an art and art is subjective and some people like their bacon wiggly and some people like it crispy but, let’s be honest, we’ve all been to a festival screening where the collective audience reaction is, “Really? This got in?” In a space where the cinematic art form is being celebrated (mostly) free from Hollywood gatekeeping, it’s especially fascinating to see that space filled by a bad apple. How did it get there? Not all bad festival films are the same, though, so we’ve attempted to break down the differences..

Note: Hopefully this list is so well-written that I don’t even have to mention specific movie examples. If you need a reminder of some famous festival duds, though, there are places online for that sort of thing.  

The Social Issues Bandwagon

They're not all winners like Fruitvale Station.

Where You’ll See It: Sundance or an issues-conscious festival.

What It Is: Movies have a wonderful ability to communicate important social issues in powerful ways. Fruitvale Station was a Sundance smash that launched the directing career of Ryan Coogler and the acting career of Michael B. Jordan to new heights. Put a social issue in the wrong hands, however, and the resulting movie can range from ham-fisted chore to miscalculated train wreck. The filmmakers’ hearts were in the right place, but that doesn’t make sitting through the movie any easier.

Why It Is: There are a lot of film festivals. Strong themes can help a festival define itself and stick out from the rest of the pack. A strong eye for socially conscious movies can expand a festival’s impact outside of the filmmaking world and reinforce its promise of timely, cutting edge, cinema.

Michael Latt, a former marketing consultant for Sundance who worked on social media content production and marketing for films like Fruitvale Station and The Birth of a Nation, notes that the desire for socially-conscious content can stem from programmers’ desires to keep their festival relevant.

“Like any other brand, it’s about creating a good brand. It’s really about staying ahead of the trends and really being a trailblazer about whatever patterns you’re seeing… Sundance’s championing of filmmakers of color and women is what has kept them relevant and I think it works for them. Other festivals have tried to do that, but they try to force it for marketing reasons.”

When the artistic and messaging merit balance out, the results are riveting and inclusive in only the most refreshing ways. It’s when the message overpowers the artistry, though, that duds slip through.

The Star Power that Isn’t

Sometimes it doesn't work out as well as 12 Years a Slave.

Includes: Famous actors, directors, writers, and producers.

What It Is: Let’s face it, you’re here for the same reason everyone else is. Whatshisface from those things you love is starring or Whatshername from those other movies you love is directing (or both). This project must be good, why else would they be involved? Turns out, someone got duped during the making of this project, and now you and the rest of the audience feel duped as well.

Why It Is: Look at any festival’s page on FilmFreeway. If a famous person has attended, their picture on there. Star involvement helps movies get funded and it also helps festivals attract filmmakers and audiences (Great PR = Great Profit). As Michael Latt noted in our conversation, star power extends to every facet of festival programming.

“It’s great to have movies that premiere with star power, who you can have on panels and on your jury and other things like that.”

April Lamb, a producer whose latest feature, Hunter Gatherer, premiered at SXSW and took her all over the film festival map, remembers a Sundance movie she attended just to watch a specific actor.

“She’s a great young actress. I thought, ‘I’ll go watch it. I want to see if she’s good in the lead.’ So I go and I probably couldn’t have hated it any more. I saw some people walk out, and then I saw the distributor who ended up buying it walk out. I get it, he's got a ton of films to see, but still! It was like an alien directed that movie. Someone who truly doesn't understand normal human reactions and impulses.”

Festival movies can be great for stars too, helping to revive careers or allow stars to work on projects they otherwise might not get. Sometimes the risk is worth it. Other times, eesh.

Cult Potential Not Reached

They aimed for Eraserhead, and missed.

Includes: The So Bad It’s Good Movie and the Crazy Premise movie.

What It Is: This movie is batshit crazy. You’re probably seeing it for that reason, assuming that it was put together by some crazy genius who somehow made it all work. Instead, you just sat through 90 minutes of a whole lot of crazy and very little genius. In some cases, you might even want to take a shower afterwards.

Why It Is: Predicting a cult classic is like finding the future NBA star in an elementary school gym class. You might have a hunch, but the odds aren’t in your favor. That doesn’t mean festivals shouldn’t try to curate for audiences on the lookout for the next Enter the Void. Michael Latt notes:

“It could end up being one of those cult classics that people love to hate, right? Speaking of films that are poorly made? That’s a tough question. I don’t know how those slip through, but they seem to every year.”

Really though, if the movie is weird enough, somebody will like it. In the case of April Lamb, she has been that somebody. She talks about a movie that played near Hunter Gatherer at one of its festivals.

“I liked this weird little movie. It made me feel something, it’s super strange. It was sort of derivative, which I normally hate but here I kind of liked it. I don’t know why I had this reaction to it and literally everyone I know despised it… Maybe those programmers were like, ‘Let’s just program some stuff where everyone wonders why we programmed it.’ You never know.”

So if you’re ever in the middle of one of these movies and miserable about it, just know that it’s bringing joy to someone.

High Concept, Low Results

Tangerine without great characters is just iPhones.

Includes: Technical and/or artistic ambition.

What It Is: This movie is pushing a limit of some sort. Nobody’s shot an ENTIRE MOVIE this way! The whole movie was only made with one _____ and a ______! Whatever it is, it sounds good on paper, but it’s a real drag in practice. As it turns out, the gusto it took to try such an ambitious feat wasn’t enough to make a good movie. Shoot for the moon. If you miss, well you got into the festival anyway.

Why It Is: Film festivals are supposed to help push the boundaries of filmmaking, and sometimes that fact alone can make a movie worth its spot. Hopefully the movie is still good but, if it isn’t, the audiences still got to try something new.

The Low Submission Problem

Where You’ll See It: Locally-focused and/or young film festivals.

What It Is: Good for you. You’re supporting a local film festival that only showcases local films, and it’s only a few years old! These festivals are the future and you’re taking part in it. Unfortunately, those warm and fuzzy vibes aren’t extending to this movie, which clearly isn’t technically or artistically sound enough to warrant its selection anywhere. What’s going on here?

Why It Is: Remember when I said that there are a lot of festivals? Remember when I also talked about how festivals need to build up strong reputations to draw filmmakers? Those things don’t happen overnight, and if a festival has limited itself to the kinds of films it will accept, that makes finding enough quality work even more challenging. Sometimes all the slots get filled up, but not all of them are gonna be winners.

Why do we care about this? 

Because bad movies say as much about film festivals as the good ones do, and not all of it is damning. Film festivals are special in their promotion of things we care about and, in that pursuit, sometimes they fall short. So remember, no matter what kind of bad film festival movie you find yourself sitting through next, just be glad you’re at a festival for movies and there’s probably a better movie to wash the bad taste out.  

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Brent L Zaffino

I am a filmmaker out of Atlanta, Georgia currently working as a freelance director and videographer for music videos, short films, and corporate videos.

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