Postcard: Melbourne

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 September, 2013, 6:36pm

With more than 400 languages spoken around Australia, it's no surprise that its city restaurants are a cultural smorgasbord. And that love affair with everything from Italian to Iranian, Mexican to Moroccan, is now also up on the big screen.

In Melbourne alone, industry experts estimate there is almost one specialist film festival a week on average. They are not just showcasing dozens of cultures, but also focusing on a variety of subjects ranging from surfing to sustainability, to senior citizens.

For the film buff it's an embarrassment of riches. But even while some cinema professionals see these festivals as a launch pad to successful distribution, others say they are cannibalising themselves and the art-house cinemas.

Kristian Connelly, general manager of Melbourne's 15-screen Cinema Nova, looks upon Australia's second most populous city as possessing a general festival culture. But he sees the numerous film festivals - whether they run from two to three weeks (such as the Melbourne International Film Festival, and French Film Festival) or just a few days (including the Palestinian Film Festival and Iranian Film Festival) - as "a double-edged sword" in one of the strongest movie marketplaces in the world.

Connelly worries that, in these "me first" social media times, when audiences have already had a chance to see a film, box-office takings are likely to be down on opening weekend and the season shortened.

"People miss them because of the short seasons, because it has been 'white anted' [an Australian term for having been subverted from within] by the festival screenings," he says. Connelly cites The Rocket - filmed in Laos, winner of festival awards around the world and a hit at the Melbourne International Film Festival - which ended up being released on only three screens here and doing poorly at the box office.

Connelly's Nova cinemas host the Reel Anime Festival and genre films at Monster Fest and hire out cinemas for others such as the Transitions Festival, which shows environmental films. But he also believes some festivals, once a means of screening niche films which would not be distributed, are becoming more commercial, screening films with distribution already arranged.

"It is ironic that the cultural imperative to put these films in front of audiences is lost," he says. "Some of the festivals are becoming more focused on the commercial side than on the cultural side."

The obscure movies once shown at the popular French Film Festival, for example, "are being marginalised in favour of, say, an additional session of the latest comedy with Audrey Tautou", he says. Immediately after that fest, "ten to 15 titles hit the market at once, competing with each other, cannibalising the market for each other, and yielding questionable results. We can then go for six months or so when we don't have a single French film come along."

But Connelly's view is challenged by Lisa Daniels, director of the annual Queer Film Festival, who says no more than five of that fest's 160 to 170 offerings achieve commercial release. Consequently, her fest "is basically a way of both depicting queer lives on screen, supporting queer filmmakers and bringing the community together in a non-threatening, safe environment", she says.

While she acknowledges there are few weeks of the year without a festival, Daniels says that does not feel over the top to her. "Melbourne is a city that can embrace all these festivals … It does not feel like it is saturation to me. I think people look forward to these events," she says.

Benjamin Zeccola, chief executive officer of the nationwide 19-cinema Palace Cinemas art-house chain, agrees. His company has managed the Italian Film Festival for 20 years, helps organise the Israeli Film Festival, hosts the Bayside Film Festival, and also curates the Spanish Film Festival.

"Some of the small films that cannot afford the marketing campaign on their own can afford it as a festival film," Zeccola says. "The festival gives them the opportunity to be seen in the cinema, how the director envisaged they should be seen."

As for those films that were going to get released, "this is a wonderful launch pad for them", he says. After all, "festivals are great fun - they give you an opportunity to have a party on opening night and just celebrate it", he adds.