SIFF spotlight: programming a festival

This year’s SIFF presents 189 narrative features, 54 documentary features, 13 archival films, and 150 short films from 67 countries. Twenty-five of those films are world premieres. Thirty-six are North American premieres and 12 are US premieres. No matter you how slice it, that’s a lot of films – and those are just the films that made it into the festival programming. Every year SIFF gets thousands of submissions for their festival. So how do they decide which films make it in?

Dan Doody, programmer of the Midnight Adrenaline series, and Clare Canzoneri, who programs Face the Music, explained the process to me.

The work of the programming panel – the group of programmers responsible for deciding what goes in and what doesn’t – begins in winter of the previous year, around November or December, although SIFF programming manager Beth Barrett tracks films from other festivals all throughout the year, festivals like Toronto, San Sebastian, Sundance, Rotterdam, and Berlin. While the SIFF team are keeping an eye on other festivals to see what’s other there, they’re also sending out the word that they’re accepting submissions.

And submissions they get. When the programming panels start meeting in January to talk about what films they might want included in the upcoming festival, they’re facing around 4,000 submissions, each of which needs to be reviewed along with the many films the programmers have solicited directly after seeing them at another festival or by keeping their ears open for buzz about new films.

The winnowing process starts early, says Dan. The first order of business is to weed out films that aren’t quite SIFF quality. This doesn’t necessarily that they’re bad films, just that they don’t fit; for example, “We got a bunch of Asian films that were very region specific and weren’t a good fit for Western audiences.”

By February, the programmers start “hammering down” in their panel dicussion: “I liked this – can someone else take a look at it?” is the primary question of the day. Sometimes the decision to include a film is easy – all, or at least a majority, of the programmers feel confident that a particular movie is a great fit for SIFF. Sometimes there’s equally agreement in the other direction. And sometimes there’s disagreement – a specific film’s champion might have to fight for it and win over the rest of the panel.

All of the films do get watched. SIFF manages this amazing job by utilizing a team of pre-screeners who take home boxes of films to review. While sitting around watching movies all day sounds pretty easy and fun, there is some serious work involved. Surely you’ve brought home at least one movie that you disliked enough to turn it off a few minutes in and move on with your life. The pre-screeners are required to log the amount of time that they watch the films – there’s a required minimum – and it turns out that most of them do watch every single frame.

Clare says, “I’m unable to not watch the whole film.”

Dan, on the other hand, says, “If I’m not interested in 20 minutes, it won’t work with an audience.” He says he can usually tell in the first five minutes if it’s going to be worth it. If the movie gets to the 20 minute mark without becoming engaging, he may move forward in the film to see if it does get better. He adds that if the film is solicited, the whole thing should be watched regardless of the 20 minute rule. “Something may not be bad – it’s just not my thing – but it may please a bigger audience.”

That’s the ultimate key to which films get included in the festival – how likely they are to fulfill the SIFF mission of presenting the best cinema available to the audience. “We can’t always get everything we love, but we have a wide perspective of films.”

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