The curse of the film festival
Films can be broken into so many genres: action, comedy, drama, science fiction, horror, thrillers and combinations of them all.
Back in the day, the range of genres was really just used to be tragedy and comedy; all the other genres are simply sub genres. In Egypt, even though genres don't have such a wide range, it's still either comedy or drama, and as well as the occasional industry idea of action. However, there is type of films that almost take on their own genre, the so-called aflam al-mohriganat ("festival films").
These are films that seem to really get their success by winning awards, since their box office potentials are small or almost non-existent.
On Thursday night at the closing ceremony of the Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF), the Egyptian film "Microphone" won. The film stars Khaled Abu ElNega and Yourssa el-Louzi; just like Abu Elnega's film from last year, "Heliopolis", which also won at the CIFF.
Neither films got much play at the theatres because they were viewed as just being films for the festivals, and thus would suffer the same fate.
Perhaps it's not really the filmmakers who are responsible for this term, or who thought of their film(s) as this, that because that would be more than a little pretentious. On the other hand, nothing makes a director happy than having his work by seen by the largest possible audience.
Regardless, giving that so-called "festival film" label to a film is something of a death sentence; it's the equivalent of an American film getting an NC-17 rating, which is the highest rating the Motion Picture Association of America can give to a film, and with that rating the film won't be able to play as widely as other films.
But if we think that those films are the same as American independent cinema, those films in fact have a better shot of being successful than the latter films, and there have been examples of that like: "The Blair Witch Project" (1999) and "Paranormal Activity" (2007).
This includes the latter's sequel as well, which was released two months ago to great success.
An even a better example of films is those that actually gain the audience's excitement and eventually money at the box office by doing the festival circuit, winning countless awards, like "American Beauty" (1999), which broke more than 100 million dollars and won the Oscar for best film.
The most recent example would be Darren Aronfsky's "Black Swan", starring Natalie Portman. The film had its world premiere as the opening film at the 67th Venice Film Festival on September 1, 2010.
"Black Swan" was also screened in competition, and was presented in a sneak screening at the Telluride Film Festival on September 5, 2010.
It also had a gala screening at the 35th Toronto International Film Festival later in the month. In October 2010, "Black Swan" was screened at the New Orleans Film Festival, the Austin Film Festival, and the London Film Festival.
In November 2010, the film was screened at American Film Institute's AFI Fest in Los Angeles.
The film's publicity was pretty much done in these films festival, and when it finally hit theatres on a limited release, the film raked in 1.4 million dollars from 18 theatres; only the per theatre average was $80,212, which ranks the 21st of the all time list, and that's only the beginning for the film.
There are so many theories on why these non-mainstream films failed. The thing about those independent films and so-called festivals films is that they actually carry a stigma that the average person doesn't like to face.
These films tend to require an amount of audience investment in bearing the burden of creativity - they don't just present themselves to the audience, and this is something that many audiences are not used to.
It's almost a fear; people go to the movies as a form of entertainment, but it's actually more about escapism. Mainstream films are made with that in mind, even if it's subconsciously, but those "other" films provoke something outside of that box, and that's where the failure of these films comes from.
In Hollywood, there has been a progressive "embracing" of the independent film as a viable concept - not just as entertainment, but commercially as well. While it takes a specific kind of independent film to generate enough mass appeal to become commercially successful, it is possible and has happened.
In Egypt on the other hand, it's extremely unlikely for this to happen, since even the less-mainstream films from the big production companies often tank.
If this is the case, than what can we expect from truly independent films, especially those that may challenge more bluntly traditional culture attitudes? The key word is challenge - I think that it honestly has less to do with the fact that such explorations may require more personal reflection on the part of the audience than that the audience thinks that this is too much work for entertainment, and have been conditioned by multiple forces to seek out easier entertainment.
A "festival film" is just that because the filmmakers know in advance that this isn't the type of film that they make for popular consumption.
Another theory, or realistically speaking, one which might as well be taken as another factor is that the power of a film critic is really lost on the Egyptian audiences and has no meaning.
This is in contradistinction to Hollywood, where terrible reviews from critics can sometimes spell the commercial failure of a film.
In Hollywood, Friday is usually the day of new film releases, and in every newspaper and magazine the reviews of all these films are printed. In fact, the studios actually use quotations from the critics as part of their advertising.
The fact that a film is award-winning makes people want to see it more actually, not less; but here it's quite the opposite. People are not conditioned for this, and studios fear to make "these kinds of films" because of box office failures, which is an insult to the intellect of filmgoers, who they think may not care for a film that is a thought provoking. So they are just fed cliched storylines filled with dull jokes.
The Egyptian cultural experience in cinema has been dumbed down to this, which isn't just a commentary on the film industry, but to everything, especially education - but that's a whole other article.