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Film Festivals: A Place For Found Family & Cultivating Community

In the autumn of 2019, I raced home from my small college town to attend my first-ever Chicago International Film Festival. After the four-and-a-half-hour drive, the forty-minute Green Line ride, and the twenty-minute walk to the AMC River East, I arrived in my seat in the nick of time. Despite making it through this gauntlet, I still felt somewhat daunted by navigating a film festival for the first time, alone. Although there was comfort in knowing I was surrounded by cinephiles, easing some of my anxieties, I still tread lightly as a newcomer to this clique. I long for their acceptance as a coequal cinema goer.

We come together to be captivated and entranced; we are all continuously contributing to preserving and enhancing the experience of those who sit beside us. Of course, the cinema is a religion-neutral house of worship, yet there is something quite divine and faithful about our unspoken, agreed-upon theatre etiquette; our community guidelines give us the feeling that we belong to something greater.

Due to a general shift in our education systems and economic drivers, humanistic, culture-centric pastimes are no longer at the center of society’s attention or budget allocations. Theaters, for performance arts and motion pictures, are continuing to lose money and struggle with filling seats. It takes a village to sustain community spaces, and as we usher in new generations and new audiences, the frequent film festival fiends hold a responsibility to nurture and guide the rookies.

There is no hierarchy to public places where it is acceptable to be alone, but movie theaters and film festivals are two of the unchallenging venues to blend in and go unnoticed: it’s dark, it’s quiet, and everyone is (or should be) focused on one thing, the movie being screened. As we collectively ease back into conversing with others, film festivals, and going to the movies in general, is a necessary communal activity whose potential for socializing directly with others promises rewards—at a cost.

Amidst the ongoing loneliness epidemic in the United States, many articles that explore ways to combat this phenomenon fail to mention that there is an immense fear of doing things alone and the general anxiety that can come with being seen alone doing those things. Cultivating a community can, to an extent, be uncomfortable because it requires one to go forth alone and pursue new things outside of their familiar and frequented spaces. However, a community cannot be found in one’s living room, and movie streaming services lack any sort of social component. 

On the other hand, going to the movies alone never quite feels lonely since there are likely (hopefully) going to be others in attendance. I must note that there is a particular distinction between being alone and the feeling of loneliness. Even if one sits solo through a screening, the film medium and overall centering of visual storytelling deny the cinemagoer any feeling of loneliness because the attempt that most movies make is to draw in the viewer and make them feel as if what they are witnessing is their true reality. It is perhaps one of the most acceptable forms of escapism. 

Film festivals are a natural extension of that escapism, especially for those wanting to further break out of their shell. It’s one of the simplest, most feasible places for starting a conversation with a stranger. There is an assumed commonality of interest (the movies, duh). Even if the opinions on a film’s execution differ, film festivals focus on showcasing work that spurs dialogue amongst its attendees, hoping that it will then spread to wider audiences as well.

The full-bodied freedom of choice that comes with attending festivals alone, however, comes at a price. Any beginner's guide for going to a film festival must mention that the filmgoer should be prepared to wait in lines, particularly between screenings. This (precious) time spent outside of the confines of the cinema is used for the essentials: release (go to the bathroom), refuel (with snacks and drinks), and relax (in line, while you wait to be admitted for the next movie).  For those who attend with another or others, the ability to tackle these necessities concurrently is not even a second thought; one gets snacks, one holds the spot in line, and they take turns going to the bathroom; my American dream. 

Despite this conundrum that the lone-goer faces, there’s an easy resolve: find a line buddy. This is the simplest step in creating community at a festival. Trust is established through “Do you mind watching my stuff for a moment?” Line time, on the surface, can be quite stressful. Will I be admitted to the screening? If I do make it, will I be able to find a good seat? However, line time can also serve as the field for the cross-pollination of minds; cinematic camaraderie fills the air. In a recent segment from a local Northern Alabama news outlet, reporter Jillian Kay states that folks are networking and canoodling between showings and that when she joined in, she met folks with all different types of cultural and professional backgrounds. Similar to sporting events, the cinema welcomes any and all; regardless of class, creed, race, or age, the commonality of interests and the desire to be with others who also show up to support those interests continue to keep us all going. 

Championing an existing, creative-focused third space allows one to contribute to cultural history. Oftentimes, but not always, artists create and produce their work for it to be viewed and received by a wider audience. While this varies amongst mediums, audience reception is tethered to the success of any art form that takes place in a theater setting. 

Unlike other third spaces for community gatherings (e.g. malls, parks, libraries, and churches), film festivals and casual cinema attendance require, sometimes a significant, financial input from those who wish to partake. Some of the biggest film-buff festivals, such as Sundance, Cannes, Telluride, and Venice Biennale, feed off of exclusivity due to the steep cost that comes with attendance. Passes alone can be upwards of $500, and a single movie ticket for a film festival can be as much as $50 (or more) for premiere screenings.  

This cost is not only a barrier to film appreciators but also to filmmakers. Filmmaker, Mario Novoa outlines here the various requirements one must pay for when attending a festival. While some filmmakers often have their travel and lodging accommodated by the distributor or other sponsors, for independent and emerging artists, this is not always financially feasible. For critics and casual fans, the total attendance budget can be out of reach. 

Telluride Film Festival 2022, shot on Kodak Half-frame 35mm

I’d also be remiss to not recount the alienating feeling of being one of the only young, people of color in the audience. In 2022, I attended my first “exclusive” festival, Telluride Film Festival, which takes place over Labor Day weekend in a remote mountain town in Colorado. Although I was truly enamored by the movie programming and overall experience, I very vividly remember seeing and introducing myself to another Black woman attending. She is a well-known editor, and in our brief, but welcoming and warming, conversation, she mentioned how she likely would not return on a personal dime due to the excessive costs and unfortunate lack of diversity of the audience. This is not to say I ever felt unsafe or unwelcome; I simply desire that these institutional diversity initiatives also extended into the implementation of accessibility initiatives. 

Many festivals continue to evolve towards progressive and authentically inclusive programming, and it is paramount that as we work towards diversifying representation in media and film, on both sides of the camera, we also need to continue to promote and support cultivating a diverse audience for in-cinema and festival viewings. Diverse stories require diverse audiences, otherwise, there is a disconnect between the artist’s intention and the audience’s perception and reception. As individuals come together and show up to take part in the same activity, like watching a movie, they come together to create a communal experience. There is a cyclical effect when showing up to support filmmakers and the broader creative industry; there is a symbiotic relationship between an artist and an appreciator. 

If I cared to put it elegantly, I’d say that there is a delicate balance between the dependency of a filmmaker and the audience, but I’d be flat-out lying. The audience, outside of boasting box office numbers, is perhaps the smallest factor in generating change within the industry. Therefore, film festivals and cinematic institutions also hold an even greater responsibility to nurture the next generation of festival attendees and work toward creating greater accessibility—from people with disabilities to attendees of all identities—by cultivating inclusive, intersectional audiences. 

Of course, it feels fabulous to fly to watch films in new places, and cinemas are a place that can feel like a home away from home. Yet, I’d be remiss if I failed to mention how local festivals are as rewarding, easier to navigate (in some cases), and depending on where “local” is, the levels of diversity can vary. My home base of Chicago, albeit a big city here in the U.S., hosts over 30 film festivals of varying sizes, and those are only the ones I counted on the Chicago Alliance of Film Festival website

With an abundance of options for film festivals to patron in urban cities comes a plentitude of differences between ticket prices, the types of films and titles screened, and the overall audience demographics. This is also applicable to film festivals in more suburban and rural areas as well. These “smaller,” boutique festivals often have more accessible ticket pricing whereas the Chicago International Film Festival and the New York Film Festival both average a regular-screening ticket price of over $22 (per movie). Additionally, local festivals sometimes screen films that have smaller (or nonexistent) distribution strategies, and showcasing at a festival can aid in the possibility of the movie being picked up for wider distribution. Again, we see the remnants of our cyclical, co-dependent relationship between the maker and the audience member. 

While there are significant benefits for the freshman festgoer to reap from starting with local festivals, for those in less urban areas and for people of color, the lack of diversity is often even greater. One of my closest film friends recounted her experience at the Wisconsin Film Festival, which takes place in Madison, WI, stating how not only was she the only brown audience member, but she was also the only attendee under the (assumed) age of 35. When discussing diversity in the festival space, it is paramount that we do so holistically, at both the large and local scale.

From personal experience of attending film festivals, often alone and (always) as a woman of color, it has been a wonderful evolution to continue to create new friendships year after year while simultaneously maintaining old ones and connecting them all together. There is beauty in knowing that we all return, or show up for the first time, annually to celebrate. Year after year, I count the days till I can return to the cinemas that I call home and be with my found family to rejoice in our love for the silver screen. Crowds come for the movies, and they come back because they’ve found good company. This year I’ll be bringing my father with me to the Telluride Film Festival for the first time; who am I to call institutions to action for audience redevelopment without contributing to that change myself? 

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