The Berlin International Film Festival will open its 68th edition Thursday night with a grand premiere for Wes Anderson’s “Isle of Dogs.” However, the more defining event may come several days later when the autonomous screening series Berlin Critics’ Week will host a “pub debate” at a local bar, the Anna Koschke, to discuss the future of this major European festival. It’s longtime artistic director Dieter Kosslick’s last year in the role, and he’s been assailed for years as the Berlinale’s mixed bag of programming strikes many as a missed opportunity. “The fundamental questions remain unanswered,” reads the invite to the debate. “Can the Berlinale become a different festival than it is now? What would that entail? And would that be desirable?”
These inquiries aren’t academic. Few major festivals are run by women, or by people of color; several key positions held by white men have now been vacated, creating tremendous prospects for injecting a more complex identity into the festival ecosystem.
For many, the answer comes down to one easy solution: Hire a woman.
Four major international festivals — Sundance, Berlin, Cannes’ Directors Fortnight and the Toronto International Film Festival — are currently hiring top programming roles. The people who fill those slots could have a radical impact on the kinds of movies resonating on the festival circuit, and eventually, those with the potential to reach wider audiences.
“Change at this level will impact the entire field, because currently 90 percent of film festivals follow the lead of the top fests — Sundance, Berlin, TIFF and Cannes, from programming many of the same films to even copying their incremental logistical improvements,” said film marketing consultant Brian Newman, a former CEO of the Tribeca Film Institute. “To my mind, the single greatest factor limiting the diversity of films, their directors, and cast has been the lack of diversity in the primary gatekeepers of the film world.”
Few active programmers will speak openly about these shifts, but many acknowledged on background that the current moment holds prospects of significant progress for many festivals. “With change comes opportunity for new voices and new talents,” said Nicole Guillemet, a former Sundance Institute vice president and an early co-director of the Sundance Film Festival. “In particular, given the extreme underrepresentation of women in levels of high responsibility in the film world, the time is right to choose women as directors of some major festivals. There are none at present.”
That argument has surfaced in ongoing conversations about gender disparity in programming lineups. At the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, 37 percent of 122 feature films were directed by women, an increase from previous editions but still far below gender parity. Many festivals fare worse, including Berlin, where only 21 percent of the films in the current lineup are directed by women.
The incoming change at Berlin has been more openly discussed than any other festival. In November 2017, a consortium of 79 German filmmakers (including “Toni Erdmann” heavyweight Maren Ade) published an open letter advocating for a gender-balanced international selection committee to find Kosslick’s successor. That idea did not go through, though IndieWire has learned that the leading contenders for the position are all women, and include Kirsten Niehuus, managing director of regional film support office Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg.
Meanwhile, interviews are currently under way for a new artistic director at the 50-year-old Directors’ Fortnight, the crucial platform for international cinema that takes place in tandem with the Cannes Film Festival competition. Artistic director Edouard Waintrop, who has overseen programming for the last six years, said last fall that he was pushed out of his current position by the French directors’ guild, headed by filmmaker Celine Sciamma. She told Variety that she would seek an artistic director more responsive to “new voices” and would aim to hire a woman.
Directors’ Fortnight began interviewing candidates last week. Current possibilities include the establishment of a programming collective, or hiring Paolo Moretti, director of the highly-regarded La Roche-sur-Yon Festival in western France. Hiring Moretti wouldn’t address the festival’s desire to put a woman in charge, but Moretti’s eclectic taste and awareness of up-and-comers suits the job.
The day after concluding its 2018 edition, Sundance announced that Trevor Groth, the widely beloved director of programming and a festival staffer since 1993, was leaving to join new film investment company 30WEST (he will attend Berlin in that role). That leaves America’s most influential festival lacking a key figure to oversee filmmaker relationships, programming agendas, and cull from thousands of submissions that could launch filmmaking careers.
Groth, a 45-year-old movie buff who spent his entire career with the festival, was known for taking an egalitarian approach to the programming process to ensure all 20 full-time team members could discuss the lineup. That process reflected his own experience ascending the ranks, and the role benefited from a younger leader who was still a veteran at the organization. A new voice could change the programming dynamic, but the senior role would still report to festival director John Cooper, a Sundance veteran himself who has overseen the direction of the festival over the past seven years. He is expected to begin interviewing candidates in April as the festival aims to fill the position by the end of the summer, ahead of its deadlines for the 2019 edition.
Although 2018 saw Sundance host breakouts ranging from “Blindspotting” to “Sorry to Bother You,” the new programmer will have to continue the work of increasing the festival’s diversity. If Sundance chooses to restructure and promote from within, there are plenty of women it might consider, including longtime programmers Caroline Libresco, Kim Yutani, and Shari Frilot, who has been crucial in the development of the festival’s forward-looking New Frontiers lineup.
Cooper could also look beyond Sundance’s current team, where rising programming talent is plentiful. Some insiders have suggested that Sundance consider AFI Fest director Jacqueline Lyanga, or a beloved figure in the independent film community with a deep well of contacts beyond the programming world, such as Franklin Leonard, founder of the venerated screenplay survey The Black List.
The major festival circuit culminates in the fall with TIFF, where CEO Piers Handling will complete his final edition after 25 years. A year-round operation that generates $189 million in revenue, Handling has seen TIFF become a focal point for dealmaking and a major Oscar-season platform, with a sprawling international lineup.
TIFF’s artistic director, Cameron Bailey, is one of the few people of color running a major festival; his programming team is one of the most diverse out there, with a majority of women. However, as the search for a new TIFF CEO began, Bailey’s name surfaced as a leading candidate — again raising the potential for another high-profile programming opening. At the end of 2017, Handling appointed Bailey to run the festival’s next strategic plan, which takes the festival through 2022.
“It’s an exciting time for our organization,” said TIFF director of programming Kerri Craddock. “We owe everything we have to our audience. They are our path and our future as well. We can’t say that we launch every film that hits top 10 lists at the end of the year, but they mostly play at Toronto. We want to deliver the best cinema to our amazing diverse audience. There’s no one formula for success.”
Any new programmer would also have to grapple with the move beyond feature films as the sole factor in designing a festival. Each of these festivals has incorporated television into their programming, and must contend with the pressure to acknowledge new media, including virtual reality. Some have suggested that the ideal 21st century programmer doesn’t see her job as working for a film festival, but in creating a curated look at visual storytelling as a whole.
To some extent, the range of open positions at these festivals may be pure serendipity — with Kosslick and Handling, it’s a generational shift, whereas Sundance is losing a homegrown talent ready for a new challenge, and Directors’ Fortnight has been known to wrestle with its purpose and replace its leader every few years.
Nevertheless, each of these festivals has the potential to launch major films of every size, presenting them to distributors keen on dominating an ever-changing landscape in which audience sensibilities continue to fragment. Some stalwarts may feel that the nuts-and-bolts of festival programming should continue to churn with the status quo, but if there was ever a moment for festivals to reinvent the kind of visions they sustain, it’s now.