Missing Pieces: Why Film Festivals Treat Programmers as Disposable

While the industry relies on programmers, they have never been treated as more disposable. What would it take to change that?

With layoffs at Netflix and leadership shakeups at Warner Bros. Discovery, the needs of film festival programmers might sound like a low priority. At least, that’s the kind of thinking that’s created a huge predicament for this profession, and one that’s become acute as festivals slim their budgets to attempt post-COVID comebacks. 

A few weeks ago, this column addressed the way the job of the programmer has been marginalized by the industry, and at Cannes last month, many people told me they were clamoring for a follow-up.

For the sliver of the film community that doesn’t work with multimillion marketing budgets, festivals are a critical launchpad. The international festival calendar is roaring back to action, as Cannes made clear. The cocktail events teased everything from upcoming editions of Locarno in August to TIFF in the fall, with the latter bringing the majority of its robust new programming team to the south of France. 

Cannes was brimming with confidence about the need for the in-person festivals around the world. During the first weekend, I moderated a conversation about the future of festivals with 30West executive Trevor Groth, who served as director of programming for Sundance for years, and asked him to address reports that the Park City event planned to retain its hybrid format next year. 

“It’s a tough one,” he said. “One of the things they said was that they reached more people than ever, which is a good talking point. But how much of an impact did that have on those people versus when you have the in-person festival? There was a certain type of movie I didn’t love until I went to a film festival. Certain types of films, if they’re presented at a festival, you savor them and appreciate them in a different way. I think that happens at film festivals far more than with someone streaming it at home, when they might not have the patience to finish it.”

As Groth points out, festivals advocate for certain movies to have a place in the culture and business of movies.

But there is little in the way of a support system for the people who pick those movies. Programmers of the World United, a loose consortium of programmers from around the world, hosted a packed happy hour on the first day of the festival where frustrations about the lack of infrastructure and respect for the profession were rampant. However, I detected little in the way of mobilization efforts.

An upcoming report from the Film Festival Alliance examines festival staffing, workforce, and compensation, primarily in the U.S. (the full report will be released later this month, but the organization sent it to me in advance). Participating festivals have not been named, but the sample size is formidable: 108 film organizations participated, most of which had annual operating costs of over $500,000. 

Most festivals with revenue of $100,000 or more retained staff and independent contractors (16 percent of the festivals are entirely run by volunteers). The report includes some remarkable details about operational structure, inclusivity efforts, and even vaccination policies.

But for the purposes of this column, I was struck by details pertaining to financial security of programming staff. According to the survey, programming director compensation at these festivals range from a low of $500 (insert shock emoji here) to a high of $240,000 (ditto); additionally, the report shows that festivals often spend as much as half of their revenue on director-level compensation.

Meanwhile, so many programmers stitch together their profession in piecemeal that festivals build their budgets around the notion that programming is a disposable piece of the larger whole. As festivals rework their budgets around pandemic-era cuts, the job has never looked more vulnerable. Many festivals struggle to create a programming staff that supports year-round work, which in turn devalues the market for programmers as whole. (Disclosure: IndieWire is owned by Penske Media, a majority stakeholder in SXSW, which has year-round programming staff in addition to freelancers.)

When I wrote in this weekly column about the layoffs at International Film Festival Rotterdam, the festival said in an official statement that it was working toward creating a more sustainable infrastructure that took into account its $2 million euro budget cuts. At Cannes, IFFR announced its new programming team, and its leadership said they finally were ready to talk. So on the first weekend of Cannes, I dropped by the Netherlands Pavilion to sit down with IFFR managing director Marjan Van der Haar and artistic director Vanja Kaludjercic to get their side of the story.  

IFFR

“We looked closely at how much a healthy, sustainable percentage of the budget would be the cost of staff,” Van der Haar told me, adding that they looked to the structures of other European festivals operating on a similar scale, including San Sebastian, Locarno, and IDFA. “Then we went back to the drawing board to make an organization which is able to deliver on our future goals.”

Outside of Kaludjercic, the new programming staff is entirely comprised of seasonal contractors. “Financially, this is the way we can assure we’re in a healthy position for the festival we want to deliver, which is still large in scale,” Kaludjercic said. 

She added that the freelance structure of the staff was an outgrowth of her own experiences. “My career was exactly like that until just a few years ago,” she said. “I understand the precarity of it, but I also understand how much opportunity it gave me. If it weren’t for freelance gigs of a great variety, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I lived in many places that were really expensive. I know what it’s like when you’re juggling I don’t know how many gigs and nobody’s paying, but I managed to learn about programming because for many years, I was programming in different places.” 

This is a business that requires hustle and passion to justify the hard work, but the outcome of IFFR’s belt-tightening is symptomatic of a larger existential threat to the profession. Elsewhere at Cannes, I came across Ava Cahen, the 35-year-old new artistic director of Critics’ Week, whose entire programming committee operates on a volunteer basis.

“I’m going to work on that,” she told me. “When you commit to this work, you have to balance it with other work that brings in revenue. It’s a work of passion, but we need a selection committee that doesn’t put them in a precarious position.” 

The irony of all these discussions was the image of Cannes director Thierry Fremaux living like a rock star at Cannes, working the red carpet each day and cavorting with the talent as the crowds looked on. Fremaux embodies Cannes and the decision-making process behind the official selection. Some programmers I know disparaged the festival for not opening up its team to more contributions from the international programming community. “They are protecting the sales agents,” one veteran groused to me, insinuating that the Cannes selection process has more to do with the preferences of the people selling movies than the ones who officially pick them. 

Maybe so. But the potential for Cannes to elevate the job of a festival programmer to movie star status is also kind of amazing, and worthy of consideration by the rest of the industry: Programmers serve as the connective tissue between talent and the festival environment. That’s not a disposable role; it’s the one that makes a festival worthwhile in the first place.

But it’s not one that the current festival business model treats as a priority. The problem this creates goes beyond maintaining status quo. It hurts the potential to bring new talent into a field in dire need of diversification. If we want better representation for rising filmmaking voices, there must be considerable investment in the work of programming those films.

If festivals can’t afford year-round staff, the industry should rethink how it allocates its resources to support this profession. It’s not enough to sponsor festivals themselves; a separate fund may be necessary specifically for freelance programmers, and a governing body to sort out how to allocate those funds. It could support programmers who can verify their employment status at multiple festivals, which would take the pressure off individual festivals to figure out Tetris-like solutions to retain staff.

Who’s best suited to organize such support? On the European side, my money’s on the International Federation of Film Producers, which represents the needs of major festivals but has yet to sort out its role on the curatorial side of things. In North America, the Film Festival Alliance has already raised the question of how festivals might better share resources when their programming teams overlap. They would be well-suited to formalize that concept with a centralized fund. 

The question of who pays for all this is a thornier one. As the industry looks to a future that treats in-person festivals as a crucial part of their existence, major distributors and other entities reliant on festivals should consider the way that some aspect of their annual budget might support the people whose programming efforts fuel their operations. Contribute to a collective fund and everyone stands to benefit: Festivals retain better programmers and festivals expose audiences to the best films, which enables the industry to support a wider array of cinema.

I don’t expect Netflix or Warner Bros. Discovery to prioritize programmer salaries while considering their vast bottom-line expectations, but that speaks to the disconnect between the programming field and the industry that benefits from its labor.

There are countless grants and other initiatives out there to support filmmakers; there could always be more. But once those movies are made, someone has to give them the platform that gets them seen, and current evidence suggests that if the industry doesn’t spend some money to support that process, nobody else will. 

Is there another way to support the programming field through a centralization of resources? Or is the profession fated to collapse in a sea of discontent? Send me your solutions and I might dig into them with a future column: [email protected]

Browse previous columns here. 

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Missing Pieces: Why Film Festivals Treat Programmers as Disposable (Column)

About: Bunga Citra