Rotterdam Film Festival Fires Programmers the Industry Should Protect

As the Rotterdam Film Festival fires its programming team, questions arise about what it would take to better protect this profession.

Job security in the film industry is never a sure thing. In this moment, it might look particularly fragile if you work in a vulnerable department of Netflix or a redundant division of Warner Bros. To that list, you could also add film festival programmers — and they should have some of the most secure jobs in the industry.

Consider how Netflix stock hits a new low each day in part to an overreliance on algorithms and too much content that not enough people watch. The overwhelming amount of global content production has forced even the biggest streamers to realize that curatorial decisions matter more than pure data, which means the skillsets of a programmer — and it is a skill —  should be at their highest demand. This is particularly true for film festivals, which are defined by curation.

And yet recent events speak to the fragility of the profession. Last month, the International Film Festival Rotterdam laid off its entire programming staff as part of an organizational “restructuring” to be followed by announcing a new team at Cannes. The festival hinted at the move a few weeks ago when it announced a 15 percent staff reduction; this angered and confused programmers, some of whom had worked at the festival for decades. Dutch newspapers began reporting on the situation this week with anonymous testimonies from ex-programmers and others who recently left the festival; some also contacted me to vent about leadership decisions.

This column isn’t here to scold any pandemic-stricken organization forced to scale back its resources, which is practically all of them, after all. But the downsizing of a major film festival at the expense of its most valuable players speaks to a broader crisis at play.

I have long admired Rotterdam from afar (with dates that usually overlap with Sundance, it’s hard for North Americans to make the trek). The 50-year-old Dutch event has earned a rep for uncompromising, non-commercial programming and an ability to launch edgier films into the broader ecosystem. In 2019, the last in-person edition to date, the festival reported 327,000 ticket sales. It also hosts the Cinemart market, a key stopover for many buyers and sellers ahead of Berlin and Cannes.

Programming hits over the years have ranged from Tomas Alfredson’s “Let the Right One In” to Kleber Mendonca Filho’s “Neighboring Sounds.” It’s also a natural waystation for certain key Sundance titles looking to expand their global profiles, particularly those that weren’t accepted at Berlin, where the festival’s scale can dwarf more ambitious work. Major U.S. filmmaking that moved from Sundance to Rotterdam include Kelly Reichardt’s “Old Joy,” Eliza Hittmann’s “It Felt Like Love,” Rick Alverson’s “The Comedy,” and Gillian Robespierre‘s “Obvious Child.” Among those, only Robespierre’s film is a uniform crowdpleaser; the others require the discerning audiences and critical enthusiasm that cinema-first festivals like Rotterdam bring. It’s a unique form of curatorial validation.

“It Felt Like Love”

Gravitas Ventures

Rotterdam’s resources have been shrinking for some time. The festival faced several rounds of budgetary reductions in recent years: from $10 million euros to $9.8 in 2020; the festival went virtual the following year. The budget for the 2023 festival is $7.8 million. A festival representative told me that in the absence of ticket sales, Rotterdam has lost $2 million per year. 

Current artistic director Vanja Kaludjercic took over from Netherlands Film Fund CEO Bero Beyer in late 2019. Any leader of an arts institute who entered into a top job at this time faced an unprecedented trial by fire (see: Sundance director Tabitha Jackson). Kaludjercic’s response appears to have alienated her programming staff. Some complained to me about a sudden loss of autonomy: Rather than trust programmers to make key decisions, any film had to be submitted to a separate committee headed by Kaludjercic for approval.

Programmers said they started to feel more like outside consultants than senior members of the programming team. “There were no normal discussions about films anymore,” one former staffer told me. “It felt like Vanja just wanted to make the program herself.” 

Other former staffers complained about an opaque communications strategy at the previously collegial organization in which programmers had to enter data into endless spreadsheets in order to submit ideas to bureaucratic approval. That was at odds with the often run-and-gun nature of the programming process: Films are often rushing to make festival deadlines and programs can be subject to the whims of the creators themselves. “You are dealing with artistic content,” another former staffer said. “Organizing the festival is a bit of chaos theory. You don’t have time to fill out an Excel sheet with 100 different rules.” 

Programmers and others at the organization told me that pushback to these protocols put them on the chopping block. Kaludjercic declined to address these allegations, but statements emailed to me “on behalf of the IFFR team” by a festival representative disputed them. “We have welcomed everyone’s input at every point during the program restructure, which has been the work of the past two years,” they wrote. “The overall team restructure is linked to both the economic pressures facing the festival, and creating an internal infrastructure, which is more sustainable and cultivates a constantly evolving, vibrant, and dynamic program.” The festival also said it expected to include some of the original programming team among its new hires.

We have yet to see what that looks like. But Beyer, the former Rotterdam director, told me that the restructuring may have been the only way for the festival to cut jobs that were tied to multi-year contracts, given The Netherlands’ ironclad labor laws.

“They had to do something,” he said. “The team has long-term contracts, which makes it impossible to implement changes. These were long-time appointment contracts, which was great job security but made things hard if you want to bring something new. These elements forced them to come to realize they had to reinvent the festival.” 

When Rotterdam announced its restructuring plans two weeks ago, it divided the festival into five amorphous categories: content; communications and audience reach; funding and business growth; business affairs; and operations. That streamlined approach left much of its staff aghast just long enough for many of them to learn that their jobs had been eliminated, although some were invited to apply for new ones. The cuts impacted not only the programming team but also production, IT, and marketing staff — all of which makes it hard to see how a functional operation can press forward.

For programmers, the abrupt shift was particularly jarring. Veteran programmers can spend years building up their network of contacts and a knowledge base that informs their choices. It’s a role that can’t be easily filled by an eager cinephile willing to dig through thousands of submissions. Rotterdam programmer Gerwin Tamsma, for example, focused on regions of the world as far-reaching as Latin America and Scandinavia since 1996. Shelly Kraicer has freelanced as a programmer of Chinese films at the festival for 15 years.

He was particularly disheartened about the restructuring of the festival when I reached out for comment. “This is a conception of the cinema ecosystem that eliminates, or at best marginalizes the art, the artists, the programmers/curators, and a stimulated, intelligence audience that’s part of a community engaged in collaborative experience,” he wrote me. 

Again, it remains to be seen how the festival picks up the pieces and makes the case that Rotterdam remains important. The festival insisted to me that its programming sensibilities would remain unchanged, even though its lineup was tied to the institutional memory of the team it let go. 

The uproar from the former IFFR staff underscores a sense of marginalization in the programming field. Festival programmers are often passionate creatives who do the hard work of scouring the globe for the most exciting cinema. They develop relationships with filmmakers, producers, and sales agents; attend conferences and markets to track works in progress; and sometimes have to make delicate pitches to win over certain premieres. They tend to be ruthless in their assessment of quality and harbor complex opinions about the threshold that makes something worth their audience’s time. That kind of work ethic doesn’t take kindly to corporate machinations. Cut these people off without obvious cause and they will bite. 

Rotterdam is not the only festival to see pushback about such decisions. A similar situation happened two years with the Locarno Film Festival, which abruptly dropped artistic director Lili Hinston and her own programming team with barely a day’s notice (full disclosure: I used to run a workshop for film critics at the festival). A few weeks back, I reported on the unwieldy set of circumstances that led to the abrupt firing of Cannes Directors Fortnight artistic director Paolo Moretti and his team.

Look closer and a pattern starts to emerge. Time and again, programmers are handed harsh reminders that they have little job security even at top-tier festivals.

Not that they need the reminder: Many programmers work in a perpetual nomadic state, bouncing between a range of festival gigs to support themselves however they can. They have no union or otherwise centralized institution to represent their concerns. Festivals themselves have the International Federation of Film Producers, which has represented the regulatory needs of film festivals since 1933. However, a FIAPF rep declined to discuss the programmer situation in Rotterdam, they said, because “there are no standards related to such matters in the FIAPF regulations for international film festivals.” 

There’s the rub. Programmers have no set of centralized standards to protect the work they do. One programmer told me they regard FIAPF as “the boss’ union.” It would be in the interest of the international festival community to create another governing entity to sustain its most valuable profession. 

This challenge is not unique to Europe. Last year, the U.S.-focused Film Festival Alliance told me it was exploring ways for regional festivals to share resources to pay programmers who work for multiple organizations throughout the year. Programmers may feel the constant threat of budgetary reductions, but a more intricate programmer alliance could help address concerns so that when one festival can’t afford someone, another can fill the gaps. 

Nevertheless, there’s a bigger and potentially more troubling issue in the overall frailty of the European festival network. Like everything else in the entertainment space, global streamers have endangered the role of regional festivals as significant launchpads. Festivals are likely to continue to feel squeezed out of the equation; faced with the looming threat of declining ticket sales and anxious sponsors, they will take drastic action. Ergo: Rotterdam.

In that light, the broader industry might want to consider investing in the programming profession for its own needs. Programmers who have spent decades curating work are irreplaceable entities who can bring curatorial finesse to a wide variety of entities — including, yes, streaming.

This isn’t a bold new idea. Programmers often transition into other industry jobs, but that can come at the cost of the abilities they’ve honed. A programmer brought into the streaming domain should be able to cultivate lineups based on their contacts and instinct rather than bureaucratic mandates. Everyone from Netflix to Amazon has poured money into film festival sponsorship over the years; if some measure of that budgetary commitment was tipped into the programming field itself — perhaps by hiring some of these peripatetic festivals staffers — it could address a cultural equation and a commercial problem all at once. 

That problem is this: Whether you’re worried about the bottom line or better movies, we all want great content. And while content wants to be free, the skill involved in choosing it never should be. 

I’m sure I’ve missed some of the nuances of the programming economy and the threat of corporate priorities in the curatorial arena. This is a touchy issue with a lot of professionals who understand its details far better than me. I encourage readers with inside knowledge (or at least strong opinions) to reach out and share their own thoughts about how the Rotterdam situation has played out and what might help this essential profession survive: [email protected]

Browse previous columns here. 

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