In a city with as many cinephiles as Toronto, competition can become inevitable for people who run festivals. What a lot of people also fail to realize is that a lot of these people know each other beyond just a business level; a conundrum that has led to hundreds of journalistic think pieces being written about the question of there being too many festivals in the city. But does the question really get any different if you ask two people who know each other with conflicting events on the same night? Is there a sad sort of mournfulness over being forced into an overlapping situation? If you asked Chris MaGee, one of the chief curators and programmers for the Shinsedai Japanese Cinema Festival (which kicked off Thursday night at The Revue and runs through Sunday) and one of his close friends James McNally, the curator of Shorts That Are Not Pants (a short film series that holds its third instalment at The NFB on Friday night at 7:00pm), they would say they’re incredibly supportive of one another and the city they live in.
Two programmers for smaller niche based film festivals that both have equally high standing within the local film blogger community, James and Chris have known each other for quite some time, and while they are somewhat bummed out to be competing with one another, they will come together to co-present a series of shorts during Shinsedai on Saturday afternoon at 4:30pm.
As a writer who sometimes struggles to keep up with everything film related that goes on in the city on a constant weekly basis and who feels bad when he can’t give everyone equal coverage, I invited James and Chris for a sit down at a local pub to talk about their feelings on cinema culture in Toronto, how they select their films, and their upcoming partnership. It wasn’t so much intended to be an interview as it was a dialogue between two smaller festival programmers about their experiences.
You can check out the full line-up and get more information on Shinsedai here, and you can find out all about this instalment of Shorts That Are Not Pants (which may be one of your last chances to ever catch a film at the NFB theatre in Toronto) here. You can check out Chris’ writing on film over at J-Film Pow-Wow, and James can be found over at Toronto Screen Shots.
You guys clearly like each other a lot, and you’ve even partnered to some extent this weekend, but I have to ask you if you think there are just too many festivals and screening series in the city? It’s a question I’m sick of hearing, personally, but I don’t think there’s been all that many pieces where writers have been asking the proprietors of smaller festivals what their thoughts are.
Chris MaGee: I was asked that today. I had a Ryerson journalism student who wanted to do a phone interview with me today. She asked me if I thought there were too many and I was a pain and I said I was going to counter that question with another question. Why do you think there are people – groups of film lovers, grassroots organizations – that think it’s necessary to start film festivals? What is it that they feel is not being represented by TIFF, HotDocs, you know, the big ones. What is it? I think that’s the interesting question.
You have an organization like Real Asian, which has been a huge supporter of Shinsedai, but at the same time, they are looking at also having to go up against an extra Korean Film Festival, Shinsedai making the move downtown to the review, another Japanese film festival, and I think two North Korean film festivals. Basically, you are wondering what it is that people aren’t getting from the big ones.
James McNally: Well, here’s a question for you, and you don’t have to answer this, but lets say that after all the work that you put in year after you think it isn’t growing and someone like Real Asian came to you and said they would like to make you guys a part of their program about new, independent Japanese cinema. It’s the flip side to your original question.
CM: Absorption? Well, we were talking about this before we started recording, but the big problem with even answering that question one way or the other is the fact that right now everybody’s broke. Everybody does this, and I know across the board including myself that my lines of credit are maxed out. We have sponsorship, but there’s also always a certain amount of putting your own money into these things no matter who you are. There’s part of you that says that if someone is going to pay you to do something you love, then you do it. You need money to buy food and pay the rent, but I think there’s… I don’t know. Sometimes you get the sense that there are people in Toronto who might be practicing with smaller festivals to get jobs with larger ones. Or also, are there other festivals out there that are just doing it for the sheer love of it? You have to ask yourself what the smaller festivals do.
JM: I mean, I think the barrier to entry is pretty low to the point where we can all start our own festivals. That doesn’t mean they’ll be successful, but at least to get them to the point where they are up and running. I’m putting my own money into this, but I could conceivably say – now mine’s not a big, multi-day yearly festival like yours – that I could probably run this on my own for two or three years without going broke. But in the back of your head, you’re thinking that if it’s not breaking even or it isn’t successful that someone would pay you to do the same thing, even if it’s not completely under your control, that it would be tempting.
CM: I think it’s the control thing that gets most people. That’s a big thing.
JM: But it’s also a huge learning experience because you’re always going to find something out you never thought of before.
CM: The proverbial trial by fire. (pause) But are there too many film festivals in the city? It’s interesting because There’s an article that was brought to my attention in The Star about the demise of downtown because of the shift in the industry. And it touched on something that I’ve been dealing with, which was trying to get out the word about advanced ticket sales. There’s so many things going on in the city nowadays that the days of advanced ticket sales, unless you are a major organization, are kind of becoming extinct. So many people are deciding at the last minute to go and show up and buy then.
JM: Yeah, I’m in the same mental space as you where I just keep thinking “I have this much work and this much work” and “What if no one shows up?” It’s that kind of fear, you know? It’s tough to build an audience, but you just have to keep going…
CM: And short films are tough.
JM: Yeah, but if you can do it, you have to just keep doing it because nothing ever takes off instantly, I don’t think.
CM: I totally understand why you had to do that night, what with the NFB closing, but it just sucks that we have to be on the same weekend because you know how much I love to throw my support behind your events.
JM: It stinks, but you can’t avoid it. It’s summer, and it isn’t even just film stuff. There are things going on culturally that have nothing to do with film that we’re competing with, especially when regardless of air conditioning, you’re asking people to stay inside in the dark. There’s so many things to be doing in this city. And the other thing is that when someone like you makes a booking a year in advance or three months ahead like I did, no one can tell you exactly what’s going to be happening on that weekend. But with the advance tickets, again, that’s another side effect of the economic downturn.
Now when it comes to actually booking your festivals with all of this other competition, do you find it makes things a lot harder or it opens up a bigger pool that you guys can work from?
JM: I think the whole reason I started what I was doing was because there really wasn’t many shorts screenings outside of the few festivals that did them. The only sort of, I wouldn’t even say competition, would be the CFC Worldwide Shorts Festival, and we’ve never had any conflicts so far, and we’ve even had some friendly overlap between each other because there’s so many shorts that once they get screened, they never show again and can sometimes get lost to the sands of time. I’ve never run into any competition. For me, it’s wide open. It’s a niche thing that I don’t think many people are really going for.
It’s not like I’m looking for premieres or anything like that. There’s plenty of stuff that I’ve seen locally that I would be glad to show again. There was a film that we showed called Trotteur, which played TIFF’s Canada’s Top Ten screening and actually played before The Artist in Quebec cinemas, but that was also only one night at the Lightbox without a relatively large amount of people there. I thought that I really liked it and I wanted people to see it. To me, it doesn’t matter. The people who are going to my thing might not even be going to or aware of anything else going on with these films. It’s all about going to see these films.
We also have a film from smaller local festivals like Toronto Youth Shorts, which is great because even setting up my series led to me getting put on the radar for that festival, as well, so it’s good that you’re supporting each other like that in a way. And Chris and I are co-presenting the shorts package together on Saturday afternoon. It just means that there’s that much more exposure for the films.
CM: That’s one good thing with Shinsedai, that I’ve always tried to book shorts before the features because there’s some really interesting shorts being done in short films, so you can come to From the Great White North and check out the Yubari short film selections. These are a bit longer, we’re talking around 20-35 minutes long, but all of our feature films will have a short film before it.
JM: Yeah, this is the first time we’ve done the co-presenting, but we had talked about it. It’s great because we already know each other personally and it’s not like we’re ever cannibalizing each other. Except for this weekend. (laughs) It’s great to share.
CM: I really admire what James has done so much. I remember when he used to actually do these same kind of shorts programs out of his apartment. He has a knack for programming and I want to help promote people who are doing good work. (I don’t think that sense of camaraderie) happens nearly enough. What Shorts Not Pants and Shinsedai share is that it’s about the films and the quality of the films.
But even for us, exposure is a big thing, but Toronto premieres are something that we’re often on the look for because we’re dealing with a very particular niche. You get the feeling that with features that anyone who wanted to see that movie that already played in the city before has already seen it, so to put the money behind something like that won’t be cheap and definitely a lot riskier than something that was risky based on content alone.
With competition, we sometimes run into it, especially when it comes to genre films that we might think of playing. If you run into a genre film, you can run into that. But with so many events going on you have to remember that good fences make good friends. You try and work with it or just move on. I have no delusions or illusions that we are in any way a power festival that can scare people away from another film. It’s the opposite, really.
To be honest, the only thing we ran into this year was that we ran into competition from around the world – not just Toronto – in booking films that deal with the tragedy of the tsunami and earthquake. Just so much of it, and these films need to be seen, but in March of this year the Japanese Foundation screened a whole month of these films. Then there were others that were screening them. There were some lost due to that. Ultimately, this year we don’t have a documentary on the disaster in the line-up for that very reason. But we are doing a special screening on Friday at 7pm of the 1938 movie Ghost Cat and the Mysterious Shamisen in co-operation with the National Film Centre in Tokyo where all proceeds will be going to Niji-Iro “Rainbow” Cinema Support project that helps to provide aid, construction materials, hot meals to the still 325,000 people homeless from both the tsunami and the nuclear disaster. We’re friends with some of the people who run it, so we know where exactly they’re coming from.
When you guys are marketing festivals like these that you guys admit are catering to niche audiences, is it harder or more important to make sure that the community knows or that the more adventurous film goes knows?
JM: I just really evangelize for shorts no matter what I do because I don’t think people know of or see many of them. I think if you give people examples of some really great short films that they would say they’re pretty cool. Once you get them they probably have them for life, but I don’t think compared to some of the other festivals that there’s that many hardcore fans of shorts. I mean, the CFC festival begs to differ otherwise, but that’s one big once a year production, but I think since I also do my own generic film blog that I can beat the drum year round to try and bring people in that are just film lovers and might not necessarily know short films. I can show them some good stuff. We’re both trying to take a chance on cinephiles who are willing to take a chance on stuff.
CM: With Shinsedai you have a festival that isn’t an easy on to categorize. I was talking to someone the other day about how the festival is co-presented by Jasper Sharp, who’s a world renowned author, programmer, and film curator, and how we make it a mandate to show lesser known films form Japan. It’s not just an annual showcase of just the brand new stuff. We don’t care if a film is four years old or nine years old. If it hasn’t screened in Toronto before, we’ll screen it. We don’t have a rule that a lot of festivals have where something has played in the last 12-15 months or that it could have only played a certain number of festivals before.
But in terms of finding the audience, it’s difficult for us because people who don’t know much about Japanese cinema tend to have preconceived notions about what these films should be. They generally get this “Sushi Typhoon” wave of images from what had passed in North America, but that perception is still there because it’s what was prevalent. They think over-the-top gore films or samurai epics from the 1950s and that’s not what we showcase. We show independent films for the most part, films that break the mold a bit, and that’s something that’s even troublesome when dealing with Japanese audiences. They have their own perceptions of what they would like and some of these might be outside of that. It’s sometimes a difficult task, but like James said, it’s all about reaching those audiences that like to take chances.
And one thing I will say about Toronto is that it is one of the most sophisticated film cities in the world. Obviously that is due to TIFF to a great degree with the best in film coming here every year, and I think we all owe it to them to great extent that we can even have these.
JM: There’s always that discovery aspect. We’ve discovered these films and we want others to. We’re certainly not showing these on an 800 foot screen. Well, you are, Chris. (laughs) But it’s not about the spectacle of the festival, it’s about bringing the audience to the films.
CM: And also, neither of us are at all “industry” people, and that’s one thing that you have to have a demarcation point on. I mean, people will take unnecessary jabs at TIFF, but what they don’t realize is that it’s an INDUSTRY festival. People want to premiere films here and to get them distributed. It’s market based. Whereas these smaller festivals and screening series are based totally on love. I mean, TIFF is too, and we can’t really talk about how romantic it all is because there’s always money and business involved at the end of things, but we’re not doing this to run a market festival. When a film gets picked up a TIFF, it’s a fantastic thing to have happen. It really is. But at the same time, it’s about the love of the films and how much we can get people to bring to these.
JM: That’s a great point you brought up there, because even in my dealings with something smaller like Toronto Youth Shorts – which is a great festival – is based a lot more around filmmakers who come out to show their films and meet and network with other filmmakers and like minds on business and technical levels, too. It’s not a criticism against what they do, but I don’t think it’s necessarily creating an audience for short films, where I’m trying to grow an audience of people who don’t make films, but who like films. With something like their festival, we can still help each other, though because we can still show some of their films and have a more general audience there. Just like the same way we can go there and find out where all this new work is coming from. I’ve actually, myself, really only started reaching out directly to filmmakers to submit their stuff recently.
CM: But really, that’s the next step, isn’t it? It’s a great step for you because great short filmmakers tend to go on to make great feature films. You can create great relationships with people.