Festivalitis Part 3: CTN Animation Expo Ho!

What makes an animation festival great? With OIAF recently past and CTN on the immediate horizon, it seems like a good time to ask this question, one I’ve been asking myself in the aftermath of every festival experience for so many years I’ve lost count.

By Ellen Besen

What makes an animation festival great?

With OIAF recently past and CTN on the immediate horizon, it seems like a good time to ask this question, one I’ve been asking myself in the aftermath of every festival experience for so many years I’ve lost count. I’ve also lost count of my many attempts to answer that question – most of them quite unsatisfactory.

In fact, I only started to answer the question in any meaningful way when I found myself taking over a sweet little festival- the late, lamented Kalamazoo Animation Festival International (KAFI)- from 2006 to 2009. We were charged, at the time, with taking a promising regional festival to the next level…and in the process of achieving that goal- if only for a moment before the economy, among other things, took the whole enterprise down- a great deal of what really makes a festival work was revealed.

That experience also opened my eyes to the differences between festivals- how some elements seem to be essential for success no matter what, while other factors really varied. For example, take three current North American festivals: granddaddy OIAF, the relative newcomer CTN Animation Expo and the just out of the box TAAFI.

We’ve already talked about how important the location is to success- how the size, shape, proximity, etc of theaters, workshops, clubs have an unexpectedly large impact. But the macro-location also makes a difference. My past experience seemed to say that smaller cities worked better than metropolises; that big cities sucked the energy out of highly focused festivals and dispersed it into the general atmosphere to no one’s advantage.

Here, Ottawa and Kalamazoo had a clear edge and an early experiment with holding an equivalent event in Toronto, back in 1986, only confirmed that belief. But now along comes CTN held in sprawling LA, not to mention TAAFI centered right in downtown Toronto, to blow that theory out of the water.

In both these cases, the events work by taking the venue to an extreme: get yourself such a big space that absolutely everything can take place under one roof and voila, you have essentially replicated the small town advantage inside the giant metropolis. The Burbank Convention Center and The TIFF Lightbox Theater in Toronto each fulfill this in their own way, proving that the actual key lies in containing the energy- like a good kitchen party- by whatever means.

This is just one aspect of success, of course- though even what we mean by success can actually vary depending on such factors as the organizers’ intent. Gunning for an international event but only pulling local films in, year out? It might be time for a reassessment.

Time matters in other ways too, for example, what time of year you schedule your event. Here you have to consider the postsecondary school year- it’s usually good to have lots of animation students but you won’t get many if you schedule during assessment week. And the season in terms of travel and the general public’s availability. Competition for the venue and from other local events matters too. And don’t forget you have to juggle your preferred timeslot against an increasingly crowded field of animation festivals around the world.

Then there’s the originality of your vision. Is it really good enough to present the now standard mix of new films, retrospectives, workshops and parties or are we all secretly tired of the format, especially since so many festivals that used to spread out by running every other year are now annual.

How about competitive festivals vs. non-competitive ones? These are completely different beasts meaning that what makes them work is completely different too. I’d never really thought about that one until a dispute with upper management about such critical points as when to announce winners forced an analysis.  But defending the no-brainer (yu’d think) that prizes generally work best when they come at the very end of the event made the reason for this surprisingly clear.

Turns out the competitive aspect of this kind of multifaceted festival is the narrative thread of the entire event, one that builds dramatic tension in several ways. The audience members can not only consider their personal favorites in each category and overall and debate them within the group, they can also play the game of second guessing the judges. This story begins with opening night, runs through the whole festival and serves as the climax on closing night.

Of course, the amount of drama created also depends on factors such as what kind of crowd the festival tends to pull- fresh-faced or jaded, for example. But even at events where the competition is taken less seriously, scrambling the storyline for no good reason would risk confusion.

The biggest factor, though, is really the quality of the films themselves. Combine that with the quality of the rest of the programming and you are really getting to the heart of the matter. Now that’s a big topic I’m looking forward to tackling with an eye to comparing the programs of our various North American contenders.

Copyright Ellen Besen 2012/11/6 Copyright © 2012 by Ellen Besen. All rights reserved.