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An honest guide to film festival hype

Film festival season is here, but beneath the glamour and excitement, there are a few important things to remember about what happens at the top events

Daniel Craig in Knives Out 2

Film festival season is in full swing, and it can be a very confusing time for those who are unable to attend big events like Cannes and Venice Film Festival. Some of the best movies of all time come through prestigious festivals first, and many go on to win big at the Oscars and other awards ceremonies. But beware film festival hype, all is not as it seems.

With absurdly long standing ovations, high praise being thrown around on social media, and a spot of red carpet scandal, the top film festivals can sound like a pretty fun party to those watching on from the outside. There are a few things worth remembering, though, when you next see a Twitter post hailing a drama movie you never heard of before as a masterpiece.

Full disclosure, the team here at The Digital Fix do attend film festivals, and they are great experiences for sure. However, we figured it would be useful to demystify some of the hype surrounding the big festivals and explain what some of the headlines really mean.

What kind of films actually play at the top film festivals?

We’re not going to sit here and lie to you. A lot of the movies you’re likely to see at top film festivals are brilliant and often come from the best filmmakers around. If you’re more interested in blockbuster superhero movies and epic science fiction movies, however, you’re likely to be very disappointed should you attend a festival.

In the recent past, huge films like Dune and the dark DC movie Joker have ventured into the world of film festivals, though. Earlier in 2022, the Tom Cruise movie Top Gun: Maverick premiered at Cannes, but these are rare occurrences, it has to be said.

More often than not, what you get at film festivals are passion projects, arthouse independent films, and a lot of movies based on books and movies based on true stories. These kinds of films are what some people call Oscar-bait, and with good reason, too. You see, one of the main reasons anyone wants their film to premiere at a big festival is because of the awards season buzz they’re likely to receive as a result.

Florence Pugh and Olivia Wilde in Don't Worry Darling

Hyperbolic reactions

Awards season buzz is hugely important for films looking to build momentum in the run-up to the main show on the circuit, the Oscars. While big-budget movies have the money to throw around on promotional work, mid-budget films rely on word of mouth to carry them through.

With this in mind, film festivals are the perfect way to generate what is essentially free publicity. Those attending a festival are among the first in the world to see a given movie, and as such, are very excited to announce their opinions on said film.

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While it doesn’t always, and certainly shouldn’t, this can lead to some pretty reactionary thoughts being shared to social media. You’re also likely to find reviews full of hyperbole, either positive or negative, before the general public gets to see a film.

A lot of the sentiments shared by critics are genuine, of course, but there can be a tendency to spice things up a little to get people talking. Consider the Don’t Worry Darling drama that emerged from Venice Film Festival this summer. The Harry Styles movie is perfectly fine, but some critics claimed it to be the worst movie of all time, and sections of the press lost their mind over the tension between the cast and crew.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t trust critics. You absolutely should – critics are where they are for a reason, most of the time. It’s just important to take things you read online with a pinch of salt, and make up your own mind when you get the chance.

Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver

Why do some films get a standing ovation?

Around festival season, you may well see stories of certain films receiving standing ovations, sometimes lasting upwards of ten, or even 20 minutes. Sounds insane, right? I completely agree – I can’t bear the thought of standing up for ten minutes, never mind clapping for all that time too.

On the other hand, filmmaking is no mean feat. To make any film, never mind a good one, is an absolute miracle, and probably does deserve some kind of recognition. The standing ovation at film festivals is pretty much a sign of respect most of the time, a nice gesture to congratulate the filmmaking team on their achievements.

These ovations should not be deemed indicative of the quality of a film though. The longer the ovation, the better the film, surely? Well, not quite. Truth be told, almost every film gets a standing ovation and the length of time people stand and clap for is fairly random. Recently, the Netflix movie Blonde received a 14 minute round of applause, but since its release on the streaming service, has been met with scathing criticism.

John Travolta and Samuel L Jackson in Pulp Fiction

Some poor filmmakers receive a round of boos instead when they premiere their work at a film festival, which sounds rather rude, doesn’t it? Wait until you hear some of the films that have been booed before.

Quentin Tarantino’s ‘90s movie Pulp Fiction, which actually won the top prize at Cannes, was heckled by the audience at the time. Martin Scorsese’s classic thriller movie Taxi Driver was also booed at Cannes back in the 1970s. The legacy of both of these films has endured despite the initial negative reaction, which is a testament to the irrelevance of a film festival crowd’s opinions in the long run.

So, next time you’re feeling envious of those attending a big film festival or wondering who to believe about the quality of a movie premiering at one of the events, just remember a few things. Beneath all the glamour and excitement, film festivals are essentially long queues of people waiting to applaud a film they might not have even liked that much.

While we’re on the topic of film festivals, why not check out our review of Matilda the Musical from the London Film Festival, or this Triangle of Sadness review from Toronto International Film Festival.