Is the Chicago International Film Festival good, good enough or not quite that?
This is the question. This is the question to be asked of any festival, every perennial cultural mainstay in every city. It's the way to keep us all honest, whatever dog we have in the hunt for the next great artistic experience.
My own feelings about the Chicago festival, the 48th edition of which concluded Thursday, are necessarily shaped by individual taste as well as equally subjective notions of relevance. Does the event matter? Is it as vital as it could be, should be? Tough queries, tougher to answer.
This year's slate brought in some big names, to go by the red carpet-centric measurement of a film festival's buzz quality. Al Pacino, Christopher Walken and Alan Arkin flew in for the opener, "Stand Up Guys." The Chicago-based Wachowskis, Lana and Andy, introduced their latest, "Cloud Atlas." Director Robert Zemeckis, a Chicago native, closed the festival with a presentation of "Flight," a terrific picture opening commercially Friday. Viola Davis, Joan Allen, Helen Hunt and others joined the festival at various points, picking up various awards.
The festival was founded nearly a half-century ago and overseen by Michael Kutza, who once upon a time survived a board coup and remains at the helm, a full generation longer than most other North American film festival honchos. Recently, Richard Pena stepped down as programming head of the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the New York Film Festival. He held the job for 25 years. "Twenty-five? Big deal," Kutza says with a laugh, adding that Pena's "a terrific guy." "Try making it to 50!"
Chicago festival managing director Vivian Teng says that although the final tallies haven't been made for the 2012 festival attendance, signs point to a turnout in line with last year's 58,000 patrons.
The festivalgoing experience itself has its quirks as well as its benefits. Chicago's festival just finished its fourth year with the downtown AMC River East 21 as its home base. One of the peculiarities of this location is how the multiplex exterior looks on the outside during the festival.
It looks like nothing special is going on inside. Approaching the theater entrance from the west on foot, on the north side of 322 E. Illinois St., a festivalgoer spied a big SELF PARK sign for the building (OVERNIGHT SPECIAL $36) to the left of the sidewalk, followed by a smaller parking sign. And then on the other side of the sidewalk, a little further east, the festival banners — tall, but narrow — whispered to the passers-by. Hey, uh, there may be something of interest here.
If Kutza and company had their way, the street-level signage would do more to make people aware. But it's not their call. It's an AMC corporate matter, says managing director Teng, who's quick to acknowledge her appreciation for the River East multiplex as a home.
This year the festival vibe improved once you got up the escalators and saw some real signage. This was a step up from previous years at the River East. And once again, clear advantages came to the fore in concentrating the action at one location. If a 6 p.m. screening was sold out, you took a chance on another film starting at the same time, or in 15 minutes, and you didn't have to dash to do it. Or you grabbed a bite a block or two away, and got back in time for a 7 p.m. screening.
"Being in one building certainly gets people to see more films," Kutza says, adding: "Whether we like it or not, being at River East actually works."
There is, however, another way to look at the AMC River East festival locale.
"It's very hard at a multiplex to create the sense of an event, because people go there all the time, and they associate that space with 'passive viewing mode,'" says Gabe Klinger, freelance film programmer and a longtime critic of the festival. "Chicago's a city that's so much about neighborhoods, and there it is, stuck in a multiplex."
Kutza's film festival takes place during an exceptionally crowded period of the international festival calendar. Between August and October, several of the big dogs come out to play — festivals of widely varying missions in Telluride, Colo.; Venice, Italy; Toronto; and New York, whose best-known festival operates under the Film Society of Lincoln Center banner.
Programmers for these and other influential festivals jockey for the hottest international titles. These are festivals where distributors launch a monthslong awareness campaign for their work, some of which qualifies (or hopes to) as Oscar bait.
Many top-flight distributors such as Sony Pictures Classics (rarely a presence at Chicago's festival) see little reason to complicate their late summer/early fall schedules and get involved with the Chicago effort, for various reasons. Some feel they don't have a relationship with Kutza. Some don't like what they see as the festival's emphasis on the parties rather than the films.
"The Chicago festival has been irrelevant for many years as far as the marketplace goes," says Michael Barker, Sony's co-president. "When we have played the festival, we haven't seen any kind of effect in the marketplace when the film opens commercially. That's why it's not a major festival."
For decades, Chicago's festival has had to endure unflattering comparisons, especially to Toronto's, which exists on an entirely different planet of civic, corporate and governmental support.
Each time I mentioned to someone, either locally or outside Chicago, the amount of city and state financial support Chicago's festival receives (less than 1 percent of its approximate $1.75 million annual operating budget, under the auspices of the nonprofit Cinema/Chicago), the response was strikingly similar: silence, followed by pity.
"Wow," says Goodman Theatre artistic director Robert Falls, a longtime festivalgoer. "That really is small."
San Francisco International Film Festival staffer Bill Proctor says that roughly half of the nonprofit San Francisco Film Society's $6 million budget is spent on its annual festival. He adds: "We depend on governmental support at the federal, state and local level each year."
Some Chicago players, such as Bill Schopf, head of locally based international film distributor Music Box Films, advocate a greater so-called "market" presence at the festival. In theory this might attract investors and buyers interested in international cinema.
Says Brian Andreotti, Music Box Films' marketing director: "We'd like to help the festival increase its importance in the film industry. … We can partner with other film institutions and try to make Chicago an important city in the film business."
A former festival employee himself, Andreotti writes off some of the criticism regarding the festival, whose programming is often accused of timidity, as "part of a tendency to complain about your local event, regardless of what it is, compared to larger events in other cities." He and Barker, among others, also question what they see as diminished mainstream media coverage of the Chicago festival in recent years.
Barker points to a concurrent shift in the film festival landscape outside Chicago. He notes that former Newsweek film critic David Ansen has served as artistic director of the Los Angeles Film Festival since 2010. Hybrid models exist everywhere: Critics and programmers Kent Jones, Robert Koehler and Scout Foundas, long known and well-regarded for their versatile, inquisitive writing on cinema in Variety, Film Comment, the L.A. Weekly and other outlets, now serve as key Film Society of Lincoln Center programmers.
"It's the new style of how to run a festival," Barker says. "The changes feel fresh. And the public's paying attention."
So: Let's imagine for a second. Let's imagine the Chicago festival continues roughly as it works now, in terms of budget, locale, aesthetics and vibe.
Much good is being done right now, and with Kutza, programming director Mimi Plauche and others canvassing the world's festivals for titles, a fair amount of vibrant work from Berlin, Cannes and elsewhere makes its way here each October. "Mimi's me," Kutza says, in his typically grandiose way. "The two of us are the same. She's bright, we get along well, we travel together. I have a great team, and I think I'm training them well, should I decide to drop out of the picture someday. Which I don't intend to."
The logical follow-up question to this statement is: Ever? Or more diplomatically: How much longer does Kutza envision himself at the helm of the festival he founded when Lyndon B. Johnson was in office?
"That's a strange thing to ask," he says. Then, after a second: "Well. The 50th anniversary's coming up. I'd like to be there for it. I'm feeling terrific. My enthusiasm level is higher than ever. I feed off the frenzy of the kids. They keep you on top of everything."
The festival's always been in a tough position, before, during and after the years-ago attempt at Kutza's ouster. Its government support is practically nil. And there are trappings, and relationships, that put an arguably provincial face on an annual event of purported national scale. The festival can't seem to put together a decent trailer for itself; this year's features yet another Ken Nordine voice-over, with yet another cheese-ball synthesizer-based score.
I wonder if some tough decisions should be made before the 49th or the 50th edition of the festival is upon us.
I wonder if certain festival sidebars, such as the inadvertently patronizing "Black Perspectives" program, shouldn't be rethought and brought into a new century that is now 13 years old.
I wonder if the festival's trying to do too much, without access to much of the work being handled by distributors presently unwilling or unable to accommodate festival requests.
I wonder if the festival heads should consider a different time of year, a time slot that would create some distance from the Chicago Humanities Festival, Chicago Ideas Week and other autumn regulars. On the other hand: In Chicago, there's always another niche film festival around the corner competing for a cinephile's interest.
Eventually, for the good of the entity he founded, Kutza must consider stepping into an emeritus role. Otherwise "founder's disease," the well-documented and fairly common instance (particularly among nonprofit arts organizations) of a veteran leader becoming a roadblock, looms like a grant deadline. Sony's Barker, who does not know the founder, artistic director and public face of the festival, says what may be needed here is "fresh, urgent" leadership.
These are all matters of opinion. The festival can bump along well enough as is, where it is. From many angles it's good enough. Whether that phrase "good enough" sounds good enough is the question.