Should Film Festivals And Distributors Steer Clear Of Controversial Directors In The #MeToo Era?


A few years ago, a politically charged movie starring and directed by Nate Parker, and championed by Spike Lee, would have all but walked into the Toronto Film Festival. Not this year.

The cultural landscape has been radically and vitally reshaped by the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. As part of that reshaping, a coterie of prominent filmmakers with checkered pasts have become lightning rods for industry debate and division. This year more than ever, we are seeing a transatlantic schism among film festivals over how to handle these acclaimed directors, each of whom has a very different backstory, which have been covered in detail on our site.

Despite Toronto programming Parker’s The Birth of a Nation in 2016, and a string of movies starring the multi-hyphenate before that, his new under-the-radar movie American Skin, about police violence and racism in America, will instead debut at Venice.

Venice chief Alberto Barbera has stirred controversy this year by programming Parker’s feature, the new film by Roman Polanski and only two women directors in Competition (the scarcity of female helmers in the Cannes and Venice competitions is a disappointing reality we’ve addressed in previous stories).

Cannes, dogged by gender issues in recent editions, feted polarizing actor Alain Delon this year, one year after welcoming back Lars Von Trier. Deauville has just revealed that it will open with Woody Allen’s latest, A Rainy Day in New York, after the film (and filmmaker) was shunned by Amazon in a high-profile divorce. The French fest will also welcome American Skin. Berlin quietly hosted Casey Affleck’s directorial debut Light of My Life earlier this year, and Spain’s San Sebastian is the only other major upcoming festival to have announced it. [Affleck, it should be noted, will be on screen at Toronto in The Friend.]

Venice’s Barbera has said previously that he strives to separate art and the artist. “I’m not a judge. I’m not a lawyer. I’m a festival director,” he said in 2017 about why he invited U.S. filmmaker James Toback to that year’s event. Multiple women had accused Toback of sexual harassment, but the American director maintained his innocence and has never been convicted of a crime.

As Venice walks back into the eye of the storm, North American festivals such as Sundance and Toronto have steered to calmer waters, seemingly closing their doors (for now) to filmmakers with MeToo-related baggage.

Why the split? America’s proximity to the MeToo and TimesUp movements is likely a factor. Toronto and Sundance have also been at the forefront of a global drive for greater diversity within festival programming ranks. Simultaneously, and seamlessly, they have increased the number of women and ethnic minorities in their main sections. There are deeper cultural (and probably economic) forces at play too.

The divergence begs the question: What is the purpose of a festival and to what extent should they take into account a filmmaker’s personal life or past indiscretion?

“Alberto [Barbera] is not buying into optics,” one festival head told us. “But it’s a fantasy that there are not enough good movies directed by women,” this person added. “If you look at the top European festivals, they tend to be run by older white men. It’s about the lens you’re looking through. It’s nuanced. Personally, I’m looking forward to Roman Polanski’s movie. But I can also understand why Toronto wouldn’t program it. This is the new normal.”

To some degree, the Euro/North American festival division mirrors a broader industry schism across continental lines.

After being ditched by Amazon, U.S. distributors have so far steered clear of Allen’s A Rainy Day in New York (which we hear is good). The cost of P&A even on specialty films ratchets up the risk. European buyers have been less shy, however, and Allen has found a happy home to shoot his next movie in Spain.

Polanski is perhaps the most controversial of the filmmakers given his history. But his new film, An Officer and a Spy — ironically about a witch hunt — was pieced together relatively easily in Europe. It too is said to be a strong film and Venice has given it a primetime weekend slot at the festival. It wasn’t too long ago that Polanski was being feted by the Academy, but no U.S. buyer has bitten.

Howard Cohen, co-president of U.S. distributor Roadside Attractions, told Vanity Fair during Cannes, “People have been releasing his [Polanski’s] films for years. Now, we are looking at it through a different lens, with good reason. We have to search our souls if it’s the right thing to do. What does it mean to release this movie? I don’t think that’s a settled question even in my mind.”

I asked one European acquisitions executive whether her company would pick up a film by a director with a MeToo-style controversy in their past?

“We will watch a film and not automatically dismiss it, but the ‘baggage’ a director comes with would certainly be a part of the internal discussions. I’ve had several conversations with colleagues about separating art and the artist but I haven’t been able to come to a satisfactory conclusion. Where, how and when do you draw the line?”

She continued, “I feel that most audiences care a lot less about the histories of creatives than we’d like to think. Whether we agree with that or not. People often don’t know enough about the individual cases. And you can’t blame them. For us within the film industry it’s omnipresent, but I often wouldn’t know, for example, which contemporary writers or painters may have equally complicated pasts.”

There are few easy answers in film’s latest crucible moment. In a bruising market for authored indie films (where a social media storm can play a part in sinking a campaign), MeToo question marks can be enough to dissuade potential suitors. But there are still those out there willing to take a risk on the art and, whisper it, even on the artist.

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