10 Years of Greatness vs. Great Challenges Ahead

10 Years of Greatness vs. Great Challenges Ahead

10 Years of Greatness vs. Great Challenges Ahead

Kraków’s Film Music Festival (FMF) is, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the city’s most spectacular cultural feats, in at least two ways. From its very first edition, 10 years ago, it has captured the imagination of crowds (experts and fans alike), consistently delivering unique, high-quality productions across all parameters. It has also taken upon itself to put film music in an altogether new category of cultural, even intellectual recognition internationally, to become a powerful advocate, if not a global impresario, of the film music industry. With praise and flattery coming from all sides, it is only fitting that this article should focus, instead, on the few areas where the festival formula could see further improvements, with a few structural tweaks and a healthy dose of creative bravado, especially where comparatively minor efforts and little cost could potentially generate massive, long-term gains.
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The festival’s 10th anniversary is perhaps the best time to ask what can or, indeed, should be done to raise the bar higher. A question like this quite naturally poses another one: could it be raised much higher in the first place? Is it even possible? Well, to answer it, imagine for a while you are the person in charge of FMF, its past heritage and its future vision. If ‘impossible’ is your first impulse in reaction to this question, the only thing it says for sure is that you are not the right person for the job. 

Personal bias

I’ve been lucky enough to have witnessed (for lack of a better word) almost all editions of FMF, with increasing admiration for just about every aspect of this festival brand. Over the years, I have also developed a rather strong emotional rapport, not only with the festival itself but also with the people behind it: organisers, programme/concept designers, artists, conductors, event managers, executive producers, supporters, administrators, stage managers, emcees, media partners, translators and interpreters, volunteers, fans, photographers...the list is long.

Since the very first edition of FMF, I have especially admired its audiences: loyal, passionate, intelligent and subtle in their reactions – the kind of audience that performers and artists worldwide simply dream of, one that evokes a collective spirit of joy, appreciation and, above all, the pervasive emotion of participating in something truly special, one of a kind. The one occasion on which I was privileged to be the master of ceremonies at one of the FMF concerts, felt like a dream come true, positively overwhelming as the experience felt at the time, for a variety of reasons. Even though I have worked as an emcee at a great variety of international conferences for a number of years now, that particular evening stands our in my memory in a very positive way.

Film Music Festival, 3rd Edition

 

Feels like a family...

For the 3rd edition of the festival, I spontaneously invited my family to watch The Return of the King screened to live music, set in a wonderfully evocative, old industrial location. Howard Shore was invited to personally oversee preparations and rehearsals staged in this quaint industrial interior of a rusty, abandoned tinning plant. All in the heart of Kraków’s iconic steelworks. Both my sister (a psychiatrist) and my mother (a steelmaking engineer by background, turned business woman in early 90s) could hardly be described as Tolkien aficionados. In other words, up until the concert night, they knew completely nothing about Middle Earth, hobbitses and other unearthly creatures infused with symbolism and figurative meanings. Without minimum background, they would hardly appreciate the grander philosophy behind this fantasy classic. However, the moment they said ‘Hello’ to the person sitting next to them and made the fatal mistake of revealing their ignorance to their neighbour, completely unprovoked, the young man didn’t need much encouragement to fill in the remaining 40 minutes before the concert with a comprehensive account of the plot (and various subplots) of The Fellowship of the Ring, including the finer shades of character of Bilbo, Frodo, Aragorn and others. By the time the opening film credits started, my family were Tolkien experts. That’s more or less the kind of audience kinship I’m talking about. My mother’s and sister’s experience that evening was by no means an exception.

All good things…

Books could be written about FMF at this stage, its anecdotes, quirky little failures that everyone loved, the meetings, the galas and the parties, the friendships forged over the years. Suffice it to say that if I were to recall my personal TOP 10 of the most moving/inspiring musical moments in life, at least half would come straight from FMF. I’ve written about this festival on a number of occasions, inspired by its emotional power and its incredible (yet untapped) potential. Here’s one example.

I’ve also watched the festival very closely as an observer, albeit from the kind of distance that can only be afforded by someone who is not biased by ‘insider perspective’ and yet close enough to understand its multi-layered fabric. Indulging this benefit to the full, I’ve always thought there are a number of things that could (even should) have been taken to an altogether new level…long time ago. And the list starts with...

Feedback

If you are one of the organisers of a festival like FMF, you’re simply doomed to hear so much flattery and praise that, whether you like it or not, your brain automatically recalibrates into the comfy little sphere of complacence. After a while, your ‘feedback absorption’ skills can no longer be trusted and the moment you hear one critical voice amidst 100 positive ones, chances are you’ll not make much of it, maybe even consider the author an unorthodox lunatic. Feedback acceptance is no longer your forte.

Over the years of working as a public-speaking coach, I've seen this phenomenon in its multiple incarnations, across different professional specialisations and industries, most notoriously (and ironically at that) with people whose job requires that they address different types of audiences on a regular basis. Once their egos have been fed to their satisfaction, they tend to become so used to 'their way of doing things' that failure to acknowledge even the most obvious defects (right until they are led by the hand to the point where blatant imperfections stare them in the face) is sure to follow. It takes a lot of maturity and humility to make sure logical reasoning continuously prevails over long-cherished, self-delusion.

So, in a context of an initiative as complex and ambitious as FMF, what to do, to make sure the inflow of constructive feedback is not impeded by human psychology? The simple answer is, put strong, brutally honest, professional feedback in place, i.e. hire at least 3 independent observers/witnesses/evaluators who will focus on providing you with constructive/critical information along the list of specific event parameters, and, as a result, draw your attention to the kind of details you would not have otherwise noticed, let alone anticipated. Next, prioritise the list very clearly so that you know where you stand amidst easy/uncostly to mend, with (potentially) large impact priorities vs. expensive to mend, with little impact

Speaking of priorities (especially for a festival of this size and magnitude), their very nature is such that, whether you like it or not, your focus will go to the most urgent and ‘should not be forgotten’ category first. As a consequence, you are more likely to overlook the importance of what I will refer to as long-term reputation builders, i.e. many of those factors and efforts for which a lot of long-term thinking, strategizing and perseverance is required. In other words, the thankless (yet strategically critical!) category of effort for which applause is measured in decades, not concert nights. At the end of the day, however, it is mostly those factors that determine what is often referred to as ‘legacy’ and ‘value proposition’ and make a festival like FMF immune to winds of change and possible crisis scenarios, whether political, budgetary, administrative, or any other.

Back to our independent evaluators. Their analysis should encompass all aspects of organisation, including dozens of general questions (e.g. What could be changed to improve the audiences’ overall experience, the ‘flow’? Did you feel that audiences felt disconnected/annoyed by any aspects of the programme/delivery or at any point during the event/concert?) as well as some of the more detailed issues (e.g. audience reactions/body language, logistics, timing, programme; what to change about emceeing, acoustics, stage design, lights). All of the above, however, is only the next stage. First, the festival website should have a proper evaluation questionnaire for individual concerts / festival events, but also a comprehensive (future-focused!) questionnaire – only then should a more tailored solution described above be pursued.

Key challenges: multimedia & content

There is no question that FMF has grown in popularity and numbers over the years. And understandably so. Just spend a while and take a quick look at key stats from past editions. They are impressive indeed, especially for a (still comparatively) niche musical market like film music. Just take a look a this photo, taken only 2 days ago, with Brian Tyler in the foreground:

Film Music Festival - TITANIC LIVE GALA, 21 May 2017

But here’s the key challenge for the future: a festival that has hosted the kind of talent and delivered so many brilliant productions over the years (synonymous with names like Elliot Goldenthal, Tan Dun, Howard Shore, Jan AP Kaczmarek, Joe Hisaishi, Shigeru Umebayashi, Don Davis, Alberto Iglesias, Trevor Morris, Michał Lorenc, Wojciech Kilar, Reinhold Heil, Jonny Klimek, Abel Korzeniowski, Eric Serra, Tom Tykwer, Julie Taymor, Tomas Alfredson, Giorgio Moroder, Brian Tyler, Sean Callery, Leszek Możdżer, Łukasz Targosz, Johan Johannsen, Cliff Martinez, Joseph Trapanese and others) should simply have travelled a much longer distance in terms of quality (pre-/post-festival) content generation, based on the festival formula and its treasured multimedia archive.

In other words, 10 years on, a website like www.fmf.fm should have become a true authority on film music, a structured, consistently branded, encyclopaedic resource rather than an archive of past concert leaflets and promotion backgrounders. The least it should have by now is a systematic collection of in-depth quality interviews with guests, fans, artists, production-team members, all delievered in a consistent formula! These could easily address specific areas of film music and festival production, albeit always insist on doing so in a creatively impressive way.

 

Key challenges: a boost to CREATIVITY as the missing ingredient

What do I mean by ‘creative’? Well, to begin with, interviews and roundtables like this one, really come at the lower end of the creativity spectrum, and yet, can be very successful and, more importantly for organisers, give the festival brand a powerful clout as an opinion-forming authority. This, in turn, translates directly to media relations and negotiating strengths (e.g. with title copyright owners for future concerts). As a consequence, thanks to quality, creative, content-driven multimedia, the festival comes closer to reaching the critical mass beyond which it is the authors, composers, artists and filmmakers that look for ways and means to come to Kraków, rather than Kraków making efforts to attract them. They key word here is reputation, and reputation is at least as much about the ephemeral power of a concert-night experience as it is about the long-term effects of quality content availability, from anywhere in the world, anytime.

Even for a simple format like interviews, there is an endless list of creative options that FMF could explore. The key is to develop a consistent format, one that has an interesting ‘tutorial-style’ or even educational potential to it, one with a story-telling angle. And yet, in case of FMF, in-depth interviews (both group and individual) are simply not there (yet). Even the city itself would benefit greatly if a series of smart, funny, moving, dynamic, personal, light-hearted, educational interviews (at least 10 from each edition), a couple of roundtables and some of the more intimate-feeling meetings with audiences were to be included on the list of FMF’s long-term multimedia outcomes. How is it relevant to the city, you may ask. Well, if all of those interviews were filmed at Kraków’s most iconic locations, imagine their opinion-forming power. An evening interview in the Wawel Castle’s Renaissance courtyard, another one with a river-bank view as the backdrop, at the terrace of the Sukiennice, even in some industrial settings. The key word here is originality, supported by intimate understanding of what is already available.

Let’s give this line of argument an even more tangible feel. If you look at the format developed by The Hollywood Reporter, even the evolving number of views on YouTube speaks volumes. One of its most recent (1 hour long interviews, mind you!) has garnered nearly a million views.

This is not rocket science to come up with. It’s really simple stuff, that, more importantly, can be done in a more interesting way, almost free of charge (in comparative terms), given that you are bringing those artists to Kraków anyway and that over the years the Festival has already gained significant recognition in the film music world. A somewhat more advanced representation of this way of thinking is a programme called Composer Masterclass (for example this). An initiative like this should have been invented, brought to life and curated by none other than the FMF team, at least 5 years ago. Now, there are of course dozens of explanations why it’s not the case, but it doesn’t change the fact that long-term value is generated by long-lasting outcomes and potentially informative (or educational) ‘by-products’ of the festival, of which there are simply too few.

 

Teasers, promotion and branding

Last but not least, 10 years on, it’s high time for FMF to put a little more emphasis on a healthy dose of creative bravado, against the already well-established (and much-expected!) reliance on the safe haven of conservatism. The festival now needs a modern, smart, marketing interface which translates to 21st c. marketing and promotion tools. What it needs most perhaps is powerful narrative(s) packaged into light-hearted, nifty multimedia. If made well, such efforts will in no way expose the organisers to the risk of compromising quality and good taste - the two hallmarks of the festival to date. It also needs to engage its powerful fan-base to a much larger degree and, again, in more creative ways.

To make a 'super-fresh' reference: this short film, for example (FMF’s 10th anniversary gala), was published only two days after the event, which means, among other things, that quite a lot of logistics, preparations (and focused budgeting!) preceded this 4-minute production, including interviews, a structured storyline, editing, music and montage. The end-result is good, maybe even very good. There is positive energy to it, it shares (the key pillars of the) story and supports individual parts of its narrative with interesting images, quotes, bits and pieces of the event itself. Where it is lacking, however, is an altogether different approach to creativity, one that cuts the overall duration by at least 75% and boosts the emotional power of the outcome by a factor of at least double of what was previously squeezed into 4 minutes. There is of course space for both formats and approaches. The difference is, however, that, in today’s world, the impact of the shorter, more dramatic approach to ‘event-summary’ highlights is infinitely stronger than the 'traditional format'.

On its 10th anniversary, a festival like FMF would have accumulated (and archived!) enough energising video footage to come up with the kind of teasers that have the narrative intelligence of the House of Cards promotion bits and the visual dynamic of a Hollywood blockbuster trailer. This is not wishful-thinking! It doesn't take a magic wand to deliver such quality. All it takes is a skilled video wizard and someone with a healthy dose of creative and dramatic instinct. Ten years on, FMF should in fact have developed a full thematic series of short (15-second?) teasers, relying on strong slogans and creative editing. It should also, no doubt, have a dedicated YouTube channel, rather than keep posting everything into the 'biurofestiwalowe' basket, where, sooner or later, things get diluted and loose the much needed focus and structure.

So yes, FMF, no doubt, already is a great festival, albeit its creative wings are yet to catch stronger winds in the editions that follow. As the festival formula expands more and more into meetings with artists, composers, young-talent competitions and internationally-acclaimed awards, it should perhaps gradually consider adding another ingredient to the recipe: smaller, more intimate concerts in carefully-selected (interesting) venues where audiences will be able to experience the mesmerising power of sound and image, from up close, interact with the much finer shades of meaning in music. Such screenings could even be preceded with short 15/30-minute workshops dedicated to unique aspects of particular concerts, e.g. a light-hearted, onstage interview with the composer, supported by contextual multimedia in the backdrop, a 'behind the scenes' of making a soundtrack, a short demonstration of how a unique instrument works (e.g. Array Mbira), etc. The creative possibilities are endless and infinitely interesting to explore.

One last word…

Having said all of the above, there is just one thing worth concluding with: I love this festival, like no other.

 


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