I came of age roughly halfway through the term of David Stratton as director of the Sydney film Festival. I can't be at all sure that I came of intellectual maturity at much the same time! Mr Stratton's programming policy throughout his directorship was to show films which were effectively never going to be available commercially. It's hardly necessary to recapitulate the varied reasons why so many films were not released in Australia, but to mention just two: the decline in the number of exhibition houses and the very limited technology. Right now exactly the opposite applies: the number of cinemas is largely irrelevant and we face the possibility of downloading/streaming (legally or otherwise) pretty much everything that, if not is available, certainly that is worthwhile. The plethora of availability means that even the most committed cinephile must restrict his or her viewing because there simply aren't enough hours in the day to see what is indeed worthwhile.
That said, because of my formative experience, in my mind the words "film festival" mean "otherwise unavailable". I can't recall, and for the purposes of this note it's not necessary to remember when, the various national film festivals began being shown at the much lamented Academy Twin. I seem to recall that it started with the French and the Italian and that latterly, with the rise of the DVD, pretty much the entire French showings for the year were available 6 to 8 months after exhibition. Then followed the "this" national film festival and then the "that" national film festival, ultimately so rapidly that one had scarcely finished and the other started. For a time my partner and I kept up very significant attendance at practically all these festivals. Generally each festival would be about 20 films and we would undertake to see 15. The staff at the Academy recognised us and called us by Christian name.
These national film festivals are pretty much relentlessly commercial. So they came from a background of commercial release and one might well note that some are subsequently released in Australia, commercially. I imagine they come almost gratis from the various embassies' cultural attachés or hard-pressed local distributors. Prices charged for admission are several dollars above the going commercial rate in Australia, which incidentally is generally perceived as being high in comparison with other countries (and has been so for a long time). So they would appear to be profitable in a world where exhibitors complain that most of their profit comes from the candy bar. It seems to be at least sufficient curatorship of the collections to ensure that these commercial films are "watchable". And it might be worthwhile here to compare a consistent annual stream of 15 to 20 commercial French or Spanish or Italian or whatever films to what this country can produce. Previous writers on this topic have deplored the absence of what I might generally term "worthy" or "art films". But the market for these is so limited that no exhibitor can be blamed for not showing them. Even here I'm speaking broadly because in most of these festivals, a non-commercial film is sandwiched in between the rest. Also with so much review information available on the net, one can make selections with some degree of precision.
Nowadays I find that the volume of film material is so large, that I restrict myself to films which have very positive reviews based upon the written sources I rely upon and IMDb ratings of 7.0 or better. So when I go along to the much more restricted numbers of films each year, I feel I will be less disappointed because I am forewarned.
My experience does not tally with previous writers on this point. As indicated above, the lack of art films while disappointing, is something I can readily accept. For a great lover of film like myself, a few extra dollars on the price is for me neither here nor there. What else do you get for a few extra dollars, although I think it is rather like "surge pricing" with Uber. The editor of this blog is a most generous person but he refuses to buy tickets for these national film festivals just on the basis of price. Well, that's okay, if those be your principles. My only principle in watching films at the cinema is quality.
Lastly I feel very uncertain about the claim that these festivals are directed to the various "national" communities in this country. My own impression is that the audiences are "Anglo" and tending towards middle age or higher. In fact that is a strong observation, that younger people seem not to be as enthralled by the cinema experience as my generation. Perhaps they are watching on different platforms. I have noted at recent Sydney Film Festivals, that Turkish and Iranian films do seem to attract nationals originally from those countries who attend only such films. But for me to make observations about the original nationality of viewers at these festivals, would probably be impertinent, because judgements on or ethnicity and nationality are bound to be based around stereotypes. Even in countries which have an highly literate and cinema sensitive audience – like France, I have not noticed an especial uplift in French-speaking audiences at the French festival.
All in all, this is a very mixed bag. There is so much available, that ultimately "you pays your money, and you makes your choice".