The Need for Niche: Re-thinking a Film’s Festival Circuit

Traversing the Niche Festival Market

Con Moto: The Alexander String Quartet along with Abina and the Important Men will screen at niche driven festivals in Napa Valley and Toronto, Canada this month.  Con Moto looks at the tradition of chamber music as lived by the world famous Alexander String Quartet as they travel through Poland.  Abina is an animated film adapted from the award-winning graphic novel about a young woman who escapes slavery and takes her master to court in West Africa during the late 1800’s.  The distribution of these films is an eye-opening education in the vital role niche festivals play in the life of films that are made on the fringes of the mainstream.

There is an evident and clear need for alternative spaces for films operating in niche categories, genres and content.  They create important discussions with their respective communities. A film’s life through the festival circuit varies widely from years past.  As Daryl Chin and Larry Qualls note, the possibilities are many as “we are living in a time of developing alternatives. Though the hegemony of the commercial industry remains, there are fringe activities and new models for exhibition, distribution, and dissemination.” We must be aware of alternative possibilities that exist on the “fringe” especially considering new modes of storytelling and content historically pushed to the margins are becoming more and more part of the conversation in the mainstream, in form and content.

“Con Moto” & “Abina” Laurels

The landscape of festivals is much different considering the proliferation of niche markets and stories emerging from minority and marginalized communities. The remapping of festival options for a film has aided in the “survival of the phenomenon of film festivals,” and helped retain the festival space as, “a zone, a liminal state, where the cinematic products can bask in the attention they receive for their aesthetic achievements, cultural specificity, or social relevance” (Marijke de Valck). I would extend these thoughts to speak directly to the opportunities created through the niche and fringe festival markets. From the perspective of content that represents peoples and histories ignored in mainstream outlets, or discussions about the direction of form and new media, these niche environments help support and encourage storytelling to challenge the status quo. This provides agency to voices and filmmakers who are now finding outlets, gaining traction and proving a need for diverse storytelling.


This profound diversity in the festival scene is something we are witness to. We develop relationships and attend festivals that may not ordinarily cross our virtual path. Con Moto had early success in two online film festivals, an option with growing strength and one that speaks to global audiences. Con Moto is also an example of a film that can bridge art forms that may not typically intersect. We have been able to screen this film in conjunction with chamber music performances and events. Screening in this manner speaks to specific audiences and gives the film opportunity to thrive in curated spaces.

With Abina being adapted from a graphic novel, it has the ability to screen in chapters – as a series – or from start to finish as a feature. This connects nicely with festivals seeking to draw out discussions surrounding new media in storytelling. This is in addition to the rich history the film and graphic novel explores. Raindance created a Webfest and VR Arcade to the expand the main festival in recent years, speaking to the power and importance of emerging niche markets, and we were inspired that Abina could contribute to that dialogue and interaction.  The programmer’s thoughtful approach was not only inclusive but also bold, adding Abina to a documentary program as the only animated film in the bunch.

Soumyaa @ Raindance FF


It’s not just the makers but the programmers who are making this revolution happen.  Without alternative thinkers who are gatekeepers to exhibition, these smaller films would not reach the audiences they are now being connected to.

DocFilm held its first conference last year, Pluralities, on the expanded state of documentary including a panel on niche distribution led by Susie Hernandez from KQED. This panel featured an insightful dialogue with Masashi Niwano from the Center for Asian American Media, Daniel Moretti from Frameline and Marc Smolowitz Independent Producer extraordinaire of 13th Gen.

They discussed both festival cycles, but also the varied and unique options a film has in distribution. They also pointed out that as access to content becomes more democratized and varied films will need to reflect these diversified audiences and their backgrounds.

We are encouraged to see the direction our industry is headed, as the panel, who represent highly diverse backgrounds, are in positions that serve as gatekeepers to exhibition. It makes abundantly clear that terms examined here – niche and fringe – should now and forward be considered on their own volition rather than in deference to any commodified mainstream or homogenized market.

Pluralities Panel on Niche Distribution: Led by Susie Hernandez KQED



Coming up, Con Moto and Abina have been announced as Official Selections for upcoming festivals, The Classical Arts Film Festival and The Toronto Black Film Festival.

Con Moto has the privilege of opening the festival with the feature-length documentary Beautifully Scary. Operating to promote the classical arts the Jarvis Conservatory is in its third year as host of this festival. These two films will start the conversation on the importance of the arts, inspiration, and education. If you can join us, Soumyaa and I will be in attendance and will participate in a Q&A after the screening.

The Alexander String Quartet & DocFilm Crew in Poland

Finally, Abina and the Important Men is thrilled to be among the films at this year’s Toronto Black Film Festival. Speaking further to the specific way films are being programmed and ultimately shared with a community, Abina will be part of the TBFF Kids Film Festival. This selection of films aim to inspire and empower children through the discovery of filmmaking, animation, story-telling and more. This is especially exciting as Abina was adapted to exist supplementally as an educational tool in high-school history curriculum. This provides yet another opportunity for Abina to be viewed through a new, yet equally important, lens.

Quoted Content:

  1. Chin, Daryl, and Larry Qualls. “Open Circuits, Closed Markets: Festivals and Expositions of Film and Video.” PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, vol. 23, no. 1, 2001, p. 33. Project MUSE [Johns Hopkins UP], doi:10.2307/3246488.
  2. “Film Festivals from European Geopolitics to Global Cinephilia.” Film Festivals from European Geopolitics to Global Cinephilia, by Marijke de. Valck, Amsterdam University Press, 2007, p. 30.

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