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FROM THIS EPISODE

I'm Matt Holzman with The Business Brief, a guide to what's happening in and around the business.

I recently had the distinct pleasure of serving as a juror for the Indian Film Festival at the Arclight in Hollywood. I have to say that I don't generally love what I see as niche festivals -- which put the subject matter before filmmaking, which is a nice way of saying that the movies usually suck. I mean there are something like 2,500 film festivals in the world, and that spreads the great movies pretty thin. Of course, it was silly of me to think of Indian film as niche since India is the world's largest producer of film and has a storied history of filmmaking – from Satyajit Ray to Mira Nair to Bollywood blockbusters.

It shouldn't have surprised me that the movies I saw at the festival were beautifully made and truly eclectic – from a bubbling animated musical about the Hindu deities sita and Rama to a powerful and personal look at religious violence to a psychedelic spaghetti western with a side of curry. All of which made trying to decide which was the “best feature” really hard. The whole process actually turned into a very enlightening exercise about the movie business as a whole.

As the five jurors sat down on the patio of the Arclight, we all seemed to think that a clear winner would emerge right off the bat. But oh were we wrong. In fact, the first poll found that two people had ranked one film at the top that two others had ranked at the bottom, and visa-versa for another film.

Fueled in part by cocktails and fried finger foods, the five of us launched into a heated but very respectful conversation. Right away, we realized we weren't even agreeing on what it was we were trying to agree upon. The best film? The film that moved or entertained us the most? The most “important” film? The film that had the most box office potential – that may seem awful, but a festival award can help a movie get distribution. What about the filmmaker – we were asked to choose, amongst other things, “a filmmaker with great vision and future.” So maybe the film we saw was flawed, but what if we were really excited to see what they did next?

There was one thing we did agree on right away. This kind of deliberation can devolve into celebration of mediocrity in the name of consensus. We were determined not eliminate the films we felt most strongly just to come to some sort of agreement. But with the wide divergence of opinion, it was kind of like we'd all seen totally different movies.

And, in a way, we had. Like all movie-goers, we each brought our own baggage to what we saw on screen, it's just that our luggage tags were imprinted with both our personal and professional pet peeves.

One juror was a writer and film teacher; it was emotion that largely moved him. There was also film executive, who thought more with his head than his heart. Another judge was an indie film producer who knew the most about the filmmakers themselves and brought that to the table. There was film and TV director who couldn't help but think about the filmmaking process itself. And me, well, I won't be so bold as to claim that I know what my biases are.

I wish we had taped the two hours of trenchant back and forth that finally led to our decision. It was a fascinating and really fun look at what we each of us think makes movies great. The arguments were so good, so well-informed, that I had to rethink my positions again and again. And it made it clear to me why the movie business – that gauzy place where art and commerce collide – continues to baffle even the most battle-scarred Hollywood vets.

We had the relatively easy job of deciding which film was best, and even so, we had a hard time doing it. Imagine being a producer or executive who has to decide which movie will work even before it's made. You can see why the studios take the safe road so often. And you can appreciate it even more when they don't.

I'd love to know what you think. Send me an e-mail at TheBusiness@KCRW.org. You can download a podcast of this commentary, share it with a friend, or embed it on your blog with the click of a button from our new media player at KCRW.com/TheBusinessBrief. For KCRW, I'm Matt Holzman.

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