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How Film Festivals Can Navigate the Risks and Rewards of Reopening — Analysis

Veteran festival director Noah Cowan explores the range of options that festivals face in the months ahead.

telluride film festival

The Telluride Film Festival

Film festivals are facing a wide array of challenges over the coming months, most of them well-documented in trade and commercial media. But it’s worth restating some of these specific concerns in a more holistic context, especially as the luckier among us are just beginning to pass from the “horror movie” phase of COVID-19 to the “suspense thriller” phase, and we contemplate what “re-opening” might look like. These thoughts are obviously speculative as changes on the ground continue and none of us are certain how this massive economic downturn will affect consumer behavior over the next year.

Festivals are currently torn between their bedrock mission of gathering local communities around film — now totally shut down — and staying relevant to their audiences, which is currently happening with a rush to online screenings and other digital initiatives. There are some bright spots — especially CPH:DOX, with its young demographics and fervent digital following, which managed to go online and didn’t miss a beat. However, most spring festivals have failed to effectively translate their real world enthusiasm to the online space.

At best, these initiatives have provided a moderately useful members’ benefit to help staunch revenue loss; at worst, they have created some prickly filmmaker interactions and brand confusion. Of course, festivals have been contemplating online components for years — especially after the rise of the TEDx empire — and some mixture of live and digital does feel like a useful evolution for them. Unfortunately, the pathway to such a hybrid event still does not seem obvious.

Perhaps the bigger challenge facing festivals is the rarely acknowledged fact that most have deployed in-person celebrity events to significantly close budget gaps (and attract younger members), and it seems unlikely that a Zoomed-in famous person is going to feel special enough to replace breathing the same air as Charlize Theron and her ilk.

To escape this digital purgatory, festivals are taking a deep breath and sketching out multiple scenarios for some sort of “real world” event. To do so, they must contend with a society rapidly dividing into new and complex constituencies that will both push for and resist change. There is an obvious gap between frightened and highly vulnerable at-risk groups (seniors, cancer survivors, those with underlying lung conditions, etc.) and younger, more asymptomatic populations. Differences in political affiliation — likely to sharpen as the election nears — are already wreaking havoc on the implementation of public health dictums.

For our purposes, though, it is worth looking most closely at four rapidly coalescing and distinct social groupings: COVID-19 absolutists, conservatives, optimists and radicals. In the film world, these four groups have highly differentiated views about our immediate future. What a festival director does will, in part, be related to the group towards which they and their audiences feel the most affinity.

Absolutists do not believe that there should be any real-world gatherings of film professionals or audiences (including movie theaters) until there is a vaccine. Presumably all premieres and distribution will occur online. Movie culture re-starts summer 2021 at the earliest, if there’s anything worth restarting. Filmmakers and actors should not engage in any events, however small, anywhere that is not online.

Conservatives imagine a very gradual re-introduction of film culture. There should be no big public festivals this year. The bulk of those organizations’ efforts should move online, with perhaps some small screenings governed by public health officials’ toughest rule sets, and attendance should be limited to those with antibodies (and only if they are actually proven to provide immunity). Some alternative gathering opportunities might be less problematic — drive-ins and outdoor screenings with pre-marked blanket areas six feet apart, for example. Directors and actors should not travel but can Zoom in, unless gatherings are local, very small and play by all the rules. So festival culture creeps through the end of 2020 with a few locked-down events and maybe starts up in early 2021 in a very limited way.

Optimists see a rapid evolution of society into risk-takers and the risk-adverse and see film festivals geared chiefly to “risk takers.” Festivals would end the most egregious examples of social non-distancing — red carpets, fan meet-and-greets, packed hotel lobbies, and round table junkets — and enforce rules at the door. Face masks might be obligatory, everyone gets a squirt of hand sanitizer, but, in principle, everyone coming to see a film will be under no illusion they are not taking a chance. Directors will show up, mostly for introductions and Q&As, though there will be no microphone lineups, and stages will feature socially distanced furniture. Intrepid actors might attend under careful circumstances, but most will likely still Zoom in. In this scenario, festival culture starts up again, with some vigilance, early this fall.

AtmosphereTIFF Preparations, Toronto International Film Festival, Canada - 08 Sep 2016

The Toronto International Film Festival

Michael Buckner/Variety/REX/Shutterstock

Radicals will try to mimic pre-COVID-19 conditions. They want film festivals started immediately under the same rules as before. In the face of public health lockdowns, they will promote spontaneous cultural gatherings that might abide by the spirit of public health rules, but in reality will generate large gatherings. Actors and directors aligned with more libertarian or Republican politics may feel compelled to attend these events, in person, mask-free.

All of these positions are valid responses and have their defenders, except the “radical” version, though we will likely see increasing numbers more sympathetic to this position as the summer kicks in — and more pop-up film screenings, as filmmakers become more desperate to show their work.

The fall festivals have, so far, been falling decisively into the “optimist” category, with Venice announcing business as more or less usual. There are also strong signs that Telluride and Toronto intend to take place, featuring a significant number of live events. Festival organizers have suggested they have “conservative” options in their back pockets in case the virus takes a more deadly turn — and shutdown mechanisms if they detect local viral spikes. In many ways these festivals are our canaries in a coal mine and their outcomes will surely determine the size and scope of events to follow, including the Sundance Film Festival in 2021.

As this initial trio contemplates different presentation scenarios, at least one of them is signaling an openness to new ideas around digital initiatives. Venice has so far seemed uninterested in all but the most basic online changes, whereas Toronto has been the boldest, proposing online screenings for press and industry members unable to travel to Canada, interactive Q&A sessions with filmmakers, and online industry and market transactions. Telluride has not gone on the record about digital initiatives — or anything else about its plans.

It would be useful to have all of them contemplate some courageous moves — if not now, when? Perhaps they might try a globalized premiere or two for a bespoke gang of international cinephiles unable to travel or a local initiative for the most vulnerable who might still get to vote for their favorite film. Is there technology to let, say, 5,000 people virtually touch Shah Rukh Khan’s hand through their screens in a meaningful way?

Perhaps the barrier to greater experimentation will ultimately be the streaming services themselves. It is unclear why premieres of films made by the streaming services would ever participate in any sort of enhanced online event or if streaming services — now incredibly important funders of festivals — would ever encourage initiatives that might be perceived as competitive to their models. Surprisingly, the fall festivals have yet to acknowledge that their “live” celebrity attendance will likely be very small, cut by up to 90%. The greatest test will be to see if audiences (and attending journalists) have an appetite for Zoomed-in actors, both to support high ticket prices and sustain “premiere frenzy.”

All of the possible scenarios outlined here carry risk and are speculations based on the facts available today. Whatever happens, our festival ecosystem, will need to work together to find solutions for our audiences and the art form’s health. Productive dialogue, generous accommodation and infinite understanding are the keys to getting us all through this. Keeping cinema alive, after all, is absolutely worth it.

Noah Cowan is a strategic consultant for film festivals, production companies, movie theaters and other media entities. He was the Executive Director of SFFILM from 2014-2019 and held senior positions at TIFF from 2004-2014. He co-founded the distribution company Cowboy Pictures and educational distribution organization Global Film Initiative in the early 2000s.

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