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Film Festivals Aren’t Just Surviving Online, They’re Creating a Better Future

Veteran programmer Thom Powers has good reason to be optimistic about how festivals are adapting to changing times.


“The Dilemma of Desire”

Kartemquin Films

Right now, every film festival shares the same ambition: Get smarter about how to connect with audiences online. In the coming weeks, Hot Docs, Human Rights Watch, and AFI DOCS will present online lineups; at DOC NYC, where I’m the artistic director, we are busily adapting to new realities for our November festival.

We’ve also seen online festivals inspire pessimism from some sales agents and programmers — but we don’t have time for that kind of thinking. Many filmmakers can’t hold back their work until next year, when competition will only increase for premiere slots and buyer attention, and many festivals can’t wait because they will cease to exist without revenue. We all need to keep getting smarter, faster.

While we all want to get back into theaters, the public is swiftly adapting to watch online content non-stop. Everyone from health care workers to dancers are finding ways to creatively connect; festivals must, too. So what’s needed as we move forward?

Thom Powers Hosts Friday Fix with Julia Reichert, Steven Bognar, and Gordon Quinn

Thom Powers Hosts Friday Fix with Julia Reichert, Steven Bognar, and Gordon Quinn

1. Change of Attitude.

Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar, the Oscar-winning directors of “American Factory,” planned to launch their new film “9 to 5: The Story of a Movement,” about feminist labor organizing, at SXSW and Full Frame. After they were canceled, the filmmakers declined invitations to online festivals; now they’ve had a change of heart. “We were getting really itchy to just get the film out there,” Reichert told me on my weekly online conversation series, Friday Fix. “Maybe we’re all going to be online for a long time.” Consulting with their sales agent Submarine and publicists at Cinetic Marketing, they’ve accepted an invite to a summer online festival soon to be announced.

Filmmaker Maria Finitzo had a similar path after losing her SXSW premiere for “The Dilemma of Desire,” which looks at explorations of the clitoris in art and science. “We waited about a month and a half in shock before we realized we needed a new plan,” said Finitzo, a veteran and award-winning director at Kartemquin Films. Repped by ro*co films, “Desire” is still seeking distribution but it will reach its first audience online at Hot Docs. “It was time to accept the new reality,” Finitzo said. “I’m looking forward to the emotional release that comes when you know more people than your own team will see the film. It becomes a way of saying, ‘I did make this film. It hasn’t disappeared.’”

2. Geoblocking and Restricted Viewing. CPH:DOX in Copenhagen opened March 18 and had just one week to convert online. Programmers settled on the platform Shift72, which could present films with three key restrictions: a) they were geoblocked within Denmark; b) ticket purchases were capped, typically between 500 to 1,000; and c) ticket buyers had a window of 30 hours to watch, similar to a VOD rental.

I call this model “restricted viewing,” and it’s becoming the dominant approach used by festivals such as Cleveland (restricted to Ohio), Hot Docs (restricted to Ontario), Human Rights Watch and AFI Docs (both restricted to the U.S.). CPH:DOX director Tine Fischer reported that the festival’s online edition reached its biggest audience ever, selling over 66,000 tickets (and assumed a home viewership nearly double that).

“All of us wanted CPH:DOX to survive,” said Sigrid Dyekjaer, the Oscar-nominated producer of “The Cave” and co-owner of the production company Danish Documentary. Dyekjaer produced two films in the CPH lineup, Eva Mulvad’s “Love Child,” about an Iranian family fleeing persecution; and Lauren Greenfield’s “The Kingmaker,” about Imelda Marcos.

Dykjaer is brimming with enthusiasm for the CPH experience and her company is now booking Jørgen Leth’s personal essay on aging, “I Walk, at online festivals, including Bologna’s Biografilm. She’s also producing a documentary by Oscar-nominated director Guy Davidi (“Five Broken Cameras”) that she hopes will debut in winter 2021, undaunted by the possibility that its premiere may be online.

“In a world where more people are poor, why don’t we have a democratic heart beating to make festivals more available at an affordable price?” she said. She’s reevaluating her history of traveling to film festivals, reconsidering the time away from her family and the climate impact of frequent flying.

3. Distributors Willing to Engage. The key worry from filmmakers has been whether playing an online festival would hurt their chances for distribution. In March, distributors weren’t keen on the idea — but the thinking around this evolved quickly. Key distributors like Apple TV+, HBO Docs, National Geographic, and Participant Media are supplying titles to online festivals and in recent weeks buyers at HBO Docs, Hulu, IFC Films, Neon, Magnolia Pictures, Showtime and Sony Pictures Classics told me they planned to scout films at online festivals that put limits on viewership. Other distributors declined to go on record, but no one said that online festivals with restricted viewing would be a dealbreaker. The bottom line is buying is still competitive, and those who tune out risk missing out.

4. Better Media Analysis. While SXSW’s partnership with Amazon and the Tribeca-led We Are One festival on YouTube make for good headlines, these consumer-facing projects don’t reflect the future of restricted-viewing film festivals. Any confusion is understandable; online festivals are in evolutionary hyperdrive, and our understanding seems to unfold on a daily basis. However, film journalists have the responsibility to keep up in near-real time, and to use their editorial judgment to recognize that each festival will have its own resources, measures of success, and ways to serve filmmakers. Real-world festivals are not monolithic; neither are their online counterparts. (Editor’s note: Noted.)

5. Foster a Spirit of Discovery. Discovering films at home is my job, and most of those discoveries happened alone in my office watching a link. That’s how I first encountered “The Elephant Queen,” “The Biggest Little Farm,” and “Maiden” before they went on to premiere at TIFF and secure deals with Apple TV+, Neon, and Sony Pictures Classics. If films can cast a spell when I’m home alone, then I believe they can for anyone exploring an online festival. 

For veteran festivalgoers, their memories of discovering films are inextricably linked to watching in a theater. But in the age of streaming, viewers are making different kinds of discoveries at home. Think of the early viewers who stumbled upon “Making a Murderer” in 2015, or “Tiger King” this spring. When those series debuted on Netflix with little fanfare, viewers pressed play without knowing what to expect. They shared their enthusiasm on social media, just as word of mouth spreads at a film festival.

6. New Approaches to the Q&A. Directors Jim Lebrecht and Nicole Newnham have participated in over 20 online talks since their Sundance prize-winning film “Crip Camp” debuted on Netflix in late March. “It’s been a game changer for people to not have to travel,” said Lebrecht, who uses a wheelchair himself. “When we did live screenings, a big concern was, ‘How are we going to get all these people in wheelchairs into theaters?’” Newnham told me they feel a greater intimacy taking questions on Zoom compared to a theater “where you’re up on stage and maybe they’re in the back of the room. Online, you can really see their faces and expressions.” The filmmakers are now planning a weekly series of webinars to kick off on May 17, framed like a summer camp, to address disability education and activism.

7. Recognize That Each Film Has its Own Community. Festival community can mean the insular club of programmers, buyers, and journalists who travel the circuit — but that’s only one community that filmmakers seek. At DOC NYC last November, we also found the Armenian community for “I Am Not Alone,” an Arab community for “Brooklyn Inshallah,” a Tibetan community for “Ganden: A Joyful Land,” a Vietnamese community for “Mai Khoi & the Dissidents,” and so on for over 100 films.

During this time of disconnection, films and festivals can play a powerful role in restitching our communities. “At the start of the quarantine, I was really apprehensive about going online,” said Maori Karmael Holmes, artistic director of Philadelphia’s BlackStar festival. “Now I’m 97% convinced that we’ll be doing an online festival. We already have submissions and they are owed some kind of presentation. We want to give them as much shine as we can.”

8. Industry Connections. Filmmakers covet the face-to-face contact with funders and distributors that festivals bring. This month, Hot Docs made an impressive effort to shift its extensive networking events online. “We traditionally arrange 800 meetings when we do the festival in person,” said Hot Docs industry programmer Madelaine Russo. “This year, we had the same number of meetings by Zoom or other teleconferencing.”

Russo oversees the Deal Maker meetings, which match 70 funders and broadcasters with 55 film projects. Her colleague Julian Carrington runs Distribution Rendezvous, which arranged another 700 meetings. Dorota Lech oversees the Forum, where 22 projects representing 19 countries are pitched to approximately 40 funders. “Buyers wanted to catch up and not lose sight of anything that was moving forward,” said Russo.

Filmmaker Nausheen Dadabhoy participated in the Forum from her parents’ home in Orange County, Calif., and received a grant commitment from Field of Vision’s Charlotte Cook for work-in-progress “An Act of Worship,” which examines the past two decades of Muslim life in America. “Our film is on such a quick timeline, we thought it was critical,” said Dadabhoy, who wants to get into distribution before next year’s 20th anniversary of September 11.

Online meetings have advantages of their own. At Hot Docs, meetings were spread across several weeks instead of just three days. And companies like Netflix, Hulu, Participant Media, and Sundance Institute, which typically sent one representative to Toronto, saw multiple representatives take meetings. Going forward, teleconference meetings will be a vital tool at networking events planned for Sheffield Doc Fest’s MeetMarket, IFP Week, and DOC NYC’s Only In New York.

9. Innovation. I take inspiration from John Krasinski’s Some Good News and his ability to orchestrate heart-warming surprises that beg for social media sharing. While he has celebrity connections on his side, many of my favorite quarantine videos are amateur efforts, like the Texas family lip syncing in their kitchen to “Hold My Hand.” Festivals need to tap that playful energy and harness their own networks of personalities to highlight their lineups.

One beacon of online film engagement is the #ArrayNow tweet-a-thon, led by Ava DuVernay and her distribution company. On April 30, she enlisted 60 filmmakers including Guillermo del Toro, Mira Nair, and Roger Ross Wiliams to answer questions on Twitter. The effort resulted in a profusion of interaction that became a trending hashtag in New York and other cities.

For some festivals, innovation will mean exploring new ways to share data and revenue with filmmakers; for others, the art of innovation will mean survival. Festivals are a low-margin business in the best of times and their revenue streams of sponsors and donors are drastically reduced. Many online festivals are cutting normal ticket prices in half and operating with smaller staffs. At the same time, they need to invest in new technology and training on top of the logistical challenges we all face at home.

“This is probably the hardest festival I’ve put together in 40 years of doing this,” said AFI DOCS festival director Michael Lumpkin, who previously ran the International Documentary Association and the LGBT festival Frameline. “It’s hard because we’ve had to learn so much. But to get on the other side of this and say, ‘I know how to do a virtual film festival now’ is amazing.”

10. Patience and Compassion. As we negotiate the new future, let’s remember that everyone is living with added grief and stress. DOC NYC’s executive director Raphaela Neihausen is also my spouse. She produced the film “Joe’s Violin” and we’ve been mourning the recent death of its main subject Joseph Feingold to COVID-19 and the loss of WNYC host
Richard Hake
, whose voice introduced our Documentary of the Week for many years. Our professional community was shaken by the death of Matt Holzman, creator of KCRW’s podcast The Document, and by the COVID-19 hospitalization of Kartemquin’s co-founder Gordon Quinn. That’s a lot to process in one month, but we know many others have much worse to bear.

Loira Limbal, a filmmaker and a single mother in the South Bronx, had been planning a Tribeca premiere for her film “Through the Night,” about childcare workers. Her priorities shifted to cope with the devastation of COVID-19, including her own mother getting sick. “My community is being disproportionately affected by this pandemic,” she told me on Friday Fix. “So the festival thing? Yeah, I know it’s a thing, but who the hell has the time to grieve that or mourn that when we are surrounded by so much tragedy, so much death at our doorstep?”

John Biaggi, director of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, was forced to cancel the festival’s London edition the day after its March 12 opening night. “We couldn’t see waiting a whole year” to hold their New York festival, which normally follows their London event in June. So they’ve made the switch online with a slate of 11 titles, including Erika Cohn’s “Belly of the Beast,” on reproductive rights, as the opening-night film and David France’s “Welcome to Chechnya,” about LGBT activists in Russia, prior to the film’s release on HBO. Biaggi said he’s excited about expanding the reach across the United States (with a ticket limit of 600). The festival is known for its in-depth Q&A conversations with filmmakers and human rights leaders, and these will be available for free online to unlimited viewers.

The coming months will mean negotiating points of collaboration and compromise. Let’s remember that everyone is under extra pressure and, for some, extraordinary pressure. We are having this discussion because film festivals have greatly enriched our lives. They bring us inspiration and connection. I feel very optimistic for their future.

Thom Powers is the artistic director of DOC NYC and hosts its weekly interview show Friday Fix. He is also the documentary programmer for the Toronto International Film Festival and host of the podcasts Pure Nonfiction and WNYC Documentary of the Week.

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