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Streaming Wars: Crowded Market Grows Even Bigger as Film Festivals Explore Virtual Options

Indie Edition: Major festivals from Sundance to Cannes are experimenting with online programming, but that doesn't mean they're all in.

AtmosphereMarche Du Film Opening Night, 72nd Cannes Film Festival, France - 15 May 2019

Marche Du Film Opening Night at the 72nd Cannes Film Festival

Katie Jones/Variety/Shutterstock

With streaming dominating the industry — and suddenly becoming the “new normal” in a changing world — IndieWire is taking a closer look at the news cycle, breaking down what really matters to provide a clear picture of what companies are winning the streaming wars, and how they’re pulling ahead.

By looking at trends and the latest developments, Streaming Wars Report: Indie Edition offers a snapshot of what’s happening overall and day-to-day in streaming for the indie set. Check out the latest Streaming Wars Report for updates to the bigger players in the industry.

Buzzy Originals

The Festival World’s Heavy Hitters Experiment With the Digital Frontier

It’s funny to think there, mere weeks ago, the biggest question in the indie streaming space was if smaller platforms were ready to meet the demand of suddenly home-bound film fans. Ready they were, launching a slew of new programs, fresh selections, and innovative ideas (including the growing world of virtual cinema) to keep the movie masses well-fed.

Film festivals haven’t been so quick to adapt. While some of the biggest festivals on the circuit are experimenting with some virtual programming, they aren’t rushing to remake themselves as online events.

This week heralded the announcement of the We Are One: A Global Film Festival, an unprecedented 10-day digital film festival taking place on YouTube, produced by Tribeca Enterprises. While the names attached to the free event, which kicks off on May 29, include some of the world’s most lauded festivals — Berlin, Cannes, Venice, Sundance, TIFF, NYFF, BFI London, Karlovy Vary, Locarno, and more — the specifics of the programming remains vague. An official press release touting the event, which will benefit the World Health Organization and other relief partners amid the ongoing pandemic, noted that it will involve “curated programming” from each festival, including both “new and classic films.”

Reading between the lines (and considering the reticence by some festival brass, particularly Cannes, to embrace an all-virtual festival): No, this online event will not play home to splashy premieres of films that once hoped to hit the red carpet at the world’s biggest festival stage. Cannes is not going to send its slate to YouTube, and film fans should instead expect to see classic films from its deep back catalogue (the same, of course, goes for other fall festivals, like TIFF and NYFF, that will surely not debut 2020 picks months before those festivals might still be able to play out in a limited in-person capacity).

Some major festivals have already announced their 2020 plans, including Karlovy Vary, which recently opted to cancel its 2020 edition, with some selections made available online, and Locarno, which will also not happen this year but will not go virtual. But that doesn’t mean that We Are One will become the premiere home of films once bound for those events. Instead, the plans are likely to lean into showcasing older offerings.

The Paramount Theatre in Austin south by southwest

The Paramount Theatre in Austin

Shelley Hiam

Even recent festivals that have moved to virtual spaces, including SXSW and Tribeca, have only done so in a limited capacity. While both festivals made some films available to press and industry to screen and review, very few were made viewable to the general public (Tribeca will participate in We Are One, which will likely host some of its 2020 picks). SXSW crafted its own virtual festival in partnership with Amazon, but even that free event includes only a small section of the SXSW slate, and only a handful of features. Filmmakers and sales agents have been reticent to make their films available online while looking for buyers.

The virtual space continues to be the next great frontier for the moving image, but for now, the major festivals are only going so far as dipping their toes — and the industry seems to want to keep it that way.

Big Deals

Smaller Festivals Are Getting Into the Streaming Game, Too

In recent weeks, some forward-thinking regional festivals have already begun pushing some of their latest picks to streaming, including the Oxford Film Festival in Mississippi, which has teamed up with Film Movement and its own streaming platform to share some of its 2020 slate. On the international front, both CPH:DOX and Visions du Reel reported positive results from going online with their programming, which was largely comprised of non-commercial offerings.

Other events are following suit, with their own tweaks: from the Beijing International Film Festival, which Variety reported earlier this week has teamed up with streamer iQIYI to offer a mini-festival in the coming weeks, to the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, which will make some of its films from its postponed spring event available online, though only to viewers in Greece.

Montreal’s genre-focused Fantasia International Film Festival has opted to pursue a robust digital festival in August, aided by Festival Scope and Shift72 via their newly-launched online festival platform, which both CPH:DOX and Visions du réel used to stage their virtual editions. The festival will offer many of its films via virtual release, pairing them with  filmmaker intros and audience-involved Q&As, live panels, and workshops. The fest’s flagship short film showcases, juried competitions, and audience awards will also remain in place.

And that’s not all. In the last week alone, a slew of other regional festivals have also announced their plans for virtual events. The Chattanooga Film Festival, postponed from its April dates, has teamed up with Microsoft and its partners MediaKind, Evergent, VisualOn and Slalom, to present a “full, four-day interactive, virtual version of the physical festival” this May. Like an in-person event, the festival will sell passes that grant its viewers access to a variety of films and events.

Mountainfilm, which typically unspools over Memorial Day weekend, has extended its dates (it will now run for 10 full days), and will now offer over 100 films on streaming, plus “a symposium and additional presentations.” Like Chattanooga, it will offer an extensive pass to most events, or viewers can purchase individual films, shorts programs, or presentations for $10 each.

New York City’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival is also preparing to present a digital edition of its full slate of “provocative films that shine a light on the people taking great risks every day to stand up in the face of injustice and to protect our shared world for future generations.” The slate will be available nationwide, though the festival has plans to return to its in-person home Film at Lincoln Center and IFC Center next year and beyond.

Lincoln Center

Josie Robertson Plaza in front of the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center


Another NYC mainstay, the Museum of the Moving Image’s First Look festival, has also moved some programming online. Each Monday in May, MUBI will premiere a film from the festival and each film will be available to stream exclusively on their platform. And, just one borough over, the Brooklyn Film Festival has also announced its plans to go virtual, boasting the online release of its full film lineup of more than 140 films, all viewable for free.

On the other side of the country, both the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival Connect 2020 and the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival’s Virtual Showcase have queued up robust virtual programs in the coming days. The LALIFF selections are all free, and screenings (features, shorts, and episodics), Q&As, masterclasses, and music performances. Starting today, the LAAPFF Virtual Showcase has adopted a slightly different schedule, and will screen one film program per day, plus new filmmaker discussions.

New Numbers

Will We Ever See Ticket Revenue Numbers?

Another continuing question in the growing world of streamers: Where are the numbers? Most indie streaming platforms and virtual cinemas are not yet providing either subscription numbers or box office reports, though a few have started doling them out (and anecdotal evidence points to many of the bigger virtual cinemas putting up solid numbers).

As festivals, including events that will charge for screenings, start to enter the fray, the question persists: Will we ever know how many tickets are hold? We’re guessing no, at least until a festival logs some massive, gamechanging figures. Until then, we have to play the guessing game. Change is coming, but in the festival world, old habits are still dying hard.

Keep streaming, and stay safe out there.

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