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For Film Festivals, the New Normal Means Less Face Time and More Access

Online festival events are much more than a safe substitute — here's how organizers are embracing their new virtual realities.

Tribeca Film Institute's If/Then Short Documentary Program pitch day

Tribeca Film Institute’s If/Then Short Documentary Program pitch day


With the help of a technical consultant and several dry runs, the online pitch day for the Tribeca Film Institute If/Then Short Documentary Program, originally set to be held at the Cleveland International Film Festival, went off without a hitch. Sure, there were elements that couldn’t be replaced — FaceTime can’t beat face time — but more than 300 people watched the pitches on April 16, and filmmakers James Christenson and Brennan Vance won a $25,000 grant for their project “To Be Reconciled.”

If/Then director Chloe Gbai said the turnout was higher than usual, including “a ton of industry — industry we wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. The way that Cleveland is positioned in the calendar, it’s a beloved festival, but it doesn’t get as much industry traffic as other festivals. There’s a lot of good that festivals and market do both for our industry and the economies where they’re based … but I do wonder if part of what’s going to come out of this pandemic is a reckoning. Are there alternative ways to do our work?”

As the industry struggles to figure out how to persevere through these strange times, leaders are also embracing their new virtual reality. Even after it’s safe to hold in-person events, expect post-pandemic programming to offer increased access — maybe by creating more virtual events alongside in-person ones, or introducing online components at festivals or conferences where geography and cost historically limit access.

After all, virtual connection has its own benefits: When travel means walking to your webcam, organizations and participants can save on airfare and encourage a wider range of speakers from around the globe. The same is true for attendees, which could mean greater exposure for emerging filmmakers.

When Field of Vision launched its first round of online office hours for the documentary community on March 16, about 200 people booked 30-minute 1:1 sessions with staff members. Organization head Charlotte Cook expected discussions to center on COIVD-19 related disruptions, but that that was only the start.

“We had so many people who came through who never really had access to industry members, or young emerging filmmakers who really wanted input on what they were doing for their first films or their careers,” she said. “We have a load of great regional festivals, but they can’t reach everyone.”

Nathaniel Hill, CEO and founder of VIP events organizer Broadway Plus, initially offered online singing and acting lessons and meet-and-greets with theater stars out of social-distancing necessity. Now, he sees a whole new market. “We’ve realized that VIP experiences can provide performers with a consistent creative outlet and income any time they’re available, whether that’s now, or between future show contracts,” he said. Hill is now working with a range of customers that include schools, companies, and event planners that want to incorporate virtual Broadway in their events.

For Toronto’s Hot Docs, which wrapped up its virtual edition May 14, the pandemic presented a chance to roll out a re-imagined version of its online screening room, Doc Shop. Hot Docs rebuilt the platform several years ago with the aim of offering more than streaming movies; this year, it also served as a place for keynote addresses as well as the festival’s signature documentary market, Hot Docs Forum, and the new Al-Jazeera Short Pitch Competition. Hot Docs also attempted to recreate the intimacy and relaxed nature of the happy-hour tent with virtual meeting rooms limited to around 20 people and a host who got the conversation going. Now, all the materials and the chance to book meetings on the platform is available through the end of the month.

“We always thought about this,” said industry programs director Elizabeth Radshaw. “We were just really busy doing live events.”

Sundance Institute already offers online education through its Collab platform, but it tried out something new when shorts programmer Mike Plante recently hosted a half-day seminar originally scheduled to take place in San Jose, Calif. He said face-to-face communication and the spiritual aspect of watching a film in a theater with others are among the hardest things to replicate, but virtual programming could also deliver more experts to student filmmakers. “Everyone I’ve come in contact with is really thrilled at sharing advice, but sometimes they can’t do it simply because of travel restrictions,” Plante said.

Filmmaker Lance Weiler, a co-founder of Columbia University’s Digital Storytelling Lab, helped organize the first-ever online version of the Digital Dozen awards last month, which honors digital storytelling across multiple media industries and platforms. He sees this as part of the new normal, noting that the now-primary forms of communication — video conferencing, texting, and others — were secondary during the “Before Times,” as some now dub the pre-pandemic world.

“These platforms came of age in a different time,” he said. “A lot of them were shaped by engineers and were designed for specific productivity needs. In 18 to 24 months, you’ll see a whole new wave of platforms emerge.”

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