As Awards Shows Move Up, Film Festivals Are Scrambling to Maintain Their Influence

The new Oscar dates have forced the entire film calendar to shift in a matter of days, while the fall festivals consider their options. Does February become the new December?
telluride film festival
The Telluride Film Festival

Now that the Oscar date has been set for April 25, the film community is struggling to rearrange its calendar, from the film festivals to the award shows that feed the Oscar pipeline. While no festival solely exists to feed the Oscar machine, the complex ecosystem that supports festivals, acquisitions, discovery films, awards titles, and Oscar campaigns has never been more fragile. However, the pandemic is throwing the entire interlocking network out of whack.

It’s not as simple as moving everything back two months. That’s what the Oscars are doing, in order to give studios and independents more time to complete and release their films, as production and theaters are slowly limping back. As soon as the new date was set for the ABC telecast next spring, questions arose about the next set of rolling changes, which effects distributors picking theater dates, talent availability, and more.

Awards shows and festivals that rely on talent availability were the first to move ahead. Within hours, BAFTA quickly picked a new date (April 11), leaving more room for travel than customary, followed by the Independent Spirit Awards (April 24), always held the day before the Oscars, and the awards-friendly Santa Barbara International Film Festival (March 31 – April 10, 2021), which usually comes toward the end of the Sundance Film Festival in January.

Suddenly, weekend dates in March and April are the new prime real estate as the Writers, Directors, and Producers Guilds jockey for new slots with the likes of the Critics Choice Awards. The Palm Springs International Film Festival, which runs its awards gala in early January ahead of the Golden Globes, will take a little longer for its board to figure out. And the Hollywood Foreign Press Association also has a decision to make about the Golden Globes, usually held in early January.

Oscar-winners Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert are back with documentary “9to5: The Story of a Movement.”

The entire 2020/2021 calendar is in flux. Just as AFI Docs 2020 benefited from movies that skipped canceled festivals, gaining world premieres like last year’s Oscar-winners Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert’s “9to5: The Story of a Movement,” there’s a slew of titles that are heading for the fall 2020 festival circuit that begins at the end of August with Venice and continues through Labor Day weekend’s Telluride Film Festival in Colorado, followed by September’s Toronto festival, which is determined to meet any eventuality and will announce its plans before the end of June. The New York Film Festival is considering a range of options, including outdoor screenings; however, the Lincoln Center gathering is less beholden to maintaining awards season hype as a crucial part of its identity and may have an easier time figuring out its lineup as a result. Netflix, for one, is not participating in the fall festivals to give filmmakers time to finish their movies.

European festivals may be more local, with few attendees from North America and virtual talent participation. The Telluride Film Festival is proceeding as though the festival is happening, with practical plans to be revealed by mid-July. But the festival will be dependent on whether the state of Colorado allows theaters to open in time. If not, the county will need to obtain a variance from the state to show films in theaters. So far, Colorado has battled back the virus more successfully than many other states.

The fall film festivals will likely keep their dates, because they risk running into a second wave if they try to move. Their choice: make do with the product that is coming their way so far (and hope that it doesn’t move back), settle for local or virtual talent, and make room for emerging talent and risky programming choices, including some of the highlights from the Cannes 2020 selection. Most celebrities are not ready to travel as yet.

“Nothing is going to change about people flying,” said one awards strategist. “You’ll get certain filmmakers and indies. Chris Nolan is not flying around. We don’t know what theatrical looks like. It’s not like the festivals have the same well to draw from.”

Everyone is trying to reimagine the first quarter of 2021. What films that were heading for 2020 release will hold for early 2021?  How will this change the role of the 2021 Sundance and Berlin festivals, which could theoretically introduce films in time for them to be released ahead of the Oscars? Will they become new awards platforms? Sundance premieres occasionally do make their way into Oscar season, but it’s mostly future documentary winners that have started their runs there in the past.

“Reeling from AMPAS decision,” wrote one veteran awards campaigner in an email. “Expected, of course, but now clients are re-examining strategies and release dates. So many questions.”

How will Sundance lean into an awards platform? New films without distributors will find it logistically tough to open in time to qualify, as the Oscar documentary shortlist voting starts on February 1, the day after the Sundance festival ends (January 31). This past year’s Sundance 2020 documentaries, for example, have an advantage over other rivals that have been impacted by not launching in live film festivals. A representative for Sundance declined to comment on how the current climate has impacted its next steps, but the festival is actively planning its 2021 edition.

Still to be determined are the new Best International Film Oscar deadlines, among many other questions at hand. What’s anyone to do? “We kind of plan and prepare,” said Tom Bernard, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, who is juggling his release schedule and waiting to see who shows up for “Tenet” on July 31. “And be ready to tonally change the plan if more variables show up. We’ll send our films everywhere we can. We don’t know.”

Additional reporting by Eric Kohn.

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