How the Pandemic is Reshaping Film Festivals

There has been no shortage of coverage pertaining to the desperate situation facing movie theaters during quarantine. Faced with the dual reality of audiences forced to stay home and a virtual halt in both the production and distribution of major releases, theaters are trying to hold on during the worst revenue drought they have ever experienced. Make no mistake, this is a dire issue for the industry to confront, and at its core is an existential question about the place of the theatrical release in a landscape more and more dominated by streaming. Yet there is a major part of the industry workflow that is also facing down catastrophe which may be less in focus for the average movie fan, and that is the film festival. 

 

For those unaware, film festivals are the places that provide BOTH publicity and the prospect of distribution for movies that are not bankrolled by a major studio. They are also launchpads for major awards contenders, a chance to announce a movie as ‘important’ in some way. These dual functions mean that film festivals are vital for a healthy industry, especially because they are traditionally the places where independent filmmakers gain traction and the chance to have their films picked up so they can be seen. Quentin Tarantino premiered Reservoir Dogs (1992) at the Sundance Film Festival where Miramax picked it up for distribution, and more recently Barry Jenkins used the Telluride Film Festival to secure funding for Moonlight (2016). Every year thousands of wonderful movies are made that never get to theaters because they cannot break through, and while film festivals will never be able to solve this problem, they provide a space for some of the best independent features to have a chance.

 

It took a month or so for all the dominoes to fall with a few major festivals, such as Cannes, holding out hope that the pandemic would subside before showtime, but time only brought clarity in terms of accepting there was no path forward other than cancellation. The chain reaction from these decisions is extensive. For the festivals, it has resulted in desperate moves to stop the bleeding. SXSW, an Austin based festival, laid off one-third of its staff days after announcing their cancellation. More broadly, most festivals without major corporate sponsorships or deep endowments rely on their once yearly programming for up to 75% of their annual budgets that fund new filmmaker initiatives and sustain the mundane costs of running a business. While many festivals have avoided the massive layoffs that SXSW opted for, it’s only a matter of time until more follow suit, if this pandemic marches on and guts potential revenue streams like screenings and panels that could otherwise be a substitute for a full-blown festival. 

 

For filmmakers, these cancellations mean nothing short of heartbreak. As reported by The Chicago Tribune, Kris Rey was set to premiere her feature I Used to Go Here (????), starring Jemaine Clements and Gillian Jacobs, after four years of development and production. Rey has a lot of experience in the industry, but she is by no means a recognizable name that can rely on star power to get a movie released, and so a festival WAs that chance. Similarly, The Atlantic reported on Kate McLean and Mario Furloni, who have spent ten years making their feature debut Freeland (????) only to see their hard fought festival slot disappear. These stories are only two of many and reflect a whole class of filmmakers who could have had their breakout moment this year and are now wondering if they’ll ever get another chance. As Rey put it in her interview, “this whole industry is based on momentum and now-ness,” and with neither of those things present for the foreseeable future, it is hard for these filmmakers to know what to do. 

 

In the aftermath of all this, festival teams and filmmakers have started looking at alternative options. For SXSW, it means partnering with Amazon to release a collection of features, documentaries, and shorts for free during the period between April 27th and May 6th. A total of 39 projects will be a part of this collection, and it will also feature a number of panels and Q&A sessions with filmmakers. What makes this even more interesting is that it will not be limited to those with Amazon Prime accounts. Instead, anyone with a free Amazon account will be able to access all of the films for the entirety of the online run. However, this new set-up is obviously a question mark for a large swathe of filmmakers because fewer than 5% of SXSW participants elected to have their films be included in the Amazon bundle. 

 

Many of these filmmakers spoke with media outlets under an agreement of anonymity andshared their concerns. In a piece at The Hollywood Reporter, one anonymous director stated “I love South By and I love Amazon and I love that they are trying to do something, but it feels like this might hurt the filmmakers in the end.” How so? As one producer put it to Inverse, “[t]here’s a huge difference between having a thousand people see your film and sell it based on buzz, and have 300 million people see your movie unlimited times for 10 days.” The fear is that by allowing anyone on Amazon to watch their movies they will inadvertently destroy any chance of securing distribution in the future, or making money when those “300 million people” have already seen it for free. 

 

News about another tech-festival partnership broke earlier this week, this time spearheaded by the Tribeca Film Festival and YouTube. Dubbed the “We Are One” online film festival, the event will feature films, masterclasses, panels, and other content pulled from a spattering of global festivals including Cannes, Sundance, London, Berlin, Sydney, and Locarno. “We Are One” is scheduled to run from May 29th-June 7th, and while a more detailed breakdown of what will be included in the festival has not been made available yet, Deadline reported the following:

 

The press release sent by the organizers claims there will be “new and classic” movies but features are largely expected to be library titles which had little exposure at the time. There aren’t expected to be any movies scheduled for upcoming 2020 festivals, for obvious financial and rights reasons. For example, Cannes has not submitted any movies, we are told, but will be sending some masterclass content.

 

Due to the number of unknowns about “We Are One,” there has not been the same level of speculation and debate that came out of the Amazon-SXSW partnership. Only time will tell if filmmakers feel the same way about “We Are One,” but suffice to say that the underlying concern about how these digital festivals will impact future market viability is not going away anytime soon.It is far too early at this point to know if festivals set for the fall and winter will also adhere to these alterations, but chances are that we will not be back at full capacity anytime soon. 

 

Regardless of how “We Are One” is accepted, or if this becomes more of a norm, these alterations to film festivals are part of a larger response that is rippling throughout the film industry that is signaling a panic turn towards digital. Earlier this week, Universal announced that due to the success of the straight to VOD release of Trolls: World Tour (2020), they would consider skipping the theatrical release altogether in the future, which would be a massive shift in their traditional release pattern. Theater chains came out swinging, warning that if Universal skipped them for any of their movies they would not show a single other Universal feature. I nod to this because it is of the same underlying anxiety that the current digital film festival craze is: large production companies and film businesses want to preserve their bottom lines, but that often leaves out concern for the small filmmakers who don’t have such deep pockets to insulate themselves. Without a stable model of festivals and theatrical releases that generate buzz and profits for smaller movies, that sort of picture will be relegated to the outer reaches of streaming companies while the only thing we see with a major release is the next Marvel or Star Wars movie.

 

The pandemic did not create these issues, they simply exacerbated a problem that has been brewing for years. Once Netflix and VOD came about and droves of viewers started choosing in-home viewing over going to theaters, the industry has been in panic mode about how to preserve the status quo. Yes, Avengers: Endgame (2019) can make over $2 billion at the box office because it has a built in fan base and global appeal, and if that came to streaming first people would pay to watch it because they know how to find it and know they want to see it. That’s not the case for any number of indie movies that cannot rely on a company machine and decades of fan interaction to sustain it. As companies see dollar signs in franchises and money is harder to come by unless you have the biggest one out there, the smaller movies simply do not have the same cash appeal. It is more vital than ever for film festivals to be a light for young filmmakers who need a stage, and who need to meet other people they can work with and support. 
So, if you’re wondering what you can do to support independent filmmaking, go and rent recent independent releases that did not get a theatrical run. Eliza Hittman’s masterful abortion drama Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020) and Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) follow-up Wendy (2020) are both available on VOD for rental. Seek out the movies you might have seen in theaters and rent them now, because every bit of money and exposure could help make the difference for a filmmaker just trying to break through.

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