In an Age of Uncertainty, How Have Film Festivals Responded To COVID-19?

Since the outbreak of COVID-19 earlier this year, many countries have restricted travel and instituted quarantines to keep citizens in their homes. Virtually every industry has been affected by the virus, with many businesses shutting their doors until it is safe to open again. The film industry has been hit especially hard; many of this year’s biggest blockbusters have been delayed. Their filming schedules and premieres have been pushed back until crews can gather for filming and audiences can safely attend the theater. Some have even opted for a digital release, hosted on streaming sites for a higher-than-usual price rate. One aspect of the industry that has been hit the hardest has been festivals.

With many cities around the world limiting the amount of gathered people in one space, and some even enforcing mandatory quarantines, film festivals have been unable to hold physical screenings. Even events that aren’t being held for several more months, are changing plans to accommodate for the possibility that they won’t be able to have a traditional festival. The St. Louis International Film Festival, which will be held in November, has already made the decision to move its screenings online.

 Cliff Froehlich, the Executive Director of Cinema St. Louis, has said that the festival will be able to work with the two-hundred or so filmmakers whose films will be featured, to ensure everything goes smoothly. Froehlich plans on conducting interviews with filmmakers before the festival and utilizing virtual meetings through Zoom to allow filmmakers to communicate directly with audiences. With the uncertainty of how COVID-19 will play out over the next few months, Froehlich believed that it was “not a wise move [to] pretend that everything was going to be normal, with the prospect that things could totally fall apart at the last minute.” So, the festival has already decided to adjust its course of action to warrant its success.

Many film festivals have adopted a similar approach; Tabitha Jackson, Director of the Sundance Film Festival, released a statement on June 29th about the future of the festival for 2021. Sundance will be teaming up with a network of cinemas across the country to play the official programming of the festival. Jackson said that each cinema will “host a bespoke slate from the official selection alongside complementary programming of their own.” The festival will also play its complete list of films online, along with a collection of discussions and live events. This is all in the hopes of creating an experience that is as close to the real things as possible.

The Toronto International Film Festival, which is fast approaching its planned opening in September, will include several physical screenings with social distancing in mind. For the first five days of the festival, there will be screening locations where audiences “enjoy drive-ins and outdoor experiences that take them beyond the movie theater.” TIFF will also include an online platform for the first time in its history. This platform will be similar to that of Sundance, with the festival’s programming being available for audiences across Canada as well as several talks and special events. The festival’s Artistic Director and Co-Head, Cameron Bailey, says that they are planning “to bring the very best in film to the broadest possible audience.”

The Tribeca Film Festival is taking the same approach with a slight twist. The festival still plans on hosting several live events online like others, with its program entitled Tribeca Talks, along with having an online platform for its programming. However, the festival actually  released its list of winners in the Jury Competition and Art Awards on April 29th, instead of waiting until after the festival is over to make the announcement. On top of that, the festival is having a series of screenings for classic films at outdoor drive-ins across the country to complement the regular festival. Even though the screenings can’t be held traditionally, the festival is still aiming to bring audiences together to appreciate films in a safe way.

All this talk of festivals and large events hosted on laptops and devices may seem counterintuitive, but the tactic can actually pay off. The Cannes Film Festival, recently held from June 22nd to 26th, was a resounding success. The festival reports that a total of 10,000 participants from 122 countries came together to watch a grand total of 1,200 screenings. Many of the participants were overjoyed with how the festival proceeded, many of them exclaiming that it felt like actually being there. In the end, the festival went amazingly well and created magical moments for its viewers.

Along with reimagining the festivals, its crucial to acknowledge the severe hit to business that studios, producers, and filmmakers will be taking. Festivals- especially principle ones like TIFF, Sundance, and Cannes- are major marketplaces for commerce, networking and deal workings. Fashion designers who feature their creations on the red carpets of galas will have to wait at least another year, and purveyors such as tech companies specializing in equipment, VFX, software and other filmmaking entrepreneurs will have no venue to launch their new toys. Even parties, which may seem extravagant, are platforms for inking deals and publicizing new films. Announcements, distribution deals, and unveilings will all have to find another process, as well as cities that host these festivals will have to look for other sources of economic influx as the hotels, restaurants, and other venues will be unable to host their usual events.

Festivals often serve multiple functions; The Vaughan International Film Festival in Ontario has quickly become one of the most prominent events of the year, and frequently holds industry seminars which draw in not only public audiences, but burgeoning filmmakers as well. VFF also provides various mentorship opportunities, as well as a host of other significant events throughout the year. Director of the festival Antonio Ienco, shared a unique vision saying “we at VFF opted in early March to shift the festival a full year. This decision was made to provide all accepted filmmakers with a similar experience to the previous 7 years.” Fully aware that next May could present similar challenges regarding Covid-19, Antonio added “with enough time we can now plan accordingly.”

 Another Canadian festival, REEL CANADA, supports education and aids high schools and teachers across the country by helping them integrate Canadian film into classrooms. Through their initiative, National Canadian Film Day (NCFD), they boast the world’s largest single day film festival, a veritable celebration of Canadian cinema and culture around the world. This year, REEL CANADA cancelled their in-person events and opted for at-home screenings of many major Canadian films. The educational platform that many festivals provide for filmmakers as well as various institutions, will be deeply hurt by the pandemic. Much of the ancillary events their revenue has been affected, as many of these events go towards helping maintain the festivals.

Despite some events not occurring for several months, many of them are having to change plans now due to the uncertain future of COVID-19, however, over the last several weeks, many locations have begun to relax their restrictions for the virus. Businesses are starting to open back up, as well as several travel destinations, like the Disney theme parks. In the United States, the number of new cases surged over the last month as many states began to reopen their economies.

According to the Washington Post, there were over 800,000 new cases reported in June, with Florida, Arizona, Texas, and California leading with the most cases. With Independence Day celebrations, health officials have begun taking precautions, with several places actually backtracking their reopening. Governor Gavin Newsom forced 19 counties in California to close their bars and indoor dining, halting reopening for 70 percent of the state. As the number of cases increases, states are being forced to take a second look at their plans.  

Despite the perceived end of the initial wave of the virus, it’s starting to make a comeback as cities open their economies and people begin to leave their homes. It seems very likely that there will be a second wave. This provides complications for film festivals in relatively small areas that several thousand people flock to. Even with the best safety precautions in place, there would still be issues with having so many people in a confined space like a theater. For the time being, it looks like festivals will have to get creative about how they open to audiences.

Although festivals are unable to hold physical screenings, they will still have many of the features normally included in their programs. They can still screen all their films and do live events with filmmakers, it just requires patience and creativity. Audiences will also still be able to watch the films they’ve been dying to see without having to risk their health, and they’ll be able to watch the films at their leisure without waiting in lines or fighting crowds to get into a theater. It will be different from what people are used to, but it still allows the film industry to persevere and thrive in an age of uncertainty.  

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