How the Coronavirus Has Upended Film Festivals – and What We Can Do About It (Guest Blog)

“We owe our support to festival comrades who opt to put their festival online,” Seed&Spark head of acquisitions & programming Clay Pruitt writes

SXSW Festival
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When radio came along, did it eliminate the newspaper? No. When movies came along, did they eliminate radio? No. When television came along, did it eliminate movies? No. When COVID-19 came along, did it eliminate independent film festivals? It doesn’t have to.

In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, the independent film community has been rocked by postponements and cancellations. While larger festivals may have the resources to take this hit and rise again next year — when hopefully, gathering in crowds to enjoy excellent cinema will be back to normal — many mid-size and smaller festivals cannot forgo the ticket and sponsorship revenue they depend on to sustain their organizations. In fact, the vast majority rely on that boost of revenue to support their year-round staff and programming outside of their main festival.

Even large-scale festivals are feeling the pinch. On March 10, SXSW layed off one-third of its full-time staff, saying in a statement: “Due to the City of Austin’s unprecedented and unexpected cancellation of the SXSW 2020 events in March, SXSW has been rigorously reviewing our operations, and we are in the unimaginable position of reducing our workforce.”

Over the past week, I’ve been talking with dozens of executive directors, artistic directors and programming directors of festivals large and small to gather an understanding of the impact. One festival, which sees approximately 40,000 attendees at its annual event, said about 75% of its annual operating revenue comes in the three months leading up to and including the festival. Canceling the festival would almost certainly be catastrophic and potentially fatal to the organization.

Postponing a festival comes with its own potential problems, particularly when looking at the sudden stacking of festivals in the fall: Festivals will compete with each other (and the rescheduled Hollywood films) for venues and the same pool of seasonal staff that had previously staggered employment to cover the calendar year. There’s also much speculation as to whether the COVID-19 will be any better by the fall or winter.

Regional, local and identity-based festivals are key curators for their communities, introducing real audiences to emerging filmmakers and vice versa. They are the veins and capillaries of a healthy independent film ecosystem — and if we cut off that blood supply, the whole organism is at risk. These festivals know best how to introduce new films to their audiences and are an essential platform for launching film careers.

So if a festival can’t cancel but the prospect of postponing looks uncertain and messy at best, what is left? For many festivals, moving online may be the only viable option. But, as one would predict, this track comes with it’s own hurdles, including festival eligibility policies prohibiting screening online and distributor policies prohibiting online streaming prior to VOD sales.

The good news is these are hurdles the independent film community could — and 100% should — address and amend for the security of our ecosystem at large. Yes, we live in a capitalistic society and festivals often compete with each other. But now is not the time for competition. Now is the time to support one another. As Seed&Spark founder and CEO Emily Best recently wrote, “We need everyone to take swift and decisive action so that we can not just survive in the near term but thrive in the long term. We are in this together, now more than ever.”

We owe our support to festival comrades who opt to put their festival online. It’s also important for filmmakers to see a groundswell of support so they can make informed decisions about whether or not to allow a festival to take their film online. And we can show that support by making a public pledge. By signing the 2020 Film Festival Survival Pledge, festivals and distributors can support the independent film community affected by the COVID-19 outbreak by agreeing to a six-point pledge:

    1. ONLINE ELIGIBILITY: Temporarily revise policies prohibiting screening of films that were once available online to now make any films that screen online in an official ticketed festival capacity screening and competition-eligible.
    2. PREMIERE STATUS: Uphold the intended film premiere status for a festival, in the event that a festival moves its program online.
    3. GEOBLOCKING WAIVER: If a film screens online for a preceding, non-geographically competing festival in an official ticketed festival capacity (when geoblocking technology is unavailable), temporarily waive policies requiring geographically-based premiere.
    4. PRODUCTION TIMELINE: When accepting submissions for the 2020-2021 festival cycle, temporarily waive policies limiting screening and competition eligibility of films produced within a specific timeframe to include films that were eligible in the previous festival cycle.
    5. COMMITMENT TIMELINE: Uphold these commitments for the duration of 2020. For festivals occurring in 2021, the Production Timeline clause will stand up to the date of your festival in order to protect 2020 films.
    6. DISTRIBUTOR CLAUSE: A distributor can further strengthen this pledge by committing to recognize that by screening online in a fixed-term, paywall-enforced, official festival capacity (that is geoblocked to a particular area), a film is not earning revenue or being sold to consumers in a traditional VOD market and, therefore, remains viable for future sales opportunities.