How Sundance and Other Film Festivals Are Prepping for Virtual 2021 Event – and Permanent Changes Post-COVID (Video)

TheGrill 2020: “How do we keep our own institutions sustainable, but how do we keep artists sustainable,” Sundance director Tabitha Jackson says

Sundance Film Festival director Tabitha Jackson isn’t just planning for what the Park City festival will look like in 2021; she’s thinking about how the situation today will shape the future of her festival for years to come. During a panel at TheWrap’s TheGrill on Tuesday on “The Evolution of Film Festivals,” presented by New York Film Festival, Jackson said she doesn’t foresee “being out of the woods” by the time the next Sundance kicks off this January and she teased how the festival will live not just unfold in Park City, Utah, or even online but in art houses across the country. And in that sense, as film festivals evolve to meet the moment, Jackson said future Sundance festivals may never look the same way they did before. “Yes, how do we keep our own institutions sustainable, but how do we keep artists sustainable? They’ve poured their lives and their resources into making this work, which is now not being seen or is being seen in very fragmented ways. They are not earning, or we are in danger of losing a cohort of artists and voices and ideas,” she said. Jackson also urged the film community to think beyond the current crisis. “Long term, as we think about this evolution of film festivals, we have to think about the evolution of the whole ecosystem and industry because it’s something different now,” she said. “I don’t think we’ll ever go back to what it was before. But what is it that we want to hold tight to, and what is it that we need to let go?” Festival strategist Kathleen McInnis, Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker and Tribeca Enterprises’ Jane Rosenthal all agreed that while the COVID-19 era film festival has proved to be a vital experience in shaping the conversation of films and creating word of mouth for artists, what’s missing is the interactions and networking and the feeling of having a standing ovation on opening night that can’t be replicated online. Rosenthal noted that the Tribeca Film Festival was borne out of a moment of crisis — the year after the 9/11 terror attack devastated New York City. This year, the festival made the point of preserving its juries and handing out awards even as the festival itself was postponed. Rosenthal said that next year’s festival (which has been pushed from April to June 2021) will return to its roots of finding a way to bring the community back together. “Our whole ethos, our very being has been around bringing people together after a tragedy. What struck us here was, we can’t gather! The very thing that made that first festival so special, we couldn’t do anymore,” Rosenthal said. “We’re at the planning stages of it. We have never been a festival that’s been guided by rules. We have always been platform agnostic. The very start of it was to be for our community.” She continued: “We’re looking at new ways to explore how we’re going to be seeing films throughout the city. Definitely not in a traditional way whatsoever.” McInnis said that this year’s virtual festivals allowed short filmmakers and international directors the opportunity to get views and audiences for their films they would have never had under normal circumstances, and though the goal posts are moving constantly, there will still be the value of awards and festivals where discoveries can be made. The trick will be how the artists themselves can capitalize on finding that audience and how festival directors can best facilitate those audiences and conversations by going beyond canned, virtual Q&As. “If you are a smart filmmaker and if you are prepared, you can also with some festivals, you can still get that audience to join you almost as a vanguard, almost as an army. If you can bring them into your world, if you can bring them into your social media let’s say, and you can capture them and keep them, you can still get some audience on your side in what I hope is this temporary time space where we can’t have them in our lives,” McInnis said. “Nobody in the festival world is forgetting the filmmakers. The filmmakers may not realize that, but none of us are forgetting them. Everybody in their own way is trying as hard as they can to make sure there is something in this moment that can work for them.” Whatever form film festivals do take in the future, Barker says there will be an important place for them, and the people in charge will need to be the ones leading the discussion around film. “Festivals need to be visionary in a way. With what we’ve been through in the last six, seven months, I think it’s important for festivals to understand their importance in the zeitgeist. It’s important to think about the future years,” Barker said. “Gone are the days when I think festivals are looked at as slight appendages to the film world. I think if anything, they’ve proven to be so vital to film culture. I think that’s going to continue, and it will be very positive in the future. ” For over a decade, TheWrap’s Grill event series has led conversations on the convergence between entertainment, media and technology, bringing together newsmakers to debate the challenges and opportunities facing content in the digital age. This year’s digital-first experience will focus on the future of theatrical, streaming revolution, building inclusion from within and the growth in podcasting and gaming. Attendees will have access to keynotes, panel conversations, roundtable discussions and virtual networking. Watch the full panel above.  


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