How Film Festivals Have Thrived in a Year of Pandemic

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“Necessity is the mother of invention, and I think we all in the industry are doing this in a way we never expected,” says Film at Lincoln Center director Lesli Klainberg

Virtual panel at deadCenter Film Festival
Photo Credit: Dennis Spielman

While the COVID-19 pandemic has shut down movie theaters across the country, it has proved an unexpected win for the nation’s film festivals in 2020. In the wake of the high-profile, 11th-hour cancellation of The South by Southwest Film Festival in mid-March, as well as postponements of the Cannes Film Festival and cancellation of the Telluride Film Festival, one might have expected smaller festivals to follow suit. Instead, Lela Meadow-Conner, executive director of Film Festival Alliance, estimates that out of the organization’s approximately 250 members, only about 10% canceled their festival during the pandemic, instead opting for a virtual festival or, in some cases, hybrid fests with online events mixed with outdoor or drive-in screenings, depending on what was permitted by local pandemic protocols. Meadow-Conner said anecdotal evidence suggests the show-must-go-on approach also applies to an estimated 3,000 film festivals that exist in North America, not just for the organization’s membership. In some cases, film festival representatives say virtual or hybrid festivals that took place in the summer or fall of 2020 actually saw increased attendance year-over-year when compared with 2019. Others say a more important factor than audience numbers was the increased geographical reach made possible by online attendance. At some 2020 festivals, virtual presentation improved both attendance and geographical reach.  “I think it goes hand in hand,” Meadow-Conner said. “A lot of festivals did increase their reach and therefore increased their attendance. (Others expanded)  just in terms of branding and impressions, which may not have resulted in greater attendance, but I think it went hand in hand for most virtual events.” Film at Lincoln Center estimates that even going virtual, the prestigious New York Film Festival (Sept. 17-Oct.11)  saw an attendance increase of 9% from 2019, with a mix of virtual events and drive-in screenings. Over 70,000 people attended the 2020 New York Film Festival, which was among the most-attended ever for the festival in its 58th year.  According to The Canadian Press, The Toronto International Film Festival (Sept. 17-11) saw a significant drop from 2019’s attendance figure of 307,602. In 2020, 48,280 tickets were sold to the general public for the pandemic festival’s mix of online and in-person screenings. However, festival organizers pointed out that in the case of drive-ins and digital home viewing, often more than two people were watching on a single ticket, either on a home screen or in a car, so the number of single tickets sold may under-represent the total audience. The expanded landscape has filtered down to smaller festivals, as well. One festival that saw an increase in both attendance and international profile was this year’s deadCenter Film Festival, held June 11-21 in Oklahoma City. The fest included mostly virtual events but also several outdoor screenings. Using surveys to assess the number of household viewers who attended, Alyx Picard Davis, executive director of deadCenter Film, said the festival saw about a 5% uptick in attendance over last year’s 35,000 attendees. “But what we really saw was that the reach was a lot bigger. We reached 24 countries and 42 states. I want to say we’ve had about half of that reach in the past,” Picard Davis said. She added that the fest produced more than 100 hours of additional content beyond screenings, including online Q&As with most of the featured filmmakers. Southern California’s Ojai Film Festival went forward with its 21st festival in early November as an entirely virtual event, offering an all-access pass for $50 or individual event tickets for $10. The screenings usually included not only the feature film but one or more shorts and often a video panel or interview with film creators. While screenings followed by panels were standard at previous festivals, Ojai Film Festival founder and artistic director Steve Grumette said the 2020 festival was able to connect virtually with international filmmakers who could not have afforded to travel to Ojai. “We had screening rooms going all day long for six days, with Q&A’s and several items in each block,” Grumette said. “Oddly enough, if you look at what some of the bigger festivals are doing, it’s not as elaborate and sophisticated as what we are doing.” The tourism spending usually brought to communities by incoming festival guests dried up when many film festivals went virtual this summer and fall due to the pandemic. But while they may not have served the community by bringing in tourism, those in the film festival world say online film fests have been able to raise their status by allowing them to serve perhaps a different audience than in previous years. Lesli Klainberg, executive director of Film at Lincoln Center, which oversees the prestigious New York Film Festival, said virtual film festivals of all sizes may also serve as a valuable temporary replacement for shuttered art-house theaters. “When theaters are closed in those areas, people are looking for those film festivals to provide films because the industry itself is not distributing them,” Klainberg told TheWrap. Klainberg added that an online forum often allows festival participants to interact with patrons in a more relaxed and intimate way, possibly eliminating the time constraints of shuttling stars and filmmakers on and off a stage on a live festival’s predictably rushed schedule. When the New York Film Festival live-streamed a panel for Pedro Almodóvar’s “The Human Voice,” Klainberg said, festival director Eugene Hernandez’s talk with Almodóvar and Tilda Swinton stretched from a planned 15 minutes to an hour and 25 minutes.  “That’s what happens when people are at home, talking about something they are engaged in,” she said. Sundance is struggling to preserve the live excitement for its 2021 festival slated for Jan 28-Feb. 3. The festival has confirmed that it is planning both virtual and live events. It is also planning events in conjunction with more than 30 cities around the country. A Sundance spokeswoman told TheWrap that Sundance is scheduled to announce on Dec. 2 some initial strategic plans for live presentations observing pandemic protocols in Park City. Sundance plans to announce its full film program on Dec. 15. “Necessity is the mother of invention, and I think we all in the industry are doing this in a way we never expected… I hope we’ll go back to traveling and going to film festivals around the world, but I think honestly it’s going to take a while to get back to what we once thought was normal,” Klainberg said. “I guess we’ll see, in the next year or so, how that all plays out. I don’t think the virtual cinemas are going anywhere. I think once people have found it, they’re not going to turn it off.” DeadCenter Film’s Picard Davis said she expects digital presentations to be part of film festivals post-pandemic, but acknowledges they have their limits. “There are certain challenges with the virtual presentations, some play much better than others,” she said. “(It’s difficult) to truly engage an audience in their own homes.”


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