As the impact of COVID-19 grew, governors began to restrict public gatherings, forcing film festival programmers to cancel in-person festivals. Many responded by moving festivals online.

Tribeca Enterprises and YouTube developed “We Are One: A Global Film Festival,” joining with 20 global festivals, including Venice, Sundance, Cannes, Toronto (Hayes, 2020).

Streaming platforms thrived with festivals moving online. Film Festival Flix, a streaming platform, now partners with the Chicago Festival of Israeli Cinema and Ashland Independent Film Festival, ready to carry out online festivals in May. Seed & Spark, a crowdfunding platform, launched a platform specifically tailored for online festivals.

This situation also inspired some new online festivals. Quarantine International Film Festival is an online festival launched after everything went into lockdown. Its purpose is to encourage filmmakers to stay creative while they’re stuck in quarantine. Even though the festival did not offer any compensation for filmmakers, it still drew a lot of attention. The festival received 636 submissions from 54 countries, Siobhan Cooney and Spencer Streichert, organizers of the festival, reported.

Some film festivals suggested they had very limited time to move everything online. It was one week before the opening of the Vilnius International Film Festival (VIFF) that the quarantine was announced in Lithuania. The film festivals that came later had more time to prepare. Melanie Addington, executive director of the Oxford Film Festival, said it worked very closely with the filmmakers to figure out what form of online presentation would make them comfortable.

Research shows purpose of festivals

Rüling brought out the concept of “field-configuring events.” Through interviews with programmers of the Annecy animated film festival, Rüling concluded that the festival serves as an animation community, competitive venue and marketplace for animation filmmakers and professionals (2009, p.66). Some state-run film festivals, such as the Guangzhou International Documentary Film Festival, gather international commissioning editors and producers, serving as a venue for deal-making (Yu, 2014).

From an organizational perspective, film festivals function as a public exhibition place that is financially and culturally crucial for the whole film industry. The concept of “arenas of emergence” is suggested by researchers, as film festivals often come up with competitions, workshops and marketplaces for co-production, distribution and recruitment, which gives participants a sense of emerging agenda within one location (Rüling & Pedersen, 2010).

Also, studies emphasize the role of film festivals as a connection and integration into the global community (Mazdon, 2006; Evans, 2007; Yu, 2014) Filmmakers build their reputation through connecting with global networks.

Audience population and audience demographics

This digital solution brings some benefits. Statistics show that “16,709 live stream feeds from 50 different countries” joined the Ann Arbor Film Festival this year. Katherine Pertuso, the communications and marketing manager for the Ann Arbor Film Festival, said online attendance is larger than last year’s in-person attendance. Carrie Richer, artistic director at the International Wildlife Film Festival, said even without survey statistics support, the festival witnessed its email list double as more people registered for passes.

As a screening platform powering virtual festivals and streaming channels, the Film Festival Flix brought in more film festival partners and helped them move festivals online. With only ten festivals partnering with them in the past eight years, 50 more film festivals are consulting with them to join the Film Festival Flix after the COVID-19 situation, according to Benjamin C. Oberman, CEO of the Flim Festival Flix.

The reason is that the digital solution brings in more audience memnbers who could not physically attend in the past.

Virtual experience

Most of the film festivals try to recreate the virtual experience to simulate the physical one. Their first goal is to maintain the film festival’s function as a way to connect to communities. All four film festival programmers suggested they came up with the virtual Q&A to connect audiences and filmmakers. They used social media channels to create this communal experience for viewers. Oberman suggested that approach is a better experience for some audiences, because in a digital settings, the time limit for a Q&A is more flexible.

All four film festivals showed films to juries and arranged online deliberations, so the winners of the competition could still be selected. They also hosted the online closing ceremony. Audience awards remained viable or even thrived as audiences could have more access to watch more films. Aistė Račaitytė, head of film sales and distribution of Vilnius International Film Festival, said this is important at this time, because films have lost many of their opportunities to get publicity. The winner of the Vilnius International Film Festival this year is The Metamorphosis of Birds. After premiering at the Berlin International Film Festival, the film should have traveled all around the world, but then everything went into lockdown. Račaitytė said announcing the awards gives those films a chance to get recognized and become known to the public. Film festivals also benefit from this digital solution. The Ann Arbor Film Festival had the highest number of filmmakers take part this year because most of them can access to this digital platform.

However, not all portions of the film festivals were able to move online. Normally, VIFF would have some industry events that bring in distributors and sales agents from abroad to acquire films, but this part was canceled this year. In the meantime, Film Festival Flix is cooperating with multiple channels to provide year-round programming and distribution opportunities for filmmakers. After a festival is over, it works with festivals to create streaming channels, so filmmakers can have a chance to participate in revenue sharing.

Concerns about online film festivals

However, there are still some concerns that prevent filmmakers from joining the online festival. The first concern is aesthetic and technical issues – films are often made to be seen projected on the big screen. Račaitytė said only 70 percent of the festival’s films went online, with the rest awaiting in-person screening opportunities.

The other concern is distribution. All four film festivals had some films drop out because of the distribution concerns. The filmmakers were concerned if the films are screened online, they may lose deals with distributors. In response to that, Seed & Spark initiated the 2020 Film Festival Survival Pledge, trying to call for the whole industry temporarily waive policies that prevent films from screening at online festivals (Seed & Spark, n.d.). Addington said the Oxford Film Festival signed the pledge because she thought bending the rules at this moment could be beneficial for filmmakers, “Even though they cannot play their film this year, they should be able to play it next year,” Addington said.

The last concern is the security issue. Instead of showcasing on Vimeo or YouTube, VIFF said it showcased films on its own platform based on experience in providing digital access in the last three years, thus trying to ease filmmakers’ concerns about their films leaking through piracy. The Oxford Film Festival in Mississippi also teamed up with Film Movement, trying to stream at a more secure platform.

Future of film festivals

Oberman suggested the festival industry had already seen a paradigm shift before COVID-19. As the team worked on the Catalina Film Festival last year, it started to bring out a parallel virtual festival track—half of its films were available through in-person theater screenings, while half were available online. Regardless of display platform, all filmmakers were treated the same in competition.

VIFF provided digital access to ten films even before the COVID-19 situation. The festival defines itself as a nationwide festival, so programmers want to make sure VIFF is accessible to everyone. However, Račaitytė suggested the festival will not extend its digital offering of 10 titles, and hopes to “come back next year in a normal shape, like the way we used to happen.” Richer also expressed the intention to bring out more virtual events. As remote education keeps growing, there is a lot of potential for that festival to plug into a remote education program.

As film festivals go hybrid, two different avenues allow more audiences to stay tuned for the new films and the film industry.

Conclusion

The limitation of this research is that it only includes four local or regional film festivals. Some nationwide or international film festivals still provide chances for filmmakers to pitch their films, get funding and get connections with sales agents. Greece’s Thessaloniki Documentary Festival is a successful case to host an online pitching forum (Seth, 2020), and the Cannes film market also arranged a virtual marketplace, making sure projects could be sold even though filmmakers and sales agents cannot physically attend the Marché du Film – a gathering of producers, distributors, buyers, and programmers (Seth, 2020).

To answer RQ 1 and RQ 2, according to the interviews, all film festivals suggested they strove to mimic their in-person community-oriented festival experience even though some of them had limited time to adjust and move everything online. Overall, filmmakers and audiences showed positive responses.

To answer the RQ 3, most of the film festivals said they will carry on the tradition and bring back the physical venue once things are back to normal. “We still think about ourselves as the festival made for the big screen,” said Račaitytė. Regional and local film festivals stated their purpose is to bring out a sense of community, which can only be achieved by the in-person experience.

Even though some big film festivals managed to stage live-streamed industry events with more people getting access, some festivals had to let go of this section with limited time to prepare. However, not all film festivals draw an industry presence and serve as a marketplace for films to be distributed. Matt Wechsler, cinematographer and director of the Hourglass Films, said, “That’s not really the case for most film festivals. That’s only the case for maybe 25 festivals in the United States.” Most film festivals still remain in the level of community building.

However, in the wake of COVID-19, online festivals are still necessary to help some independent films get publicity and build a reputation. Filmmakers may need to balance the options of waiting for next year’s competition and showcasing their work online, meaning more films than usual may be submitted to festivals next year, making competition even more fierce. As online festivals remain an option, filmmakers’work can still be selected as winners by virtual juries and gain attention from the media and potential buyers.

This research attempts to provide an overview of film festivals under COVID-19. Film festivals, filmmakers and screening platforms are all coping with the changes brought on by this pandemic. The whole industry is forced to transform. This change brings some new insight to the whole industry, including expanding the market of the streaming platform.

References

Evans, O. (2007). Border exchanges: the role of the European film festival. Journal of Contemporary European Studies, 15(1), 23-33.

Hayes, D. (2020, April 27). Tribeca And YouTube Join Forces For ‘We Are One’ Online Film Festival With Lineup Fed By Cannes, Venice, Toronto And More. Deadline. Retrieved from https://deadline.com/2020/04/tribeca-youtube-cannes-venice-toronto-we-are-one-streaming-film-festival-1202918493/

Mazdon, L. (2006). The Cannes film festival as transnational space. Post Script, 25(2), 19-30.

Rüling, C. C. (2009). Festivals as field-configuring events: The Annecy international animated film festival and market. Film festival yearbook, 1, 49-66.

Rüling, C. C., & Pedersen, J. S. (2010). Film festival research from an organizational studies perspective. Scandinavian Journal of Management, 26(3), 318-323.

Seek & Spark. (n.d.). The 2020 Film Festival Survival Pledge. Retrieved from https://try.seedandspark.com/film-festival-pledge/

Seth, R. (2020, April 10). Is The Future Of The Film Festival A Digital Experience?. Vogue. Retrieved from https://www.vogue.co.uk/arts-and-lifestyle/article/future-of-the-film-festival-digital

Yu, T. (2014). Going Global–Guangzhou International Documentary Film Festival 2013. Studies in Documentary Film, 8(1), 76-79.

About Tianting Zhang