The Current Debate: Film Festivals in the Time of Coronavirus

As the world grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic, how are film fests responding to the crisis, and what shape will they take once it's over?
Leonardo Goi
And so it was that on March 19, after weeks of mounting pressure and stubbornly optimistic official statements, Cannes joined the ever-growing army of film festivals cancelled or postponed over the COVID-19 pandemic. IndieWire's constantly updated list gives a sense of the worldwide hecatomb: cinemas are shutting, productions folding, as the crisis is shattering the film industry, raising questions as to whether festivals will recover—and if so, in what form.
In an attempt to overcome the pandemic restrictions, a few events have decided to roll out digitally and unveil their offerings online. First among them was the Danish documentary fest CPH:DOX, which is now screening a fraction of its 220 titles through Festival Scope, and running some of its industry activities on the web. “The well known CPH:DOX social experience will have to reinvent itself in a whole new way,” a press release warned on March 12, “and the team is now working 24/7 to make it happen.” Sure, the pivot to digital certainly offers some degree of palliative, better-than-nothing remedy. At Film School Rejects, Christopher Campbell notes that, while this isn’t necessarily the future of film festivals, it still offers a chance to stay afloat during the crisis:
Those capable of the virtual alternative certainly stand out, and none of them should be looked at as breaking the system with their digital solutions.
But hailing the streaming alternative as a catch-all fix is a far more problematic claim. Aside from the logistical nightmares posed by the digital turn—as illustrated by CPH:DOX Head of Industry Katrine Kiilgaard in a candid interview with Business Doc Europe—there are still numerous industry policies that effectively prohibit the widespread adoption of a virtual festival experience. Over at IndieWire, Chris Lindahl reports on a Film Festival Survival Pledge designed “to build a groundswell of commitment from industry leaders to temporarily waive policies that are hurting the independent film ecosystem,” including rules that disqualify films previously available online from screening at festivals. Far more worryingly, there is no clear sense that streaming would entail a democratization of the festival circuit, meaning equal chances for all filmmakers to land distribution deals amid the crisis via online screenings for press and buyers. In an eye-opening take at Engadget, Kristy Puchko argues that power asymmetries between established and first-time filmmakers might be amplified in a virtual festival universe:
The festival circuit allows smaller films opportunities to gather buzz from would-be buyers and awed critics, whose jobs demand they dig for hidden gems. But online, there's already an overwhelming ocean of titles to choose from. Without the build-up buzz of festivals, a great indie movie could very well be lost. (…) The buzz from festivals can trickle down from the press to the public, allowing daringly intimate films like The Farewell or wildly original movies like Sorry to Bother You to build momentum ahead of theatrical releases. All of this helps those movies find their audiences amid the discourse domination of massive studio properties like the MCU and DCEU movies, or the Star Wars saga, which have decades of mythos and myriad entry points to draw in audiences. While streaming can offer exciting opportunities, many indie films depend on festivals to thrive.
All of which underscores just how catastrophic the cancellation of Cannes would be both for the international festival circuit and for the film industry at large. As observed by Peter Debruge, over at Variety, Cannes does not only host the world’s preeminent film festival:
…but also a massive co-production market where filmmakers seek backers for upcoming projects. To take Cannes out of the equation for even one year would have massive reverberations throughout the world of international cinema. It is, simply put, the most important film event of the year, from which distributors flesh out their art-film slates, festivals take their programming cues and countries make their Oscar selections.  
Admittedly, Cannes is already looking into ways to make sure its Marché du Film could take place online. In an interview with IndieWire’s Eric Kohn, Marché head Jérome Paillard said the market “had its own advanced plan for online screenings and meetings that would take place regardless of what happens with the festival.” But this is certainly not a feasible route for the festival itself. To borrow again from Debruge, “…that [digital] solution runs entirely counter to Cannes’ stated reverence for the theatrical experience,” and for a festival that banned Netflix from competition, “there’s no universe in which a streaming solution would make sense.” Yet if Cannes may well be immune to that digital revolution, there’s no reason other fests should prove just as reticent, even after the crisis.  In his assessment, Film School Reject’s Christopher Campbell seems convinced the rupture will only be momentary: 
Once allowed to, fans are going to want the real deal again, so there’s no way [streaming] is the future of film festivals, just a temporary substitute.
But might the COVID-inspired pivot to streaming also convince sponsors to funnel their funds away from the current model and embrace other more profitable—digital—alternatives for the future, too? Again, this is certainly not to scold festivals who’ve turned digital to keep afloat during these troubled times. Nor is it to gloss over some crucial and long-overdue conversations about the sustainability of the festival circuit, especially as it concerns its carbon footprint (to that end, I found Ben Croll’s “Can Film Festivals Be More Sustainable?”, published in the European Film Academy’s latest issue of their online mag Close-Up, a thought-provoking read).
Still, the idea that everything will return as normal once the crisis is over strikes me as wishful thinking. Largely because the new shape the festival circuit will take is strictly contingent on the way the film industry will emerge from the pandemic. And things, to put it mildly, do not look bright. At The Telegraph, Robbie Collin suggests that one of the most seismic effects the coronavirus panic might bring about is the leveling of the barrier between theatrical releases and video on demand:
[Netflix’s] policy of releasing films online and in cinemas simultaneously has long been decried by Hollywood’s old guard as suicide for the industry. Now it might be the only thing saving it. While titles large and small have been pulled from the schedules this week, video on demand is already there to be embraced, and the industry will surely hit the tipping point between pride and pragmatism fast.
Changes in viewing practices were certainly undergoing long before the pandemic erupted, but the crisis has accelerated the pattern. Over at TIME, Eliana Dockterman reports a 13% surge in streaming platforms across the U.S. over the weekend of March 13 alone. Stranded at home for the next foreseeable future, cinephiles are looking for new ways to sweeten the self-isolation, and a few festivals are heeding the call: Amsterdam’s International Documentary Film Festival (IDFA) has recently made near 200 titles from its collection available online for free around the world. However difficult it may be to speculate on the long term consequences for the post-quarantine industry, the future of film festivals depends on how well cinemas will respond to the crisis, and vice versa. Collin is certainly not the only one to paint a realistically grim picture, but there are reasons to cling to optimism, if anything because, as Justin Chang observes at the L.A. Times, the emergence of new viewing habits and the erosion of old ones need not spell the death of the world we know:
The theaters are closed, but when this is all over and some semblance of normalcy returns — I say this with, I hope, not too much naive optimism — many will open once more. And I suspect that more than a few people will return to them with a vengeance, eager to re-embrace a social and cinematic pastime that they find they’ve undervalued in the past. 
Hope may not be much, but in these troubled times, a little faith in the back-to-normal collective experience that Manohla Dargis paints at the New York Times—in what is possibly the most impassioned and beautiful take I’ve read since the crisis began—can take us a long way:
When we at last can go out again and be with one another, I hope that we flood cinemas, watching every single movie, from the most rarefied art film to the silliest Hollywood offering. The movies can be exasperating and worse, but they have seen us through a lot, including economic bad times and wars. And there is nothing like watching a movie, leaving the world while being rooted in it alongside friends, family and everyone else. I miss that, I miss you.
Until that world returns, stay safe.
The Current Debate is a biweekly column that connects the dots between great writing about a topic in the wider film conversation.

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