Why Digital Film Festivals Would Be Largely Harmful to the Industry

Film festivals left right and center have been closing their doors in the wake of the Coronavirus. CPH:DOX has moved its entire edition online, while SXSW has shuttered, letting go of 33% of their staff. Meeting Point at Vilnius Film Festival and ZagrebDox in Croatia have also been cancelled.

While nothing compared to the strain on global healthcare services worldwide thanks to this deadly disease, it threatens to decimate the value chain upon which independent filmmaking is based. This is a difficult moment for the film industry as a whole – as seen by major releases being postponed until the autumn – yet while major studios, backed by billions of dollars, should be able to find novel workarounds to make sure that they remain in business, this can be lethal to the precarious nature of festivals, which rely on a good year to remain in business. Cannes are feeling particularly testy, as their insurance plan doesn’t cover the event of a pandemic.

One solution, proposed by good people across the internet and actually being implemented by a few festivals, is to move to digital only platforms. Stage 32 have told filmmakers who were selected for SXSW that they can screen their films online. Additionally, CPH: DOX is still technically going on, with organizers making “an online program available for a local audience”. But while these measures could be argued as a necessary stopgap during a season of crisis, if it continues much longer than the virus itself, it could be largely harmful to the entire value chain of the film industry.

Firstly:

Films Should Be Seen in the Cinema

At huge festivals, like the Berlinale, where over 400 films play across the entire event, its impossible to see absolutely everything in the cinema. Sometimes, whether its to avoid a clash or simply to see as many films as possible, screeners are requested for personal consumption at home. Screeners are deeply important to festival culture, a vital resource for underfunded critics who want to take part in the film culture but cannot afford to fly across borders to see such films. For example, I have reviewed films from Toronto and Venice despite never actually going to Toronto or Venice.

Therefore while they serve a necessary purpose, they simply cannot replicate the experience of watching a movie in the cinema, surrounded by other journalists or members of the public also watching the film for the first time. The one big exemption for screeners at major festivals, unless you are from a huge publication, is in competition strands. In my six years of film writing, I have yet to be granted a screener for a main competition film at either Berlinale or Cannes (although they were more lenient at Karlovy Vary). I can’t complain – these films are meant to be seen on the big screen, otherwise they may as well just play for television.

A Film That Tanks Digitally Will Have a Harder Time Being a Success

To outsiders, having a film play in a major film festival looks like a major success in and of itself. Nonetheless, it means nothing if no one turns up to see it. Many a film can play in a festival without receiving any coverage whatsoever, which ultimately represents a lack of resources on behalf of the PR team.

If they even have a PR team, of course. For some independent filmmakers, especially in smaller festivals, they have to do the heavy lifting themselves, meeting journalists and members of the public and personally vouching for their film. If a first time filmmaker premieres their movie online instead, not only does it devalue the worthiness of the film, it reduces the likelihood of it even being seen. A potentially negative reception on top of that could prove lethal, especially to personal morale. It takes a huge amount of will to make a film, and only a few bad reactions to put a filmmaker off completely. It’s far better for a filmmaker to watch their work with a public audience in order to spiritually validate their efforts, especially when critical reception is less favourable. 

The Film Industry Thrives Upon Personal Connections

The real money-maker from festivals can be found in the film markets, where producers make funding available and distributors find films to play in their respective countries. Just like all industries, there is no real substitute for personal connection.

This is also true for journalists. A large part of my film writing success can be found through making personal connections at festivals. Without going to parties, making friends and having film-related conversations over drinks, I wouldn’t have the variety of contacts I currently enjoy to lean on during a difficult time for publishing reviews, articles and interviews. It is an industry based upon 50% talent, 50% personal friendships – take away half of that equation and filmmakers, journalists and producers will have an even harder time moving up in the industry.

This Can’t Become the New Normal

Although hard to see in the current moment, there will come a time when it is safe to convene in large groups again. Yet film festivals, especially those running on limited, event-dependent funds, may find themselves pondering digital only events. This can’t become the norm. While there are a variety of well-curated digital platforms such as Short of the Week or even Mubi to help highlight independent cinema, their tireless, well thought-through efforts are no match for the streaming giants who are likely to benefit most from these changes.

Netflix purchase hundreds of films a year from film festivals that simply disappear into the ether. While some movies, such as Atlantics and Happy as Lazzaro, do make an impact regardless, too many films simply get buried underneath a stream of endless content. Programming, especially for a festival, is a difficult art that often requires years of film experience. So is PR. For films to make the best impact, they need a strong release strategy, which includes consideration of where to play, how to distribute and how to pick up coverage.

Digital releases – in a world over-saturated with online content – is almost a surefire way to devalue the magic of the festival experience, replacing the thrill of the new with simply another selection on a long online menu, competing with Spotify, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook for your full, uninterrupted attention. Here’s hoping that these current trends, coming under quite unique circumstances, are only a blip upon the festival industry as a whole.

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