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Shanghai: Festivals Grapple With How to Stay Relevant in the Digital Era

Festival organizers from around the world Tuesday discussed the challenges of remaining relevant in a digital era at a Shanghai International Film Festival forum.

The Festival do Rio’s executive director, Ilda Santiago, noted that online platforms are now an unavoidable part of the film business and creative process, and that “of course not all of them are so keen on physical festivals.” Her festival in Rio de Janeiro has tried to work in a limited way with online streaming, and she will continue to explore such avenues as long as online services were “expanding the possibilities of the films… and what we do,” she said.

“We can’t have 1,000 films in the festival, but I’m sure there are 1,000 good films to be screened. I’m old school in that I still think the big screen is the thing, but… I don’t want the audience to be imprisoned,” she said.

New York Asian Film Festival executive director Samuel Jamier found the figure a bit overgenerous. “We’ll be showing 50 films, but are there even 50 great films this year? I’m not so sure,” he said.

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Festivals have to stick to their purpose of helping audiences cut through the noise and find the content they’ll enjoy. “What happens with the digital age is that we’re reaching the point of absolute availability,” Jamier said. “[The arrival of] Netflix doesn’t mean that people know movies better, and it doesn’t even necessarily mean people watch more movies. [The ability to download] just means that people accumulate a lot of files on their hard drives.”

Festivals increasingly add value thanks to their curation of a finite number of films. “There’s only so many stories you can digest at a time,” he said. “I think the [purpose] of festivals is to bring things into focus.”

Santiago added that festivals can also keep themselves on the map with an accompanying market. “You want to give your audiences what they want — the big films that created a lot of buzz in the 20 or so main film festivals we all follow very closely — but you also want to give them something different. That’s very hard. That’s the point where you can [benefit from] bringing producers and directors to a market environment.”

Shanghai’s managing director, Fu Wenxia, said her team often asked itself “how do we match what’s happening online.”

“Offline interactions are still very important. Other than watching films, you also have to socialize. Festivals should emphasize this difference,” she said. “We have to find a way to do more offline events so industry players have more chances to meet each other and directors have more chances to meet their audiences.”

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