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The 28th EnergaCamerimage International Film Festival this year found itself – like many fests worldwide – saddled with sobering restrictions, in this case added to the already daunting agenda of getting the globally feted cinematography event fully up to speed only a year after moving back to its original location in Torun, Poland.

Festival director Marek Zydowicz reflects on the lessons learned by the last-minute changes imposed for public health reasons and on the opportunities he hopes to grow out of the experience in both the digital and real-world realms.

You’ve said the TV Pilots Competition is of particular importance in the industry. Was it planned with that role in mind?

Our First Look – TV Pilots Competition is the most dynamically developing segment of the festival. TV series as a whole are currently the most popular cinematic form of the modern world. They are with us every day, their protagonists visit our homes daily. A pilot for a series needs to encourage us to enter their world, learn their stories and secrets, and soak up the aesthetics of their reality.

Many cinematographers have mixed feelings about having their work premiered on the small screen. Would you argue the trade-off of more viewers for less cinematic viewing is worthwhile?

I believe that TV shows have such a powerful influence, that they should be produced with great care and sense of responsibility. It is up to their creators to guide and build the tastes and sensitivity of people around the world. That is why evaluating and elevating this art form at film festivals is extremely important.

Does Camerimage focus on helping to promote emerging cinematographers through the TV pilots event?

We want to recognize these artists and build a sense of responsibility in them. Commercial viability should not be the main motivation for producing a series. We have to put up a fight to regain the attention of viewers currently overwhelmed by destructive, numbing formats such as cheap reality TV or silly competition series that are all the same. I am glad that the pilot for “Hunters” won our award. Amazing work and commitment of the entire team delivered an extraordinary effect. I can only wish we could have shown it on the big cinema screen. This pilot beats many theatrical releases. Fred Elmes delights us once again!

Do you have any data yet on what the web traffic was like for the first online-only Camerimage and what does it indicate about the audience interest and participation in the streaming format?

It is important to point out that the online version of the festival was planned as an addition to the physical edition and just a few days before launching the event the decision of the government forced us to go online only. It was a real challenge to pull off, particularly with online film distribution being a relatively new thing.

We had to accept certain restrictions like geo-blocking, a fairly common solution nowadays. Still, we welcomed nearly 2,000 entry card holders at our digital festival and it looks like this is just the beginning of a new era both for our screening offer and the online part of our festival market, which also had its premiere this year. We held a total of over 100 live meetings with filmmakers from all over the world.

Despite the global pandemic and time zone differences, we were once again able to provide our guests with a meeting point for exchange of information, feedback and technology solutions. All our past live events are now available free of charge to viewers of our streaming platform.

What are the major lessons learned so far from running Camerimage digitally for the first time?

That there are no borders for those who love the festival. We will permanently expand our operations and hopefully our reach as well. We will be more confident in adopting new technologies and developing new virtual spaces as platforms for communication and creation. It’s an inspiring, formative experience. The Polish government and Torun authorities granted us $160 million for the construction of the European Film Center Camerimage and that is where we will use what we’ve learned so far.

How did you manage to deal with the issue of some competition films not being available for streaming for rights reasons?

Fortunately, only a few titles were blocked this way. We did secure necessary permission to show them to the members of our juries. I do not understand why distributors would choose to restrict access to their films for a limited number of connoisseurs at a festival like EnergaCamerimage. It’s good promotion, after all. Several hundred outstanding artists, students of film schools and film critics from all over the world who see the film with us can then promote these titles back in their countries. Every year, we have about 900 cinematographers, 1,000 film school students and a few hundred other filmmakers and film journalists.

The streaming rights issues have the most impact on tribute sections, it seems.

A completely separate issue concerns the rights to archive films. This is often a convoluted mess to figure out who has got the screening rights and then make them realize they have really got them. Once they figure it out, they either don’t know what to do with it and just say no or demand unreasonable screening fees of thousands of dollars for one showcase.

What was the response to the first digital 3D industry showroom? Did the camera and tech companies get much traffic/interest this year comparatively?

We were actually surprised by the overwhelmingly positive feedback to the initial idea of ours to develop a virtual showroom. Some of our regular exhibitors struggled due to the pandemic this year and simply weren’t able to take part. Others were hesitant and preferred the regular, physical form of exposure. Still, we believe that the companies that took this risk and dove into this digital 3D industry showroom are happy to blaze this trail with us. We are still waiting for their feedback and we will keep on working together with them on developing this exciting new addition to our festival.

What turned out to be the biggest challenge – other than COVID risk – and how did you manage it?

No direct contact, that unique ambience of living people in crowded venues, no real smiling faces, no sparks in the eyes of our viewers, no late-night conversations after the screenings, seminars or workshops, no casual meetups at restaurants or the festival club. I really miss talking to other people about what is important to them in both life and art, right here and right now.