Veteran arts administrator Emily J. Hoe took over as executive director of the Singapore International Film Festival in April just one day before the country issued circuit-breaker lockdown measures in response to the coronavirus outbreak. The seven months that followed involved endless replanning before Hoe was able to deliver a trimmed-down event that ran for 11 days and ended early this month.
“We went through multiple contingencies, constantly trying to figure out what we could and couldn’t do at a particular point in time,” Hoe tells Variety. “Choosing the normal physical festival was obviously a dicey option. We looked at a hybrid model and one fully online. We even had to evaluate whether the show should go on.”
In Singapore, where the coronavirus is largely tamed and cinemas are open but national borders are firmly closed, the film festival opted for a hybrid edition, involving both in-person and online screenings.
This year has seen other festivals choose a range of options to pivot accordingly. Some, like Cannes, canceled the festival element altogether. Others, like Venice and Busan, got their timing right, took precautions and put on slimmed-down real-world events. Still others, including Australia’s Melbourne festival, announced a cancellation but then realized that an online edition was possible.
“It was a very quickly emerging space at the time we committed to going forward with a digital festival,” says Al Cossar, artistic director of the Melbourne International Film Festival. “We were programming while [also] working to develop the streaming platform. It was the equivalent of building the cinema [while] simultaneously putting the program together.”
Melbourne and dozens of festivals like it — from Toronto and SXSW, to the BFI London Festival, as well as the American Film Market — turned to a company that has helped others battle the limits of COVID, New Zealand-based Shift 72. Overcoming the tyranny of distance since 2008, Shift 72 had been making a living providing anonymous white-label transactional VOD (TVOD) services to distributors, institutions and TV channels.
“We had built a global product from day one, thinking about how it could be used in multiple markets for different price points,” says Shift72 CEO David White. Having already done the fiddly engineering necessary for TVOD, and worked to studio-level copy-protection standards, the company was quickly able to scale up and provide film festivals with digital replicas of their normal functions: from secure screening rooms to ticketing to conferencing. “We put over 50 festivals live last month,” says White, who expects to have delivered 250-300 by year end.
In many cases, rights owners and festival organizers have insisted on reproducing conventional festival practices, such as strictly controlling the number of digital screenings and (virtual) tickets that can be sold in order to preserve the integrity of a possible commercial release.
But as the virus has persisted, attitudes and commercial realities have evolved. “We did a lot of films where they accepted the fact that there probably wasn’t going to be a large theatrical [release] this year. Some distributors opened up those numbers and treated [festival screenings] like their theatrical release,” says White.
Geo-blocking of digital screenings within sovereign borders has become a standard requirement. But festival organizers have this year learned that going digital means their event is no longer strictly local either: They can now connect with nationwide audiences, instead of only those living in or visiting a host city. Streaming also allows festivals to access other segments, such as the elderly, the disabled, rural populations and people with kids.
Yet the brutal economics of the new normal may present ongoing problems for fests, which often rely on subsidy and sponsorship but can no longer roll out the red carpets and glamour their patrons seek. “Film festivals are in a real bind. How can they compete [after the pandemic is over]?” asks Mike Goodridge, artistic director of the Inter-national Film Festival & Awards Macao, where government, despite an enviable COVID track record, pulled the plug on a physical edition, and the fest switched over to digital only.
“The massive economic crisis will go on for maybe three to five years. Will film festivals still be a priority when health and economics recover? Culture always suffers in such circumstances,” says Goodridge.
But with virus spikes again raising questions about live gatherings, some of the major 2021 festivals are reshaping themselves. Rotterdam’s hard-core art-house discovery event has announced plans to split itself in two — a hybrid event in February and, fingers crossed, a physical one in June. Connecting the two is a continuous program of offline and online events, exhibitions and presentations.
“Through the new path we are taking in 2021, we expand beyond our existing boundaries. The form may be different, but our program will be as thrilling and vital as ever,” teases Rotterdam festival director Vanja Kaludjercic.