How The Melbourne Film Festival Made a U-Turn and Learned Lessons From Switching to a Digital Format

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Melbourne International Film Festival

With Australia in the depths of lockdown, due to the coronavirus, the Melbourne International Film Festival announced in April “with sadness” that its 69th edition in August was to be canceled. Less than a month later, organizers realized that they could go ahead with a virtual edition instead, and announced MIFF 68½. The festival’s artistic director Al Cossar describes the digital hug, and explains how online elements are here to stay.

What was the thought process between cancellation of the physical festival, and the later understanding that an online festival would be possible instead?

We were considering the options at the time of the cancellation announcement, scoping the parameters and costs of a digital festival at that stage, etc.

The world is obviously a more distant and disconnected place in 2020, but we wanted to keep going, regardless of the form the festival now needed to take. We saw continuing in the middle of all of this as our radical act.

It was a very quickly emerging space at the time we committed to going forward with a digital festival; in terms of programming while working to develop the streaming platform, it’s the equivalent of building the cinema simultaneous to putting the program together.

What was really important for us in the thinking and conceptualizing around it, was to present something, however different in form, that was true and complete to the programming personality of MIFF, and what our audiences expect from it in a regular year, all in the middle of a situation that was an unthinkable point of vulnerability for festival culture, as well as for audiences at home.

To that extent, we presented a program of scale – 118 films from 56 different countries, that effectively translated our festival to this space, a program we would have been very proud to put forward in any year. We were able to achieve gender parity in our program for the first time in MIFF’s history (59 out of 118 films having at least one female director), and that’s a landmark for the festival in any year. Pushing the festival forward rather than sideways in 2020 was crucial.

What audience numbers did you end up getting? How did that compare with a conventional edition? 

Particularly given that we were screening within a program space in which there was no precedent for the festival, the audience numbers in 2020 were really strong. We can’t compare them directly to a regular year, as what we are talking is not individual ticketing, but a projection of household viewership, with multiple people potentially watching.

Estimated viewership was 370,000, with 20% interstate, 12% Victorian regional, and 24% new audiences.

What technical parameters needed to be set — geoblocking, limited ticket numbers per film, etc?

We worked to Australian level geoblocking, and in nearly all cases (there were a couple of completely uncapped films) a virtual ticket capacity limit on a title by title basis, set against sales agent and distributor negotiations. We were able to further negotiate and introduce encore capacities on some titles which sold out.

We presented films across two broad presentations methods – Program Spotlights (which also specifically included Opening, Closing and Centrepiece Gala slots within it) – the biggest titles of the festival, which had screenings which began at a certain times to emulate a shared experience; and then regular on-demand screenings, with a 36 hour viewing window, available across the festival period.

Was one company able to supply an end to end solution? Or did you still use Facebook Live, YouTube and Zoom for some parts of the event?

We used Shift72 as a platform essentially for all film and talk event presentations throughout the festival period, and augmented slightly with other platforms for other uses, eg. ongoing presentation of talks events after the end of the festival via YouTube. Our program launch we streamed via Facebook live, and also had on YouTube. And we did one social activation around a film with Arts Access Victoria as a Zoom event.

What were the successes and weaknesses of the virtual festival as you see them (e.g. ability to reach a national audience, loss of concessions revenue, etc)?

Our intention with the festival this year was to be innovative, to be responsive, to be proactive in a changing, critical, environment for filmmakers and audiences. The online festival space was and obviously still is an emerging one, where expectations are being set and experiences being defined across industry and public.

One strong learning from the experience for myself was how the context changes the way in which you fundamentally think about access to the festival. For instance, those who may be proximate to MIFF in a usual year, but because of age, illness, immobility, or just personal circumstance have become distanced from it (for instance, young people who have morphed into young families who don’t have the physical capacity to be in the cinema and engage in the way that they once might have).

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Al Cossar, artistic director of Melbourne IFF PETER TARASIUK

Another positive was, while we weren’t able to present physical guests, we could reach out and engage with and include so many amazing people as ‘virtual guests’ to the festival via pre-produced Q+As or similar – being able to present Kelly Reichardt, Aubrey Plaza, Riz Ahmed, Steve James, and all of the other 40-plus virtual guests was something special.

An interesting strength was considering a new kind of appeal for longitudinal programming under lockdown – we played Mark Cousin’s “Women Make Film” (5 parts / 14 hours), Steve James’ episodic “City So Real,” and offering an on-demand setting to wonderful works which are also an expanded time commitment for our audience in this context was great. We could also use the format to present works in completely new ways – for instance, our virtual table read for the 30th Anniversary of the iconic “Death In Brunswick,” which had a very creative execution that would not have been possible (or would have been tremendously difficult) in a live setting.

Another was simply national scale and audience – we presented our largest closing night in the history of the festival in this setting, a scale at which we would not be able to present at in any other year.

The positive element is that it enabled us to radically reimagine and interrogate what we do, and think to the core of why we do it, and that will be a positivity we take forward, no matter the context of future years.

The main weakness that comes to mind is the obvious one – the lack of cinema scale presentation, and what that means to our audience.

The other main one is also exceedingly obvious – people can’t be brought together to celebrate, and MIFF filling up the city streets of Melbourne with people is something that is always a part of who we are – the social dimension and sense of spontaneity that can happen naturally around a physical festival is something that is still challenging to create in this setting.

Did the film industry understand and co-operate?

An understandable challenge that continues are the flows of the film supply chain within the festival circuit, due to COVID. Opportunities and possibilities for our program changed markedly as the COVID context changed, and as the industry context of festival cancelation and postponements morphed around us.

Another challenge is defining yourself online, as a smaller but substantial alternative to the streaming platforms we are all so familiar with, and are now specifically habitualized around in the context of lockdown.

Would MIFF’s financiers, advertisers and sponsors choose an online festival again in 2021? Or is a hybrid model, mixing in-person and online activities, to be retained by MIFF?

Next year is potentially even more complicated in terms of conceptualizing and delivering than 2020, and it will require a variety of built-in contingencies. We will need to develop and lock programming within that, and we will need to have strong timeline planning as to when we commit to particular forms and formats.

It seems rational to hope for the best and plan for the worst: the possibilities of shutdowns, social distancing, fluctuating venue or gathering ban limits, the potential psychology of audiences returning to spaces, alongside the possible and demonstrated volatility and changeability of covid as a situation.

MIFF’s heart will always be in the cinemas, and we will always be there to the extent that we can be responsibly, but this experience has positively challenged us to consider how we might become more relevant to our audience, and more responsive, and I see elements of an online or hybridizing approach necessarily enduring past this situation.