The Problem With Virtual Film Festivals (Column)

SXSW partnered with Amazon, and Tribeca is in talks with YouTube (and 20 other festivals) to go virtual. So why are you underwhelmed?

SXSW Festival
Michael Buckner/Variety/Shutters

On Monday, Amazon Prime launched a streaming version of the SXSW Film Festival, partnering with the Austin-based event to deliver a handful of movies free until May 6.

In theory, it’s a brilliant solution: Going virtual gives any cinephile access to the spring’s coolest pop-culture gathering — a gathering at which no one was actually able to gather this year, as SXSW became the first domino to fall in the still-cascading line of public events canceled by the coronavirus.

Many more festivals, such as Fantasia (the Montreal-based genre-movie banquet, which announced plans for an online program on Wednesday), are looking to go the same route. Also on Monday, the Tribeca Institute announced a partnership between more than 20 film festivals, whereby YouTube will host something called the We Are One global film festival, starting May 29.

Trouble is, in practice, this approach isn’t so great. Check out the SXSW package on Amazon, and you’ll find a bunch of shorts, a few indie TV pilots (including Amazon’s own “Tales From the Loop”) and just seven of the 120-plus features that were originally scheduled to play the festival in March. If you don’t live in Austin but have long heard of this mythic utopia where mumblecore began and Judd Apatow movies premiere, you could be forgiven for thinking, “I don’t get it. What’s the big deal?”

Listen, I love what this Amazon-SXSW partnership represents, and I’m dying to know what the We Are One lineup will look like. All these cancellations have dealt a huge blow to the entertainment industry. Without festivals, filmmakers can’t share their work, audiences are deprived of the opportunity to discover new voices, sales agents have a tough time finding buyers, distributors can’t fill their upcoming slates and critics can’t kvetch. (Oh, who am I kidding? Critics can always kvetch.)

But let’s be real: Most filmmakers aren’t willing to let their work be shown this way. It’s not that they’re opposed to streaming — a great many of them will wind up on such platforms down the road anyway. It’s just that these indie talents have spent years creating the films that were set to premiere at SXSW, Tribeca, etc., and now they’re having to rethink how best to share that work with the world.

If sharing films were the only goal, then virtual festivals would be perfect. Directors stand to reach more people than they ever would in Austin. That’s the justification Alex Lee Moyer gave for including her feature debut, the controversial incel portrait “TFW NO GF,” which is all about isolation, loneliness and the social distancing that was already happening in our culture before the COVID-19 outbreak. (Pro tip: Watch it!) But doing so meant disrupting the industry’s business model.

To potential distributors, participating in the Amazon showcase isn’t perceived as being included in a virtual festival. It’s tantamount to giving away first streaming rights — one of the most valuable assets in an indie film’s quiver. Also, there’s the very real risk that once the movies go up on Amazon or whatever streaming platform steps up to host a virtual festival, pirates will come along and rip it.

Amazon didn’t publicize the fact, but 10 days earlier, it pulled an epic “oopsie,” posting MGM’s not-yet-released Tiffany Haddish movie “Bad Trip” on the service. It was promptly taken down, but too late: The movie’s widely available on the Torrent sites. Now, for a movie like “TFW NO GF,” that’s probably a good thing. What better way to reach the digitally savvy shut-ins the documentary is about? But for a movie with commercial potential, such a leak could be devastating.

To understand what’s working against any film making its debut via an online festival, consider that the most valuable thing festival movies have is their premiere status. A “world premiere” is a movie that’s showing for the very first time, and everyone — be it Cannes, Sundance or SXSW — wants those. If a festival lines up enough world premieres of a certain level, it has no trouble attracting press and industry to attend. Buyers come looking for new movies, and thus a market is born.

Obviously, a movie can only world premiere once, and its handlers have to be strategic about where that happens. So when SXSW announces its lineup, but can’t host the 100 or so premieres it had planned, those films are faced with a quandary, for which there are 100 or so different answers: What do you do about your world-premiere status, which remains intact but compromised?

Do you withdraw the film and save it for a future event? (At some point, this pandemic will calm, and festivals will want your film. After all, it was selected by SXSW — or Tribeca, or whatever — so you have the cachet/credibility of that.) Do you rush it out some other way, as Netflix did SXSW selection “Uncorked” and Tribeca-intended “The Half of It”? (That only works if you already have distribution, or were lucky enough to be acquired outside the festival, as Boaz Yakin’s “Aviva” was.) Or do you roll the dice and participate in a virtual festival?

Now, if you’re following my logic so far, you may have concluded that only “the dregs” of the selection would go that route. That’s not entirely fair. Judging by the films available to press and industry to stream via SXSW’s and Tribeca’s private extranet services (streaming platforms, like Shift72, whose access is carefully limited to critics and buyers credentialed by the host festivals), the sparkly titles opt out, and we’re left with those with more need for coverage or a deal. There are great films among them, but they are the ones most likely to slip through the cracks had the in-person festival happened as planned.

To better understand the kind of filmmakers that might be receptive to participating in a virtual festival, let’s take a closer look at the seven that agreed to be guinea pigs in this SXSW package: Four are narratives, all foreign; three are docs, only two of which were premieres. I suspect that sales agents for the four overseas titles wagered that they had little to no chance of an American release anyway, and the Amazon exposure could only help. (The two French movies, “Selfie” and “Le Choc du Futur,” both opened in their home market earlier this year and aren’t the sort to attract U.S. distribution.) Documentary helmers seem more willing to take the plunge — as CPH:DOX and Cinéma du Réel have shown — perhaps because their projects are born out of a spirit of activism rather than profit. Just look at last week’s Michael Moore-produced “Planet of the Humans,” the goal of which is simply to be seen as broadly as possible, and therefore released free on YouTube.

None of this is meant to reflect badly on SXSW, which has an amazing track record for finding strong and interesting work. In fact, Amazon snapped up the irreverent human-hunting comedy-thriller “Boyz in the Wood” out of SXSW last year, and plans to release it later this year on Prime. Judge SXSW by that movie instead, or Apatow’s “The King of Staten Island” — which was supposed to kick off the 2020 edition — when Universal releases it to PVOD in June. My point is, these virtual festivals are doomed to disappoint, at least in the near term, because they’re too disruptive to the business model.

So what are we to make of the ambitious We Are One announcement? Well, it’s an inspiring sign of solidarity between festivals, all of which have been hit hard by the coronavirus. Just this week, the Karlovy Vary and Locarno festivals announced they would be canceling, and France’s prime minister made clear that no large public events would be happening in that country until at least September. Personally, I’d be surprised to see any film festival happen in the 2020 calendar year, which means Toronto and others that have pledged to innovate hybrid options will need to think long and hard about how to improve this model.

One solution appears to be geo-blocking, a technology that allows community-based festivals to serve audiences in the same region — and only that region — who might have attended in person under normal circumstances. Copenhagen-based CPH:DOX combined such restrictions with settings that limit the number of streams of any given film. Both tools allow virtual festivals to more closely resemble the events they were designed to replace. The disappointment occurs when a festival announces a robust lineup, only to deliver a small fraction of those films online. But as the coronavirus cancellations continue, these events have an opportunity: to curate a lineup that will be available in its entirety online, consisting only of movies whose creators are open to screening virtually.

The Tribeca-driven We Are One event promises to offer films curated by more than 20 international festivals, but we already know that participants such as Cannes and Venice don’t plan to screen premieres online, because their directors have quite vocally said as much. By banding together, the others can probably muster more than seven movies for the public to see, but don’t be surprised if the lineup is made up mostly of shorts and non-premiere offerings — perhaps movies from past editions, or those that have opened in their home countries. There are hundreds of exceptional movies that fit that bill, and heaven knows, audiences are hungry for fresh things to watch. Just don’t mistake a virtual festival for anything like the real thing.