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How Will Film Festivals React to the Covid-19 Crisis?

Paolo Moretti, Orwa Nyrabia, Emilie Bujès
Katie Jones/Roger Cremers/Alexandra Wey/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock/Piero Cavagna

The independent movie business still depends very largely on selling and buying individual titles. Much of that is driven, despite the eruption of streaming platforms, by festivals and markets. So how events react to the Covid-19 crisis is of huge interest to the industry.

Switzerland’s documentary festival Visions du Réel, one of the first festivals to go totally online, debated the issue Sunday at a thoughtful digital panel, led by artistic directors, programmers and heads of a range of European festivals.

Those taking part were Paolo Moretti, artistic director of Directors’ Fortnight, Sergio Fant, a member of the Berlinale selection committee and head of programming at the Trento Film Festival, Orwa Nyrabia, artistic director of IDFA, IndieLisboa’s co-director Miguel Valverde, and Visions du Réel’s artistic director Emilie Bujès.

Here are five takeaways from the session:

1. When Will Festivals Get Back to Normal?

Don’t hold your breath. Amsterdam’s IDFA, Europe’s biggest documentary fest, is scheduled for Nov. 18-29. Already, however, Nyrabia is imagining there’s a “good possibility cinemas might be open partially” though with “huge limitations.” “The maximum we can see is it being the smallest IDFA in 30 years because of limitations and restrictions we expect,” he added; which means IDFA might go hybrid, screening some titles online. 

2. Every Festival’s Its Own World 

The panel’s central debating point was Visions du Réel’s decision – which appears to have met with initial success – to go online with its festival, though limiting attendance to 500 spectators per film. 

When festivals began canceling, Visions du Réel reached out to rights holders to see how they’d feel about screening online. “The reaction was great and grateful,” Bujès recalled. It was this conversation with right holders that validated the festival’s decision, she stressed. In the end, 95 out of the 97 films selected for Visions du Réel accepted screening online. A 96th couldn’t make it because it was unable to complete post-production with its lab closed. Partnering with Festival Scope reassured producers over security issues. 

“For Visions du Réel, it makes perfect sense to imagine an online edition. For Cannes, however, it’s not very possible because of the profile of the films and the strategies behind them. Supporting films is very different according to the profile of the films and the platform we are talking about,” Moretti said, and in the end comes down to the decision of films’ rights holders. 

3. A Late Summer/Fall Cinema Theater Bottleneck

IndieLisboa, one of Portugal’s two highest-profile film events, has been pushed back from an April 29 opening to Aug. 25-Sept. 5. Valverde said he imagined spectators could occupy only every third seat in theaters with empty rows in front and behind. The festival was also considering more open-air screenings, he added. His major worry, however, he told panel moderator Finn Halligan, Screen International’s chief film critic, was whether IndieLisboa would have access to all the theaters it normally works with. “Because everybody was canceling, everybody wanted the same dates.” This bottleneck is one more reason, of course, for distributors to at least consider a straight-to-platform release for current titles.  

4. Covid Crisis Camaraderie

For Moretti, “One of the most positive outcomes of this situation is the increased and improved dialogue between festivals, filmmakers and producers. I barely remember a time I had the impression of contact with so many at the same time and honest, straight-forward dialogues.” 

In the spirit of such support, Directors’ Fortnight might give a selection label to the films it had selected, if that helps them, he said, while keeping other options open. “In terms of an institutional approach, there are other options being imagined for Cannes 2020. We would, if anything happened at some point, be happy to keep the discussion going.”

5. Online Democracy, Digital Downside  

The Berlinale finished March 1, the same day that the first Covid-19 case was confirmed in the German capital, recalled Fant. But festival happiness after a successful edition soon turned to concern about the fate of films which had been shown there. 

An online festival platform opens up audience film access. In one dramatic case, Nyrabia said that the IDFA online collection –  essentially a series of links, catagorized by filmmaker, to older films on third-party platforms – used to get 80,000-90,000 visits a month. That’s now up to almost 1.5 million in the past four weeks. “These are all old films, not ones from last year. This is an opportunity for a second life for a film that has finished its market cycle to still be there,” he said. Online festivals democratize attendance, opening it up to spectators who cannot afford to travel to the physical event. Bujès said directors were commenting to her that they were surprised by the number of reactions they were receiving to films. 

On the downside, Nyrabia suggested, regarding online markets, “for the time being, the structure of the industry is so much more ruthless, a Spartan industry, it’s survival of the most obstinate. It’s difficult to be obstinate online.” He added: “It will be difficult for the underdog to be visible online. Representing people from underrepresented regions to the international industry is going to be challenging without being physically together, meeting that person again and again. Keeping markets online will consolidate exclusive structures.” June 22-26’s Cannes Marché du Film Online may suggest, at least when it comes to narrative films, whether he is right.