The coronavirus crisis may be prompting more festivals to migrate online, but not all filmmakers are on board. Director Alex Winter pulled his documentary “Zappa,” about rock iconoclast and classical composer Frank Zappa from both SXSW and CPH:DOX, rather than let the festivals stream his latest work.
“We had to stand down because we’re in the middle of sales discussions, and we can’t have the film leak,” says Winter. “Our main concern was sales. Being online with these festivals would be the equivalent of a streaming distribution deal.”
“Zappa” is the first time the “Panama Papers” director and “Bill & Ted Face The Music” actor had made a film without a distributor already in place. He saw the film festival screening as a way to create buzz and market the doc, attracting buyers and higher returns for his investors.
“Because the film was so big, and it took five years to make, with so much archival footage, I had to get independent financing,” says Winter.
Winter has discovered other benefits to film festivals, too. “Often getting it in front of a wider audience is a good testing ground for the film,” says Winter. “It helps me get a sense of what my work is or isn’t communicating. We’ve often made little tweaks and changes after we’ve premiered it at a few film festivals.”
The traditional model of exhibiting at film festivals has established mechanisms for film rights and financing. What happens to value when a film streams on a festival website is less clear. “As an artist, you’re releasing more and more power, the more people see the film without you being paid,” says Winter. ” My concern is that artists will lose more moral rights and the ability to fight and protect and monetize their work.”
Lina Soualem was ecstatic in late February when she learned that her film, “Their Algeria,” had been selected to the Visions du Réel Film Festival in Nyon, Switzerland.
In Cannes, last year, “Their Algeria,” which follows the separation of her grandparents after 62 years of marriage, won the inaugural Docs-in-Progress Award, a €10,000 ($11,300) cash prize given out by the Cannes Film Market’s Doc Corner with the support of the International Emerging Film Talent Association (IEFTA).
Then, in mid-March, there was another email from the festival organizers explaining the event could no longer happen physically, says Soualem. “But in the same email, it said they were thinking of an alternative way to honor the films and allow them to launch in April. We automatically understood it was going to be something online.”
“At first, your automatic feeling is, ‘No, I don’t want to do that,'” Soualem says. “I felt distressed because this would be the first time I would show an audience my film, so I was upset that it (would have to) be online.”
However, upon further reflection, she decided to accept the offer. Soualem explains, “I was observing (the Doha Film Institute’s Qumra event) online, and it was a good experience. I spoke to many programmers and professionals, and little by little, I understood we are all in the same situation and times are so uncertain that if I decided to say ‘no,’ I wouldn’t know what would happen next with the film.”
She is also concerned about a bottleneck when physical festivals return: “The fall festival season, if it takes place, might be flooded with films because of the absence of film festivals (in spring and summer).”
Thania Dimitrakopoulou, head of sales at The Match Factory, had to decide whether to allow the world premieres of Gerardo Naranjo’s “Kokoloko” and Bettina Oberli’s “My Wonderful Wanda” to go ahead as part of the Tribeca Film Festival’s International Narrative Competition.
“Tribeca offered us two options: for the films in competition to go online for jury members, as well as to show the films on the press and industry platform,” says Dimitrakopoulou. “That makes a difference because it gives a chance for these films to open to an audience festival later.”
Nonetheless, making the ultimate decision took time. “We needed to understand how the festival would set up, and whether it would engage with the press, and whether journalists would cover the films,” say Dimitrakopoulou.
That Tribeca had already announced that the films would be playing at the festival was also crucial to the decision to accept an online premiere. Match Factory is treating the virtual Tribeca premiere as a traditional world premiere in some respects. “We have employed publicists and are thinking of certain ways to present those films to distributors as well,” says Dimitrakopoulou.
“It’s new for all of us,” adds Dimitrakopoulou. “But there needs to be an idea of what you can do with the film afterwards.”
The premiere status of the film and the type of festival requesting a film makes a big difference, says Jan Naszewski, CEO of New Europe Film Sales. “We are showing films online with the Cleveland International Film Festival. I think it’s fine for smaller festivals that are audience-orientated,” says Naszewski, “but we would never do it for a premiere festival.”
“Certain movies get a buzz from a festival, that you don’t get from your couch. This buzz is especially important for a smaller company,” he explains.
“We had (runaway Icelandic hit) ‘Rams’ in 2015 when nobody knew us as a company. The buyers go to the usual suspects, and if there had not been the word-of-mouth (buzz) we received around ‘Rams,’ nobody would have found us. A festival levels the playing field,” says Jan Naszewski.
New Europe Film Sales sells a lot of films between festivals by sending links to buyers, “So it’s a bit of a paradox,” admits the Warsaw-headquartered executive of the sales process.
However, the first impression creates momentum. “Sometimes, the life of a film is very short. I had a film in Panorama in Berlin, and a week after, I was following up with somebody and asked if they wanted to watch it. They said, ‘Oh it was in Berlin; that’s a bit old for us now. Do you have anything coming up for Cannes?'”
CPH:DOX was one of the first festivals to go online, showing films to Danish audiences, and agreeing with sales agents to a cap of 1,000 views on each film. For successful films, sometimes this limit was extended in negotiations with the rights holders.
Tine Fischer, founder and director of CPH:DOX, says they had to replicate the festival experience as much as possible before requesting films. “We called the trades to see if they would cover an online festival. Then the juries all agreed. We talked to sales agents and distributors to make sure they will watch the films on the platform. Then we could call the producers.”
Of competition winner, Estephan Wagner and Marianne Hougen-Moraga’s “Songs of Repression,” Fischer says, “In terms of international press, the fact that it won two awards has been covered quite well, (so) from a financial situation, it’s great. I think they’re delighted they chose to premiere.”
However, more and more festivals have already announced their programs will not go online — Cannes and Venice being the most prominent of the batch. As Cannes festival director Thierry Fremaux told Variety earlier this week, “(For) Cannes, its soul, its history, its efficiency, it’s a model that wouldn’t work. What is a digital festival? A digital competition? We should start by asking rights holders if they agree.”
Germany’s Munich Film Festival, perhaps more drastically, chose to cancel, rather than postpone or go digital — a decision that came down to concerns around rights negotiations and the costs of putting on a digital edition.
Christoph Gröner, artistic director of Munich Film Festival, says, “In the end, we felt that with any of the scenarios — apart from calling it off — we would have very marginal results, in terms of creating a meaningful event for the industry, general audiences and filmmakers.”
Gröner adds, “We feel there are limiting factors in going digital when you are a festival that plays a lot of films and attracts a lot of different audiences. We can’t pretend to have the same outreach.”