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Leave it to a global pandemic to reveal how much the film industry takes its top festivals for granted.

From the outside, many of these events look incredibly glamorous, even excessive — none more than Cannes, with its black-tie premieres in the Palais and its exclusive yacht parties off the shore. As such, it’s not hard to imagine civilians questioning why the world might need such gatherings during a time of austerity and caution. But the truth is, film festivals serve an essential function to the ecosystem of cinema that can’t be reproduced by virtual events.

That shouldn’t stop festival organizers, faced with the likelihood of having to cancel in-person editions in 2020, from trying to create a safe, socially distanced and/or remote-access alternative. The Toronto Intl. Film Festival, running Sept. 10-19 this year, has been more versatile than most in this regard, wasting no time since the shutdowns began (the organization was obliged to close its offices and cinemas at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto on March 14) to start devising a digital backup plan.

The result, based on six months of proactive innovation, is a hybrid festival in which locals can attend outdoor and Lightbox-based screenings, while the press and industry tune in from home.

The team started by asking themselves, “What does TIFF mean to the international industry at large?” says Geoff Macnaughton, senior director of industry and theatrical for the festival. “We really challenged ourselves to look inward to understand what it is that they’re looking for when they come to our festival every year and to go back to our basis. What we hear from professionals is that the number one reason they come to TIFF is to screen content. That is far and away the reason that they attend.”

TIFF shrank this year from an expansive lineup of nearly 300 films to a core program of around 50 features.

As Telluride exec director Julie Huntsinger says of the responsibility of festivals: “We do a service of filtration. We know you’re going to have a ton of movies coming at you, but make sure you see these. That kind of curation is really important, for humanity. Otherwise too much information does become overwhelming.”

While it’s certainly possible to share “content” via virtual platforms, these digital solutions exclude so many of the more abstract qualities that comprise the culture of film festivals — and which make the return of in-person events so urgent to the overall health of the artform.

The Buzz Starts Here

Physical film festivals bring people together. The very thing that makes them so risky amid a hyper-contagious viral outbreak is precisely what can’t be reproduced online.

Buyers and sellers, filmmakers and critics, industry professionals and the public all unite in the same space, not simply to be the first to watch anticipated new movies, but also to talk about them with colleagues and strangers. The conversations that result — comparing favorites while waiting in line for the next movie at SXSW, seeking recommendations from fellow Sundance attendees on the Park City buses — tend to be spontaneous, authentic and completely organic.

Virtual festivals put a disproportionate amount of power in the hands of the press, especially the critics, who have one of the few platforms by which to share their reactions. One can look to the chatter on social media, though so many of the opinions shared there are performative: mock outrage, hyperbole and spin. It’s one thing to witness an audience reduced to tears or losing its collective mind over a world premiere, and quite another to parse what people are posting on Twitter.

At festivals such as Toronto and SXSW, the in-person audience is made up of a receptive public that roughly corresponds to future paying viewers.
“Think of the year of ‘Slumdog Millionaire,’” says Joey Monteiro, exec VP of international marketing and publicity for Sierra/Affinity. “Everybody felt like they just saw something special, and that conversation carried through to the wind. It’s at the three fall festivals [Venice, Telluride and Toronto] where the conversation starts up and we see who’s who among the dozens of films on offer.

A Sense of Shared Discovery

The “Slumdog Millionaire” example reflects the sense of collective excitement that can occur at a sold-out festival screening, but much trickier to manifest when people are watching in isolated bubbles all over the country. A great movie ought to be a great movie no matter how one sees it, and yet sales agents, publicists and awards-season strategists have developed tricks over the years to improve the odds that a film will make a positive impression on buyers, press and awards voters.

“The pageantry of a festival is the first thing,” explains Monteiro, referring to the airport arrivals, red carpets and press conferences that transform a festival premiere into a full-blown happening. “In a place like Cannes or Toronto, a lot of it is the pursuit of the ticket: Your movie is becoming eventized before it’s unveiled. Then the film screens, and a buying moment is tickled when everyone in town is talking about your film.”

If the movie doesn’t spark such enthusiasm on its own, the festival can treat it as something special with post-screening Q&As, often followed by VIP parties or private dinners where invited guests can visit with the director and stars.

Hyde Park Entertainment CEO Ashok Amritraj cites an example from this year’s Berlinale — the last market to take place before the COVID shutdown.
“I flew to Berlin for literally two days because we have a movie called ‘Remote Control’ with Gerry Butler,” he says. “STX was selling it, but we were doing a party there, so I went, Gerard Butler came in, and we basically sold out the world.”

This year, the Cannes virtual Marché tried to recapture some of that energy, with filmmakers pitching projects via Zoom and video conferences with talent. But there’s a reason those yacht parties exist: “It was a place where you relax and have fun, but of course, some deals got done,” Amritraj says.

The Telluride Film Festival makes a point of giving audiences access to someone involved with nearly every film it programs, personalizing the experience for attendees and creating the kind of goodwill that can snowball into positive word-of-mouth — and even Oscar nominations — down the road.

Toronto will try to approximate that dynamic with a handful of In Conversation With … screenings at this year’s festival, which will help some films stand out, but simply isn’t the same experience for attendees. The vast majority of this year’s TIFF intros will be digital, either pre-recorded or live via a Zoom-like teleconferencing app.

Building a Spirit of Community

Virtual festivals are not without advantages. Traveling to Cannes or other distant festival destinations is an expensive prospect, excluding those with limited budgets or scheduling conflicts.

“People are spending a good amount of money to go to a festival, and that can be out of some people’s price range,” says TIFF industry head Macnaughton.

This year, the festival reached out to its corporate partners about sponsoring passes for underrepresented individuals who might not otherwise be able to participate. “We’ve been focusing on emerging filmmakers who may have only come if they had a film in official selection.”

Still, there’s no equivalent for good, old-fashioned networking. For some groups, attending a festival amounts to finding one’s tribe, whether that means interacting with other die-hard cinephiles or connecting with members of a specific ethnic or social group. A festival such as Outfest, now in its 38th year, has served to unite the Los Angeles LGBTQ community, to show queer audiences that they are not alone.

“It’s sometimes the first time you see thousands of people of this community come together, and it’s exciting to know that we’ve taken over an entire block, and it’s not for Pride, but to share our own stories,” says Damien Navarro, a digital media veteran who landed the job of Outfest executive director last summer with the specific goal of using technology to grow the brand.

To preserve some dimension of that social dynamic when Los Angeles COVID-19 infection rates make in-theater events impossible, Outfest held six nights of drive-in screenings at the Calamigos Ranch in late August. The rest of the festival took place online, via the organization’s new OTT streaming platform, Outfest Now — a project that harnesses innovations Navarro was implementing even before the coronavirus hit.

Because the virtual festival isn’t limited to the Los Angeles area, but is available to the whole country, Outfest can reach audiences in communities that don’t have LGBT festivals.

“We heard a heartbreaking story from an 85-year-old Southern closeted man, getting access to these films for the first time,” says Navarro, citing an important statistic: “More of the LGBT community lives in rural America than in any one city.”

So, while in-person interactions aren’t possible at this year’s Outfest, the virtual edition reaches audiences too shy or far removed to attend in the past.

Finding Focus in an Attention-Deficit World

While it’s encouraging that digital festivals broaden the participation to new audiences, that can’t solve the most obvious — but also the most important — casualty of these programs: experiencing a film under what we once described as “ideal conditions,” with all eyes focused on the same screen.

“Seeing a movie on a big screen gives the film the respect it deserves,” says Sony Pictures Classics co-chief Michael Barker. “It’s incredible to see it with an audience that you don’t know how it’s going to respond. When they love a film and you get a seven-minute standing ovation, there’s nothing like the thrill of that for the filmmakers and the cast.”

Even in festivals such as Sundance and Telluride, where venues include converted high school auditoriums, public libraries and places of worship, projecting the film for an eager, engaged crowd validates the work of all involved.

“In some cases, it becomes the last time they see it on the big screen with an audience because it gets sold to a platform or something,” says Barker.
TIFF and other festivals that have gone virtual have come a long way in a short time to develop streaming solutions that deliver a smooth home-viewing experience while also protecting films from piracy. But anyone who’s watched a movie on Netflix or by link knows that the dynamic is different.

In a darkened theater, the film holds one’s undivided attention. At home, people multitask between screens all day, and it’s difficult to focus on a film in the same way.

Virtual festival organizers are doing their best to factor such distraction into their platforms.

“When someone comes to Cannes or Toronto, they’re living the festival 24/7,” Macnaughton says. “When you are digital, we are competing in a way with people’s lives, as well as dealing with different time zones, trying to find flexibility for how they access this content.”

At the virtual TIFF, films and industry conferences will go live at a certain time and remain available for a set period, usually 24 hours. That way, attendees aren’t at the mercy of a schedule, but have the ability to stop and come back. Still, that’s no way to see a movie for the first time, reducing film festivals to a kind of glorified Netflix service.

Virtual festivals will help tide the industry over, creating excitement and exposure while in-person events aren’t possible — and spawning a means of showcasing emerging and independent voices in the future — but it’s no substitute.

“It’s very hard to replicate anything that is close to the real thing virtually,” Amritraj says. “We’re seeing that in both the DNC and RNC, let alone our film festivals.”