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While cinemas begin to re-open in the wake of COVID-19 lockdowns in Central and Eastern Europe, the fallout from the pandemic continues to present tough choices for the chiefs of film festivals in the region and filmmakers.

Film fests with large international contingents represent a rare window in which Western buyers might discover filmmakers from all points East who otherwise have limited marketing presence outside their home turf, says Zuzana Bielikova, a former producer who now heads the Slovak Film Commission.

Meanwhile, few believe online fests can equal live events, where buyers and scouts often detect buzz over a title that might have otherwise been overlooked. But, as Krzysztof Gierat, director of Poland’s Krakow Film Festival, puts it, “I think it’s better to make an online festival than not do it at all — it’s better to show films than put them in the fridge.”

While acknowledging the limitations of a digital platform where every title gets more or less the same web space, Gierat argues, “There is no better solution in this situation. In Krakow, we will do everything to allow viewers to contact the director during online meetings, and professionals have long been accustomed to screeners or a video library.”

The Krakow event, a major hub for docs from the region, goes online May 31-June 7. The new digital format will not necessarily limit films’ impact, says Gierat. “Paradoxically, these restrictions give us new opportunities because we are opening to the audience of all of Poland, and the online video library will be available to accredited guests around the world.”

Marcin Pienkowski, who heads Wroclaw, Poland’s New Horizons fest – whose 20th edition was originally set to open in July, expecting its usual 130,000 admissions – says his team has opted for collaboration in the face of adversity. New Horizons will now take place alongside its sister event in the city, the American Film Festival, from Nov. 5-15.

However, New Horizons’ industry events – New Horizons Studio+, Polish Days, First Cut Lab – will stick to the original dates in July, Pienkowski says, but in an online format. “We didn’t want to postpone these events and make the international calendar even worse. There are not too many industry events during summer. Moreover we want to give a positive kick to Polish film industry. We need it,” he says.

The team is still deciding whether to put the remainder of the fest on real or virtual screens, and trying hard to avoid the latter. But even if the fest goes live in November, New Horizons expects to feel the impact of travel restrictions in a part of Europe where airports are just now beginning to resume traffic. The postponed event will be “mostly for a Polish, local audience,” says Pienkowski. “I don’t think we will have international guests, talents, industry representatives. Probably even in November there will be a lot of problems with traveling.”

New Horizons has not noticed any hesitation by filmmakers with strong films to take part, despite the changes, Pienkowski adds. “We are not the kind of festival that fights for world or European premieres. Our most important value is the quality of the films. So I am not worried about the content.”

Instead, he says, the financial impact is chief among his worries because New Horizons and the American Film Festival are not built primarily on culture ministry funding as many of their competitors are.

The New Horizons Association runs not only these two festivals, but also the nine-screen New Horizons Cinema in Wroclaw, a distribution company, and “a huge film education program, the Films for Kids Festival and a lot of other projects.”

As “one of the biggest cultural institutions in Poland,” Pienkowski says, “We have over 50 employees and our main goal is to keep them with us. This is very difficult because the support of government is only elusive for NGOs like us. Fortunately we have a very strong cooperation with the city of Wroclaw.”

The support of the Polish Film Institute, “which understands the situation and has been flexible,” is also a boon, says Pienkowski. Online-only screenings, although not ideal for his team, are necessary. “We can’t leave them with no job. So we have to keep our idealistic ideas and egos very deep in our pockets.”

The Czech Republic’s flagship fest, Karlovy Vary, has opted to cancel this year rather than reschedule, but it will screen 16 films in almost 80 towns and cities across the country, and stage an online version of its industry section, Eastern Promises, July 2-10. As the fest’s industry chief Hugo Rosak explains, projects in post are still looking for funding, and “can benefit from being eyed by industry selectors at this stage.”

Karlovy Vary is also one of the 20 worldwide fests committed to the 10-day global YouTube virtual event We Are One, going up May 29, alongside content from Tribeca, Cannes, Venice, Toronto and other majors.

The Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, like Karlovy Vary, has the advantage of government support, says its artistic director, Orestis Andreadakis, but is still vexed by the challenge of a digital only format this year. An event with unrestricted access such as We Are One would not work for Thessaloniki, Andreadakis says, because this kind of platform could later harm indie filmmakers’ prospects for a distribution deal with a buyer who would want global rights.

Andreadakis has instead been busy working with more than 25 fests on “a gentleman’s agreement” that would limit online access to films in a way that will benefit filmmakers while preserving worldwide rights options. While details of the compact are still being agreed, Andreadakis says, they will focus on “geoblocking and territorial boundaries.”

The Thessaloniki fest’s strategy to going online reflected that concern by offering just 400 views of films and only for viewers in Greece. Originally scheduled for March 5, the event was one of the first forced by Covid-19 concerns to give up live screenings. On March 2, Andreadakis recalls, “the fest was ready – 100%. Movies, the tickets, hotels, everything.”

In the end, he says, “We had to do something – for the directors and for the people who are supposed to work. More than 150 people. That’s why we decided to go online.”

Pictured: A member of staff of the International Human Rights Documentary Film Festival, One World 2020, walks through an empty cinema due to the coronavirus outbreak in Prague, Czech Republic.