Under normal circumstances, film festivals are fiercely competitive. Their reputations rise and fall by the caliber of world premieres they’re able to secure each year, and savvy sales reps and producers play them against one another in the game to book the most advantageous platform for the life of each movie.
But there’s nothing normal about the circumstances surrounding this COVID-19 pandemic, which has forced the cancelation of mass gatherings around the world. In the absence of festivals, independent filmmakers are deprived of a vital launching pad in the life cycle of their work: no premiere, no publicity, no buying activity, no release.
Amid such force majeure, it’s easy to imagine some festivals seizing the opportunity to outshine their rivals. Early on, it looked like precisely that might be afoot as Cannes and Venice volleyed back and forth about which might happen. Cannes topper Thierry Frémaux floated the idea of organizing some kind of combined event with Venice, while Venice Biennale president Robert Cicutto clarified that “there is no dialogue” about such a collaboration.
Still, while those two festivals seemed to be at odds amid the crisis, a completely different dynamic was happening in North America. Mere days after New York and California shut down non-essential businesses and ordered citizens to stay home, the Sundance Institute hosted a series of virtual meetings with key players from other film festivals and indie support organizations. Representatives from Lincoln Center, the Toronto Film Festival (TIFF), IFP and the Film Independent joined in, and according to those who were on the call, it was an inspiring thing to witness.
“What I really love about this time is that festivals are really linking arms. I think we’re really seeing that we’re all in this together,” says TIFF artistic director Cameron Bailey, who floated an idea: What if Toronto were to host screenings of some of the films that had been scheduled to launch at earlier events, such as SXSW, branding them as such? In a sense, this might be a spiritual return to TIFF’s roots, as the “Festival of Festivals,” as its inaugural edition was dubbed in 1976.
“We might have been competitive in previous years about trying to get this film or that film, but really what we’re all trying to protect now is the culture of film and the film industry,” Bailey explains.
SXSW communications director Jody Arlington has been amazed by the outreach they have received from within the industry. “I’ve never seen the film festival world more supportive or collaborative on behalf of the ecosystem of each others’ organizations and the filmmaking community,” she says.
Organizers of the Tribeca Film Festival, which falls five weeks later on the calendar than SXSW, made a similar offer to the canceled Austin, Texas-based festival, volunteering to incorporate some of their orphaned premieres at the late April event. Of course, given how hard-hit New York is by the virus, Tribeca has since been forced to “postpone” its event — which festival director Jane Rosenthal admits will be impossible to replicate. Even TIFF, which takes place in early September, looks uncertain at this point.
But rather than abandon the idea, Rosenthal hatched another, more ambitious plan. Recognizing this rare moment of camaraderie among rivals, she enlisted 20 international fests — from Rotterdam to Tokyo to Cannes — to participate in a Tribeca-backed online showcase they are calling “We Are One: A Global Film Festival” which will stream via YouTube for 10 days starting May 29.
Conceived as a virtual film festival, complete with scheduled programming and film premieres, We Are One will present unique material from all of those partners, who’ve each agreed to supply five hours of content unique to that festival.
Many filmmakers are reluctant to debut their films via online festivals, as evidenced by the fact that SXSW organizers were only able to convince seven features to participate in their Amazon-hosted virtual edition. But Rosenthal’s plan doesn’t rely on new movies, serving up panels, press conferences and Q&As that reflect the particular personality of those different festivals. In fact, We Are One will include 23 narrative features and 8 documentaries, most of them below-the-radar favorites from past editions that never got their due. (Some, like “Tremble All You Want,” pictured above, were prize winners that never found U.S. distribution.)
That means that partners such as the Tokyo Film Festival, which is sticking to its plans of hosting a fest in late October, can pitch in without undermining their own premieres. And though its red carpets have been canceled for 2020, Cannes is still looking for real-world events where films that would have debuted in its official selection can screen with that prestigious association intact.
Perhaps that could be Toronto, or spread out among the many festivals who’ve shown solidarity during this crisis.
“Whoever will be the first big festival to be able to happen needs to just kind of bring people together,” TIFF executive director Joana Vicente told Variety in March. “If we are getting films that were slated to go to other festivals, that should be a kind of co-presentation. It should be about the collective. This is bigger than one festival.”
what: We Are One: A Global Film Festival
when: May 29 – June 7