The first international festival to have taken the virtual route amid the coronavirus crisis, Series Mania’s digital edition has been hailed as a success by organizers with 1,500 participants registered from 40 countries and the equivalent of 106 days of screenings. However, challenges securing some key titles for the platform point to enduring challenges for online fests in the months ahead.
All but one show in the French competition lineup and half of the international competition roster were not made available on the festival’s platform, which was accessible to industry professionals and journalists from March 25 to April 7.
Netflix’s “Unorthodox,” Fremantle’s “No Man’s Land,” WestEnd Films’ “Valley of Tears,” ITV Studios’ “Little Birds,” Amazon’s “El Presidente” and France Televisions Distribution’s “The Parliament” were among the anticipated shows that were not on the platform despite being in competition.
Laurence Herszberg, founder and head of Series Mania, acknowledges that these were hurdles for the event. “Series Mania was the first festival to go digital and (it) did so right when coronavirus was starting to spread globally, (so) many people were not fully ready to engage in business conversations and dealmaking, while others thought of other festival opportunities and kept back their series,” explains Herszberg.
“One of the learnings of this edition is that a digital event works best as a sidebar to a physical festival or market rather than as a standalone,” says the industry veteran. “I agree with Alberto Barbera and Thierry Fremaux (the artistic directors of Venice and Cannes, respectively) — nothing can replace the energy and sparks of a big festival.”
The reasons behind producers and sales agents’ decisions to hold off on their shows varied.
Haut et Court TV boss Caroline Benjo, whose “No Man’s Land” was selected for the international competition, said she and her series partners decided to hold it back because they wanted to take more time to finish the post-production. “We had rushed the post-production to be able to deliver the first two episodes by the deadline, and due to the circumstances, we decided to take the necessary time to finish properly,” says Benjo.
Another producer says his company chose to withdraw their series from the platform because they were hoping to show it on a big screen at another festival this fall with the talent attending.
“We made this decision based on the assumption that festivals scheduled later this year would be maintained, but as it turns out, all festivals might get scrapped at this point,” says the producer.
Some French producers also held back their series because air dates were put on ice by broadcasters. “I feared that the series’ premiere would be pushed back to September and didn’t want to risk showing it too early…the whole idea behind a festival is to build a buzz around a series and launch it right after, on the channel or service,” says the producer.
Nevertheless, assembled in record time in the wake of the festival’s cancellation, Series Mania’s Virtual Buyers showcase drew 60% of buyers, commissioners, producers, distributors and sellers, and 40% of screenwriters, programmers and journalists. The portal received 10,000 visits, while the projects in development garnered 5,000 hits.
“This global crisis prompted us to adapt our digital strategy urgently and the result was very positive,” says Herszberg, referring to “high participation from professionals around the world, the creativity of project pitches and the high viewing numbers.”
One-third of industry professionals were from France, followed by the U.S. Other countries well represented among participants included Germany, Spain, Italy, Brazil, Russia and Canada.
Herszberg says next year’s festival will “combine the two forms — digital and physical — to create an even bigger and better event in the years to come.”
“We predict that this sanitary crisis will change some behaviors and lead certain people to avoid traveling so it will be useful to have a digital alternative,” says Herszberg.