If 2020 was the year of COVID-19 and the deaths of more than 300,000 Americans at the hands of a ravaging virus and a negligent White House, it was also the year the entertainment industry went virtual. Film festivals, once the domain of buzzy celebrities, caffeinated movie critics and charcuterie boards, were now relegated to online interviews and panel discussions. Sans champagne, sans red carpet.
The upside: these fests were now accessible to a much wider category of attendees, not just those that could fly and foot the expenses, but cineastes, movie buffs and up-and-coming filmmakers from all over the world.
FilmEx 2021, a virtual five-day conference for film exhibitors presented by the nonprofit Film Festival Alliance and various industry partners, including National Endowment for the Arts, is one such fest. Running Jan. 11-15, the event offers a host of keynote speakers, conversations and networking opportunities all centered around one core topic: the sustainability and future of indie and arthouse film.
Among the scheduled sessions are timely and practical workshops titled Marketing: Building Loyalty & Audience Engagement in Virtual Spaces, Operations: Getting Physical: The PPE Story, and Development: Balancing Sponsorship in the Virtual & IRL Worlds.
“We exist to support film festivals and the people who run them,” says Lela Meadow-Conner, executive director of Film Festival Alliance, which has more than 250 members across North America. “We exist to provide networking and professional development opportunities.
“Before the pandemic we would do regional roundtables at various film festivals,” she continues. “But this [past] year has obviously shifted that quite a lot. And in a way, it’s been very valuable for us because we need to have more touch points with more festivals. And now these fests are accessible for many more people.who can’t afford to travel or can afford to take the time off. The connectivity and the accessibility has been incredible because of this platform.”
FilmEx, notes Meadow-Conner, was partly born out of the knowledge that converging in person at the start of 2021 was not going to be possible.
“We really wanted to not let January go by without having a touch point for everyone,” she says. “Because this has been a wackadoodle year. Everyone has been impacted by all this craziness. I’m really looking forward to seeing what’s going to happen. We’re on the cusp of some big changes in this industry. And for the first time festivals and cinemas, whether rural or in big cities, are playing in the same virtual field.”
Bears Rebecca Fonte, founder and director of Other Worlds Film Festival and a member of FilmEx’s programming committee, says while FilmEx is for the most part about “looking forward, because 2020 is an aberration,” there are also “lots of lessons to be learned from it.”
One of those lessons, continues Fonte, is that going virtual has also been a way for film festivals big and small to converge in a way that’s been mutually beneficial for both filmmakers and fests.
“Through the work we do at Film Festival Alliance, we’re bridging those gaps between organizations, because it’s really easy to get siloed when you’re in your own festival and you’re not really seeing what other people are doing,” she says.
“I think one of the big things we’ve learned from the virtual world is that you can work with other organizations and it’s not competitive — even if you traditionally have thought of them as competition. When I was the director of programming for Austin Film Festival, we always thought of Mill Valley and the Hamptons — of anything that was in October — as our competition. Now you’ve got festivals coming together to put on new events because they do the same thing. I think now that those barriers have broken down.”
But beyond the pandemic, points out Meadow-Conner, 2020 was also an election year, it was the summer that George Floyd and others were killed by police, of racial and societal strife, a period during which people did a lot of soul-searching.
“These disparities and inequities were spotlighted in a way that they finally should have many years ago, but these conversations are happening now,” she says. “A lot of these conversations that we’re having are about diversity and inclusion,” she says.
Precisely because it has resulted in greater equality across the board, virtual programming, says Forte, is likely to stick around even after film fests go back to being held in-person.
“It’s got to be in the background of everything you plan now. The virtual space has opened up the idea of everybody being able to watch films together.”