Programmers from leading international film festivals gathered for an online roundtable on the opening day of the International Film Festival Rotterdam’s IFFR Pro Days industry section to discuss the challenges posed by the ongoing pandemic. While expressing their hope to soon be able to present films on the big screen, they nevertheless touted at least some advantages to online presentations.

The IFFR’s 50th edition is itself taking place in two parts, the current online section and a more festive event planned for June that is to include outdoor presentations and cinema screenings.

Moderated by Rotterdam programmer Michelle Carey, the roundtable included Mar del Plata’s Cecilia Barrionuevo, Singapore’s Kuo Ming Jung, Claire Diao of Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes, Toronto’s Liane Cunje and Sergio Fant of the Berlinale.

Berlin’s February slot made it one of the few festivals to actually take place entirely physically last year before the coronavirus hit Europe. This year it’s also running in two parts, an online industry event from March 1-5 and a planned June 9-20 summer special with cinema screenings, an opening event and the awards ceremony.

“We were lucky once,” said Fant, noting that some festivals are now facing their second edition under the pandemic.

Although COVID-19 numbers in Germany are trending downward, the country remains in lockdown, with schools, restaurants and cinemas still closed, making a physical festival in February impossible.

“The idea was to preserve the spirit of Berlin as a large audience festival,” Fant said. “The festival is deeply connected to the city, like Toronto, with huge numbers of moviegoers that attend the screenings. So it was very important to preserve not only the industry side but also to preserve this aspect.” The summer event will screen films from the festival lineup for the Berlin audience, he added.

Unlike other festivals, Fant said Berlin was preserving its traditional structure, with the Competition, Encounters, Panorama, Forum, Generation and Perspektive Deutsches Kino sections intact, instead of just having a general Berlinale label this year.

While noting his initial difficulty with online screenings, Fant said the practice did offer advantages, particularly in helping filmmakers reach bigger audiences.

“Online it is possible to find niches and ways to reach audiences, even geographically, in a more widespread and varied way.

“We used to travel often and easily around the world, but we should keep in mind that most people watch films based on where they are. They see what they can find in their own movie theater or what they can see in their living room.”

He added that while festivals will always have a limited number of films they can present, filmmakers could “try to be more optimistic about things that can reach audiences – which is the final goal – in other ways.”

Argentina’s Mar del Plata, which took place in November, was likewise limited by the pandemic, but Barrionuevo, the festival’s artistic director, said “it was essential not to lose continuity.” The online event was therefore made accessible to the public in Argentina.

While films may lose quality or have other issues when screened online, Barrionuevo said it was worth the risk despite her obvious preference for the big screen. “I believe that this situation is temporary. In one way or another the world is trying to overcome the pandemic. For now we can only think about the immediate and temporary circumstances. I prefer not to think fatalistically. I hope the movie theaters will open as soon as possible.”

She added that Mar del Plata was always on the lookout for challenging films, such as Luis López Carrasco’s Spanish documentary “The Year of the Discovery,” which won the fest’s Best International Film prize last year after premiering in Rotterdam. “Challenging films continue to challenge us both on the big screen and online.”

For Toronto, as with other fests, the crisis meant a dramatic reduction in films. “We had to do a massive pivot from March when the pandemic hit the world,” said Cunje. “We were lucky enough that at that point in September Toronto and Canada were doing quite well in terms of case numbers and we were able to hold a hybrid event.”

The festival was massively reduced in size from its usual 250 feature films to 50 titles in order to present both online and in-person, she noted. The event likewise offered a public digital platform for Canada and an industry platform available globally.

Diao added that while working online has indeed offered more opportunities to attend festivals and have meetings, it can’t replace a theater. “For me, cinema is still a collective experience – I feel it’s sad to be alone.”

“Sometimes you appreciate the film more when you see the audience’s reaction. There’s something really unique about seeing how people react. … I really miss the movie theaters.”