As movie theaters struggle during the pandemic, theatrical windows shrink, stars turn to limited series and more viewers get arthouse fare from streamers, where does this leave the role of films in film festivals?

Most festivals launched with a mission to support specialty theatrical films. Yet New York City’s Tribeca Film Festival quietly rebranded as the Tribeca Festival in June to reflect a wider variety of content. It’s just one of several events where small-screen movies and series, concerts, virtual reality and other mediums are becoming main attractions. Offering their expert opinions, the heads of Sundance, Telluride, Toronto, SXSW, Tribeca and Mill Valley told Variety where they think fests are heading, how their roles are shifting and if adding these new elements is crucial to their survival.

Sundance Film Festival director Tabitha Jackson had a trial by fire when her inaugural 2021 fest became the first one to show its slate almost exclusively online, and history repeated itself this month when the Omicron variant caused the event to pivot from an in-person/online hybrid format to an online-only one for its Jan. 20-30 run. At press time, the second year of its Satellite Screens program — in which seven independent theaters around the country will show Sundance films from Jan. 28-30 — is set to go forward as scheduled.

“Theatrical exhibition will always be an important part of the work we show, and of course we’re still hoping to be able to return to the sort of classical collective experience [we’ve had in the past. But] flexibility is key in these times,” Jackson says. “Our teams are thinking about how we partner across the year with theatrical exhibitors, in addition to our nationwide Short Film Tour and our Indigenous Short Film Tour.”

Yet she wants “to continue evolving our program to reflect the ways in which artists are creating, the formats and shapes their stories take. Indie Episodic is … a response to the current appetite for breaking new talent and ideas. Expanding it is certainly not off the table.”

Are new mediums threatening theatrical films’ historic role in festivals? “We do feel we have to safeguard that film experience,” says Telluride Film Festival exec director Julie Huntsinger. “I talk to my friends at streamers all the time to remind them. And [ones like] Netflix and Amazon are very cognizant of preserving theatrical, especially for the filmmakers they want to work with.”

Theatrical films have comprised almost all of the Colorado event’s lineups. But Huntsinger points out that several slates in its 47-year history have included filmed art exhibitions and foreign TV series, and she understands why fests have become multimedia spectacles. “[People think], ‘This better be worth my time! I can see so much about actors and directors online,’ so the ante gets upped on everything. [But] it’s a film festival — it isn’t a music festival. If there’s a music film, [a concert] can happen, but not to where it distracts or detracts from why we’re all gathered.”

Despite launching a Primetime section for series in 2015, Toronto Intl. Film Festival CEO Cameron Bailey agrees. “It’s important to see what the horizon looks like for screen media, yet there’s a danger in casting that net too widely,” he says. “But every time there’s handwringing about the death of movies, great movies come out to prove that wrong, and we’re here to support those artists. [Films are] the core of who we are as an organization.”

Austin’s South by Southwest — boasting a film fest that’s grown in prominence since the mid-aughts — is an entirely different animal from these events, and a good argument that other media can draw attention to cinema. [Variety’s parent company, Penske Media Corp. purchased a 50% stake in SXSW this past spring.] It began with music in 1987 and launched film and interactive sections in the 1990s. Comedy performances started in 2008, and all are now combined under the SXSW Conference and Festivals banner.

“We’re always looking for cross-overs and collaborations,” says SXSW director of film Janet Pierson. “We follow the talent. I think we were the first festival to have a television premiere [“Girls”] in 2012, and then we created [an episodic category] in 2014.”

The film fest helped original, creative major studio fare like “Knocked Up” and micro-budgeted “mumblecore” films find audiences, while the SXSW Conference grew to host tech panels, networking events, presentations of new technologies and interviews with the likes of Barack Obama. And since 2016, with the help of XR and film programmer Blake Kammerdiener, SXSW has presented a curated section of virtual, augmented and mixed reality presentations (a.k.a. extended reality, or XR) that it currently plans to expand for its March 11-19 edition.

Pierson feels all of these mediums only benefit its film festival. “We have different audiences [cross-pollinating, like] musicians who are movie fans. You have both B2B and fans flowing between all the different creative industries,” she says. “It’s a separate question to think about the role of festivals in theatrical, [as it’s] in this very compromised position now. The pandemic halted a lot of routines in our lives.”

SXSW was one model for Tribeca’s multimedia expansion. The event screened the “Friends” finale in 2004, launched a Tribeca Tune-In television section in 2016 and birthed a separate Tribeca TV Festival from 2017-19. Last year, TV returned to the main fest, leading to its Tribeca Festival name change.
“We thought of it less as dropping film and more creating a name that’s representative of everything that we do,” says festival director Cara Cusumano. “We actually had more film and a larger theatrical footprint than ever this past year. Film is the bedrock of what we do, and always will be.”
Tribeca, which launched in 2002 and is currently set to return June 8-19, began programming immersive content in 2013. “Subsequently, we added TV, online work and, this past year, games and podcasts,” she says. “To us, it’s all very much of a piece with the idea that these are cinematic forms of storytelling, and barriers between all of these things are increasingly permeable or even irrelevant.”

She hopes to expand into site-specific events and interactive live theater in the mode of shows like “Sleep No More”

What’s been the motivation for all these changes? “One thing on a lot of festival directors’ minds for a while has been that the traditional arthouse audience — where a lot of the audience for festivals comes from — is aging,” says veteran indie film exec, director and Columbia University professor Ira Deutchman. “They’re trying to entice younger audiences.”

Funding from streamers, cable outlets and Silicon Valley businesses are also an undeniable influence. Several sources say a few of them have quietly supported fests that have been hard hit during the pandemic. And while streamers now distribute some of the most critically acclaimed features, these projects usually make quick jumps from limited theatrical runs to home screens, if they play in cinemas at all, cutting most exhibitors out of the equation.

“Certainly on opening nights, a lot of smaller rights holders will not pay for talent [to come], and obviously streamers, bigger studios and bigger independents will,” says Mill Valley Film Festival founder Mark Fishkin. “Even at a nonprofit [like MVFF’s parent, the California Film Institute], where half of your funds typically come from contributed revenue, a more expensive premiere often requires talent flying in from all over the world. But they’ve been making some interesting films, and in most cases, these films have some [theatrical] window.” And during the pandemic, as specialty box office has been especially hard hit, theatrical windows have shrunk across the board.

Since its founding in 1977, Mill Valley has hosted concerts and a now-defunct video festival. It even partnered with another fest to present a filmed opera, but its focus remains on theatrical features. Fishkin sees festivals’ expansion into other mediums as “part of a larger symptom of what’s happening [in the industry] — the fascination with some of these streaming programs.” Yet he sees features staying center stage. “It hasn’t really been that long since the award season became the animal it is, and now we see the festivals’ roles in it starting in the fall. Awards, marketing and publicity make them exceedingly important in reaching Academy members.”

So, barring any pandemic apocalypse, how will film festivals evolve in the next decade and how can they support theatrical exhibition? Telluride’s Huntsinger, noting the poor quality of many auditoriums, envisions festivals working with nonprofits to create state-of-the-art movie palaces. She’s also open to partnering with exhibitors to promote specialty fare, and teaming up with other fests (as she did for simultaneous “Nightmare Alley” screenings) to spread combined buzz for films they love.

Like Tribeca’s Cusumano, Huntsinger envisions films playing at events with live performances, perhaps turning deserted big-box retail spaces into festival spaces with installations in the style of Meow Wolf, an arts production company that creates immersive, multimedia experiences.

One unexpected benefit of the pandemic for TIFF’s Bailey and Sundance’s Jackson was the creation of digital platforms, allowing them once-unimaginable reach. “It was just an acceleration of things we had been planning,” Bailey says. “Now we have a year-round platform that gives people all across Canada the opportunity to take in the festival.”

But given all the theaters and businesses that have shut down permanently in the pandemic, their in-person presence has never been more important.

”Festivals are critical in making sure that the theatrical experience survives,” Deutchman says. “A lot of them are going to remain hybrids, but I think the idea that you don’t have to go to a festival to attend it is temporary. A big pushback will happen from filmmakers, sales agents and distributors who aren’t going to want to squander the ability to put films into traditional windows, and festivals will eventually be squeezed into not showing everything online.”