Coronavirus Chronicles: Film Festivals Future

This year the novel coronavirus pandemic has forced major film festivals to take place mostly online to connect with audiences.

The ongoing crisis has left organizers and programmers to grapple with questions on how to build digital platforms, remain relevant with cinephiles and protect the traditional theatrical experience.

Tabitha Jackson, director of the Sundance Film Festival, told a TIFF panel on the future of festivals that her U.S. event is pushing ahead with a 2021 edition while weighing physical and digital options for next year amid the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.

“There wasn’t a moment where we thought we should not put on a festival.  We are going forward with our festival, but it’s a constant kind of holding two worlds at the same time — a world in which it’s safe and responsible to be together in person, and a world in which it simply isn’t,” Jackson said.

Smaller film festivals with fewer obligations to sponsors, major studios, streamers and other traditional partners, have gotten busy and creative to adapt and forge new paths.

Thom Powers, artistic director of DOC NYC, told the TIFF panel that film festivals, while understandably wanting to get back to how things have always been, had much room for improvement before the pandemic. “I don’t think our goal should be a return to normal. I’d like us to escape the prison of nostalgia and ask how we can do better than normal,” Powers argued.

Tina Fischer, director of the Copenhagen Documentary Festival (CPH: DOX) had to abandon plans for a physical festival just days after Denmark went into a severe lockdown last March. The lockdown forced Fischer and her team to shift in 24 hours from a physical to an online festival, not least to escape even bigger financial hit had the event been canceled.

“I’m not sure we would have survived had we not transformed the festival into a digital version,” Fischer recalled.

To her surprise, however, CPH:DOX found an enlarged audience in its backyard as it shifted online. “We were just running to make it happen, but people in their own communities took the festival and lifted it up. It (audience) is now 65 percent in Copenhagen,” Fischer said.

“It changed who we are, and it’s such a democratizing potential to share the festival in a way we’ve done this year, and that’s something we can’t walk away from,” she added.

As the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam plans for a November event, artistic director Orwa Nyrabia argued for a hybrid event that would engage new online audiences, while protecting the traditional theatrical experience. “It’s so much better than nothing to show films online,” he said.

“But I’m not sure that we should feel good enough to allow them audiences to watch films online and not actually give them the whole social aesthetic experience of watching films together in a cinema,” he added.