Film Festivals in the Post-COVID world

There’s no debate: the Coronavirus pandemic has changed the world. It almost feels like an eternity ago when we didn’t have to worry about maintaining personal space, wearing face coverings, self-isolating and everything else that has since become a staple of our existence. I think it is undeniable that we are living through a paradigm-shifting event of gargantuan proportions and imposing momentum that we have no frame of reference for. And as we are slowly getting used to the new reality, we have to understand that some of the things that used to be the norm are gone forever.

As much as it would offer some much-needed comfort to many of us who didn’t handle very well the fundamental concept of up-ending our lives essentially overnight, I honestly don’t believe the world will revert to its pre-pandemic state once COVID is eradicated. In fact, it is likely already endemic and hence we will have to learn to live alongside it. Therefore, it would be foolish to assume all of the drastic changes to our operations would go away as well. This is a civilization-altering phenomenon on the scale of a global war. The world was never the same after Nazi Germany and Japan surrendered in 1945. It was also irreversibly altered two decades prior after World War I was over. The Spanish Flu Pandemic? Same thing. The HIV crisis? Yep, same deal. There’s honestly plenty examples that were nowhere near as drastic but changed the world for better or for worse, like the invention of The Internet, the mobile phone, or even social media. Then why do we continue to kid ourselves that we can (or even should) seek to revert to our old ways in the first place?

In many facets of our lives we are already seeing irreversible cultural changes. As economies reopen in developed countries thanks to the impressive vaccine rollout, companies are already pondering the idea of imposing permanent changes to their operations. Many employers have been successfully convinced that their subordinates can be just as productive if they are allowed to work at home, which means they can reduce their office footprint, move some of their operations online, and – frankly speaking – fully embrace the idea of giving their workers flexibility they need to juggle their careers, parental responsibilities and everything else while trusting they would still do their jobs. Some places have made a permanent move to remote working. Many are moving towards what is termed as hybrid working, a flexible arrangement where it is finally OK to pick up your kids from school without going on your hands and knees to your manager. It’s OK to stay home if you don’t have to be physically on site on a given day. COVID has forced many companies to embrace compassion. And it’s likely here to stay.

Naturally, there’s more. Our shopping and socializing habits have changed which means that over the next few years we’ll see some changes in this regard as well. The high street of 2025 will look completely different. So why should we expect that cinema – of all things – will revert to its pre-pandemic state? As much as I find the idea of the theatrical experience becoming extinct frightening (and I did rant about the notion of saving our cinemas on more than one occasion), I think it is probably time to admit the landscape has shifted. Maybe (hopefully) cinemas will not go bust en masse, but we have seen studios and distributors continually put emphasis on making the newest releases accessible via streaming either concurrently or shortly after their cinematic runs. It has become acceptable to watch biggest movies at home. Access prevailed. And it extended to film festivals as well.

I’ll be honest here. I don’t think I’d ever be able to go to a film festival, let alone cover one, in its traditional in-person guise. I have too many responsibilities to drop everything I am doing, leave my family behind for a week or so and travel to a remote location. Therefore, the fact film festivals moved online was a godsend. I got to cover the London Film Festival which – warts and all – was a great experience. I got to cover Berlinale and Glasgow, neither of which I’d have been able to do in 2019. The pandemic gave me access and flexibility to experience great cinema without the hassle and cumbersome logistics.

Now, I don’t want this text to become a reactionary jibe against a very specific film critic who not too long ago set Film Twitter ablaze with his brazen complaints about film festivals becoming more accessible, which arguably removes the element of adventure tied to the notion of having to physically go to a place, meet people and experience things in person. It’s not my place to flog a dead horse after hundreds of people made it abundantly clear that such comments whiff of elitism, even if unintentionally. I honestly empathize with this person who must be clearly anxious about the idea of a film festival – a celebration of cinema – being possibly on its way out and that it might be a good idea to preserve it in some way. But what are we actually trying to preserve? It’s not like Cannes looks like it did in 2018 or 1987… Screenings are capacity-capped, patrons have to spit in tubes and some will invariably contract the disease as a result of this whole thing being far from socially distant. It simply ain’t coming back in the way that it used to be.

Therefore, it might be a good idea to ask a very simple question: what is the institution of a film festival supposed to achieve? If it has to do with the notion of getting together, networking, mingling and the worlds of celebrity brushing shoulders against regular people, then it is true that an online experience is never going to recreate it. And everybody knows that. But that’s not really what festivals are for. You go to a festival to watch movies you’d never see otherwise. Looking from the creator’s perspective, a festival is an opportunity for them to have their work seen, reviewed and talked about. And for many artists this might be the only opportunity for their films to be experienced because not everything ends up picked up for distribution. A film festival is a portal where we get to access stuff that’s otherwise inaccessible. So, why is it a bad idea to make essentially inaccessible works of art more accessible by moving the festival online? Why would any filmmaker object to having their work seen by more people than just the select few who had the grit and determination to do whatever it takes to make it to Cannes?

The idea of a hybrid festival offers a perfect middle ground. If you want the experience, fly to Sundance. Go to France. Or Canada. Or wherever. Though, if all you want is to see movies that you wouldn’t be exposed to elsewhere, the pandemic has opened up this wonderful new possibility for you to do it as well. Pay a fee. Watch movies. Talk about them. Generate buzz online. I assure you the filmmakers don’t care as much about the manner in which audiences engage with their work, as long as they engage with it at all.

So, there’s absolutely no reason to get upset about the idea of an in-person festival going the way of the dodo, because it’s not going to disappear. It’s going to change. It’s going to be democratized and there’s also nothing wrong about it. I don’t think I have to remind you that before the nascent of The Internet, the idea of writing about films was a preserve of professional critics employed by magazines and newspapers. The blogging revolution followed by the introduction of social media have successfully democratized this field as well. Now, everyone who wants to write about film, can. And someone will read it. Does it invalidate the opinion of a professional film critic? Not at all. It just makes them work a bit harder because there’s a good bunch of phenomenally talented writers who don’t get paid a single dime for dispensing their opinion on their personal blogs or in ubiquitous independent publications. Therefore, the fact film festivals seem to have embraced accessibility while shunning exclusivity is not a tragedy. It’s a blessing. Every movie deserves to be watched and even the most panned dud will find its defenders, so why not make it easier for audiences to connect with art that speaks to them? A hybrid film festival gives us that option. It is the way forward.

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