5 Keys to Virtual Success
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While internet technology cannot reproduce theater projection and virtual engagement is no substitute for a live festival experience, COVID-19 has turned the world and film festivals upside down.

These events faced difficult choices. Shut down. Move. Or go online.

With hundreds of festivals picking their battles, many of them turned to virtual integrations to create alternative sources of income while meeting the commitments they made to filmmakers, sponsors, and the local audience.

Indeed, COVID-19 has started a new era. While festivals ease their way back into theatrical performances and socially distant receptions, some believe the festival formula has changed forever. Yes, it has been difficult and things are still moving, but let's take a look at some of the positives.


2020 SXSW Film Festival

Virtual cinema

Once the pandemic set in, theaters had no choice but to close due to public health orders. This of course created some problems for festivals. They would not be able to showcase films or other special events to their enthusiastic audience, engage in lively questions and answers with filmmakers, and they would lose box office revenue. Most of the festivals that had enough time to spin turned to the internet. As painful as it was to accept not being able to sit in a dark theater, to feel this connection to the audience and to see the film on a screen, there were virtual solutions. And two out of three aren't bad.

SXSW was one of the first to put screenings online in collaboration with Amazon. Unfortunately, the films were free to the public, and with Amazon's wide reach, a number of filmmakers withdrew. Brooklyn has partnered with Vimeo to offer movies to registered users for free. Ashland and Hot Docs are geoblocked and only allow viewers from their respective regions. With Shift72, CPH: DOX online in Denmark had a greater reach than ever before and limited the number of viewers to 1,000 per film, with a few exceptions that were approved by the filmmakers. The Copenhagen-based festival appears excited to expand its offering through 2021.

The trick will be finding the right formula for the screening fees, whether festivals choose a revenue-sharing or a flat fee structure. The model is changing, and if done right, both film festivals and filmmakers can grow their revenues.

CPH: DOX
CPH: DOX

Pitch sessions

Over the years, some festivals have incorporated pitch programs. Some focus more on story or TV series development. Others emphasize documentaries about social impact or the development of laboratories. Independent filmmakers will always need financial support, and these programs serve such a purpose. By leveraging new digital platforms, filmmakers can likely reach more audiences, industries, and funding organizations.

At the Hot Docs international co-financing market event, 22 pitch teams from 19 countries presented their projects to top decision-makers– –with over 190,000 CAD to the pool of winners.

Paying less for venues while expanding the audience base suggests an increase in these programs in 2021.

Awards ceremonies

There is also a whole series of award ceremonies here. Festivals know they shouldn't be trying to be the Oscars, or should take several hours to get through the event … but it happens. I've been to many such events where you sit at a table and sip mediocre wine while the host roams through 30 categories. The best are usually the shortest and have different moderators. Even better if they're comedians! Let's face it, awards are not what filmmaking is about BUT we all know that winning a grand prize from a prestigious festival can make a difference to a filmmaker. It can generate more invitations from other festivals, generate more exposure from distributors, and be a nice bonus for your press kit.

Hot Docs presented its Rogers Audience Award in a 23-minute program on YouTube with messages from its team and video responses from the 5 winners. The Ashland Independent Film Festival was hosted online by the innovative digital platform Film Festival Flix, whose awards ceremony was successfully hosted by actor Bruce Cambell.

Hot Docs 2020
Hot Docs 2020

Panel discussions

These events come in all shapes and sizes, from moderated discussions to group discussions. There is always a lot to report about new technologies and new sales models for industry festivals. At community celebrations, the artists are often the focus to exchange stories behind the scenes or to provide insights into their craft. Regardless of the topic and the participating guests, these programs should be educational. There is something to be said so that more people can watch the discussions. Some festivals even offered creative Q&A options to involve the audience in the conversation.

At CPH, panels and lectures were presented online using a combination of webinar jam software and Facebook. In the past these only small local contingent liabilities were available. For the 2020 event, they were available worldwide and will continue to live on YouTube. The total number of views is over 5,000, which is more than three times the number of previous years!

Networking

From happy hours to breakout sessions, speed dating and round tables, there are film festivals to bring people together. Yes, it's great to share a drink or meal in person. There is no doubt that a connection is stronger when made face to face. The purpose of networking, however, is to get to know someone, explore future collaborations, and share stories. A number of festivals in recent months have achieved such goals and managed to create a sense of community in a digital space.

The grandfather of all film festivals, Cannes, had to cancel its screenings, but the Marché is where most of the business and networking takes place, and it expanded its programming to include digital space. In addition to the digital market demonstrations that were viewed by many of the festival organizers, the Marché The Producers Network presented and curated speed meetings. These initiatives have been widely welcomed by the international festival community.

In other news, Filmocracy is partnering with Remo to bring out some great tech and audience solutions that support online conferencing and virtual meeting options for festivals.

Marché du, full movie
Marché du, full movie

In summary

Thanks to these evolving models, online experiences will expand audiences for films, educational panels, and other programs. In addition, this hybrid model will break new ground in networking opportunities. Regardless of whether Remo or other technology partners show the way, filmmakers have the opportunity to connect, albeit virtually, with industry professionals they would not otherwise have met. Not everyone can fly to international festivals, so this virtual model will benefit many. And when the theaters reopen and we can see films on the screen in the dark, everyone wins.

Festivals will flourish again despite all the changes. They can generate more revenue streams, increase overall ticket sales and expand their range of programs. You just have to adapt. Sponsorship models are being redefined, events are being redesigned and fees for filmmakers are being restructured.

We don't really have a choice, so let's embrace a new era of film festivals.

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