"It was the best time, it was the worst time." Sorry Mr. Dickens, there were no best times for film festivals in 2020. Indeed, some may wonder if my annual trip back in time is even necessary in a year when festivals close doors, industry-wide job losses and films keep being postponed and then postponed again. But with the coronavirus pandemic, an accelerator for long-lasting change in the film industry may be remembered for film festivals in 2020 as a critical turning point. The cancellation of festivals – or more precisely the switch to digital and hybrid editions – has forced festival directors, sales representatives and filmmakers to reassess and redefine the place of the film festival and the cinema in the film value chain.
First, let's talk about the elephant in the room – namely, the great dark cloud looming over festivals and theater shows, as Netflix freely discarded the rules for theater windows for their titles. (In film festival jargon, this is referred to as the “Cannes-Netflix debate” because the Head Honchos in Cannes refused to compete unless Netflix agrees to play their films in French cinemas before streaming them .) 2020 ends, this fight, this debate is practically over. The streamers won. At best, the cinemas will reopen with a lead of three weekends, as signaled by the Universal Deal. The idea that cinema is the unique reserve of films destined for theater now seems ridiculous, as Dune, Matrix 4, and Soul are just a few of the studio films that debut on the small screen, either instead of or at the same time as their theatrical releases. From now on, cinemas seem to be just another option for the audience to decide where to watch a new movie. It has created a new paradigm that the entire film industry needs to tackle quickly.
However, this is not the death of cinema. For those who love the cinema and want the best screen experience, cinema is still king. Not only because it's a much better experience on a technical level, but also because the local theater is a great destination for a night out with friends or a date. There is no reason for cinemas not to hold their own in this new paradigm.
Perhaps it is time for cinema chains to take on the new competition. Instead of advocating a protectionist and monopoly policy, they should explain why the public should come to their dream palaces.
Given that cinemas are being questioned, it's understandable that film festivals should face very similar questions. What is the purpose of a film festival? Are they there to promote new voices, present films, facilitate business, generate excitement or put bums on seats? They are all of the above, but what exactly do they present? Films yes, but what kind of films, for whom and where? 2020 was a time for a lot of introspection when film festivals returned to basics to look to the future.
For me at least, 2020 was the year I attended the least amount of film festivals (notably, I still went to seven physically). I've seen fewer films than everyone else. But it was the year I talked the most about the mechanics of the film festival and the importance of the theater.
The year started in fashion and had nothing to do with the pandemic. I went to the Norwegian Tromso Film Festival, where I give program advice, host questions and answers, present films, watch great films like Dag Johan Haugerud's Light from the Chocolate Factory and, as you know, write some reviews. What worried me was that there was so little snow. It was the first time in many years that I had seen the sidewalk at the event.
Climate change has become a hot topic in the film industry. One of the challenges facing the film industry at the start of the year was making its events more environmentally friendly. There's only so much good when films about environmental disasters are shown at an event where everyone flies in for a week, burns fuel, uses plastics and leaves an ugly human footprint.
One of the steps of the Rotterdam Film Festival is that guests arrive by train whenever possible. I jumped the Eurostar from London, an experience that is far more enjoyable than the plane and not much slower. At the Dutch festival it was a great pleasure for me to hold a master class with the legendary composer Howard Shore. I got to see Crash perform a live orchestral score before chatting with Shore the next day about his work with Cronenberg, Jackson, and Saturday Night Live.
I did another interview during the festival and talked to the underrated Belgian filmmaker Marion Hansel. The festival offered a deep focus on their work. Unfortunately, Hansel would die a few months later, and I'm glad I spent an hour in their fantastic company.
Film festivals received a massive shot in the arm when Cannes Palme d & # 39; Or winner, Parasite, was named Best Picture at the Oscars. It suddenly felt possible that films from around the world coming from film festivals could generate steam heads that could result in them earning the most popular award in American cinema. Film festivals have never been so relevant …
In China, news of a deadly virus had closed a city of 11 million people. Suddenly everyone knew about a place called Wuhan. A few months later it would be the subject of films.
When Berlin came by, the virus was still ignorant. It would be wrong to say that Berlin was not affected by the coronavirus. Chinese companies canceled their market stalls and filmmakers could not travel. In a short time, China has developed into the second most important box office market worldwide, where films like Nadine Labaki's festival hit Capernaum brought in over 50 million US dollars, so that the non-participation was noticeable.
The other dominant Chinese news item was the dragging of Zhang Yimou's latest picture, One Second, from a competition berth at the last moment. Questions of censorship continue to underline the political importance of the film in the battle for hearts and minds. The ability of film festivals to highlight the world we live in is a fundamental reason we need it.
In the second week of the festival, the talks finally focused on the coronavirus, because worrying numbers began to die in Lombardy, northern Italy. At the performances of Never Seldom Sometimes Always there were a few spectators wearing masks, which seemed overly cautious to me. And yet the rate of change was so fast that this was the last screening I would attend in 2020 without wearing a mask.
There were several reasons why I didn't go to many screenings in Berlin beyond the virus. The venue change is one of them, but mostly it's the increasing use of movie links sent to journalists prior to the festival to promote reviews and interviews. The theory about sending links is good – it allows for face-to-face meetings with directors. It ceases to clash when journalists have to make decisions between films due to scheduling conflicts and inevitably choose the film that is more likely to be the easier selling to editors. and there is time to write at the festival to meet the deadlines.
And yet, it's not a trend that I particularly like, especially if you say they don't have time to watch a movie, a link is offered as if suddenly doing more hours on an already impossible schedule. And I don't particularly like it because the best way to watch a movie is in a cinema with an audience. However, it is extremely convenient to get links. With festival premieres becoming more and more like the first weekend in theaters, and a film's success and failure depends on how it leaps out of the gate, it's understandable that publicists and filmmakers want to make sure journalists see their films no matter how. The opinion of a small number of reviewers in the correct publication can generate the enthusiasm necessary that will improve the bottom line of some films. It's the plague of the digital age. Little did I know then that links and the ability to stream would keep me busy, while colleagues covering theater, art and music concerts would see the work dry up. Sometimes you don't know who your best friend is.
Since Bering was the last "normal" film festival I attended, it was great that the filmmaker's longtime editor Brandon Harris was at the festival in his current guise as Amazon manager. It is these chance encounters and encounters with friends old and new that make festivals so wonderful and a great place. Of course, you all have the usual topics of conversation: “What did you see? What is good? "Gunda, the pig film without dialogue" was the correct answer.
The big question in the second week in Berlin, however, was: would Cannes happen? (I put my sandwich board on and rang for Team: The End is Nigh.) When Berlin ended, major conferences and events across Europe were canceled, and I wondered if I should have shown up at some social events.
The first cancellations of the film festival began shortly after Berlin announced the winners. Qumra, the first festival on the Red Sea and CPH: Dox have put up the stop sign for the guests. Then CPH: Dox miraculously turned into an online-only film festival in no time. The fact that I could see links and speak to directors on Zoom was so great. In fact, I realized that the Zoom interview was sometimes better for everyone involved.
But before someone says, "This is a wrap, why sign up for festivals when they can be covered that way and it helps the environment too?" I also immediately noticed some drawbacks. Most importantly, I struggle to find time to watch movies while living my day-to-day life, even in a lockdown. There are so many distractions at home – washing up, lunch, and relationships that make it less attractive to log in to look over a computer. While I usually see a lot of films at the festival in the hope of making a discovery, I've only seen things at CPH: DOX to fulfill orders. Only at the end of the festival did I see Songs of Repression by Marianne Hougen-Moraga & Estephan Wagner because they had won the main prize. The festival experience had changed – and not for the better.
There are other work benefits. For the first time in my life I “visited” Vision du Réel in Nyon, Switzerland. Well, I was online and back just for the movies I had to watch for work. However, this is the digital age and one of the people I spoke to, Lina Soualem, whose film Their Algeria was running, I would meet AFK (Away From Keyboard) and become friends. So it would be bankrupt to say that friendships and networks do not develop at digital festivals, but are just more difficult to create. But as the pandemic accelerated and hopes that premature shutdowns would quickly stop the spread, filmmakers faced a difficult decision: should they release their films online after years of working with a live audience to appreciate them ?
Soualem told me that her decision to premiere online was made more of necessity than choice. The film had been announced as part of the program when it was a physical event, so it was considered a 2020 film. The public wanted to see him, especially since it was unclear when a physical premiere would take place. That premiere was many months away, so it was a wise choice.
The industry was now in crisis mode. James Bond had been pulled out of theaters, bans had been put in place around the world, and a collective sense of claustrophobia and depression set in. The fact that there were film festivals at all was a badly needed shot in the arm for the film community.
For many, the online film festival seemed more of an event for the industry, even if CPH: DOX and Vision du Réel told me that many everyday viewers signed up for ticket packages. Even so, it all felt unreal, and the ecosystem became even more layered without a live festival to create a transition between industry, media, and the public.
While documentary festivals found a way to do business with filmmakers and sales agents, festivals that relied on fictional fare did less well. SXSW and Tribeca both closed their live plans and then struggled online. SXSW tried to showcase some movies on Amazon in the US and it was a failure. Filmmakers rightly did not want to register for a festival screening that could undermine the market value of their films. (Physical screenings also offer better protection from pirates.) Rights and market routes that had been established were suddenly becoming hot topics. What role did film festivals play, how can they help filmmakers while attracting audiences?
It was no surprise when Cannes canceled. The tremor over the decision was an indication of her desire to hold an event. When they announced that the part of the film industry's festival, the Marché du Film, would go online while the red carpet news page would be canceled, it was that the major film festivals are more than an event. For Cannes, the market is where they do business, but would business come about and dealers get into bidding wars for films that are viewed on their computer screens? The festival tried to create the setting for this by creating the Cannes 2020 label, which was given to the films that the festival would have made under different circumstances. This list would not include films that have turned down the title and prefer to debut at various events, or that have chosen to wait and start at a physical event next year.
When the market hit that summer, George Floyd's death and the Black Lives Matter protests became global news. The aftermath of these protests struck a nerve worldwide that the film industry, which has traditionally been slow to address racial issues, could not escape. The Cannes Market organizers managed to put together hundreds of Zoom events. One of them was an event I loved to host that looked at inclusivity in the film industry. Under the title "Creating the New Normal: Intersectionality in the Film Industry", Anna Serner from SFI, Emilia Roig from the Center for Intersectional Justice and Franklin Leonard from the Black List called on the film industry to fight bias at all levels.
There were very few films with the Cannes label that made the breakthrough. At the top of the list were Fanny Liatard and Jérémy Trouilh's mesmerizing Gagarine and Magnus von Horns Sweat. What was evident was that their respective sales reps, Totem Films and New Europe Film Sales, were treating the release as if they were opening in a physical Cannes, hiring publicists to stress the trade and break the reviews. It also helped that both films are an ace. For the most part, however, sales agents reported flat sales, with only larger stocks selling their territories. Films with particularly large budgets or those that had more to offer financially remained under lock and key.
One benefit of the digital market that was to be preserved was the ability of the format to involve a wider demographic group. Those who cannot afford to visit the south of France can continue to level the playing field. The industrial side of film festivals is likely to continue to have digital elements. Hopefully this trend will continue.
September was interesting because the Venice Film Festival managed to host a physical festival at that moment between the first and second waves. I wasn't in Venice because I was starting a season at the British Film Institute called the Redefining Rebellion. The BFI Southbank reopened to the public for the first time in months, and this season marks the 25th anniversary of La Haine. I've heard Venice was a great event in every way, but I have to base my observations on physical festivals at the San Sebastian Film Festival, which followed the same model as Venice and took place a few weeks later.
I attended the hybrid version of the Toronto International Film Festival. The Canadian festival took an interesting approach. They allowed socially distant screenings for the paying public in Toronto and hosted online screenings for the press and industry. They also limited the festival to 52 films. There was none of the usual razzmatazz as the American studios stayed away, and interesting for both Venice and Toronto, Netflix decided not to release their films at film festivals during a pandemic. Apple has also chosen not to go to Venice with Sofia Copollas On the Rocks. prefer to start directly on their brand platform. The films in Steve McQueen's Small Ax series, which were scheduled to compete in Cannes, were selected for a New York Film Festival launch before being released on Amazon Prime later that year in the US.
The only film that surpassed its weight at these festivals was arguably Chloe Zhao's Nomadland, which won Venice and had a special drive-in Telluride screening in Los Angeles before playing on TIFF. It was a festival season where the story was that the film festivals were happening, not the films that were being shown. TIFF has had brilliant films like Dea Kulumbegashvilis Beginning, but that would only make a splash if it won four awards at San Sebastian, a physical event. Trying to watch movies with limited viewing windows from a different time zone proved difficult. The experience of following Venice and TIFF from a distance wasn't great.
Being at the San Sebastian Film Festival was a whole different matter. The job of seeing movies in theaters, even Woody Allen's poor endeavors, offered a semblance of normalcy. A film festival with fewer films, bigger gaps between screenings and theaters with an open seat next to you is wonderful. I even had time to watch Luca Guadagnino's entire TV series We Are Who We Are in one sitting.
And yet the absence of many members of the industry as well as other journalists was very noticeable. Better than a digital event, this year's San Sebastian was far from ideal. And yet I am not going to complain too much as I was at the El Gouna Film Festival in Egypt a month later and the lack of concern of many attendees about COVID-19 was much more frightening. It's hard to know what is right during these unusual times. While I would complain about El Gouna's receptions and parties, they tested for the coronavirus rather than just temperature checks. Swings and roundabouts.
The other two festivals that I attended around this time were strange business too. The risk of hosting a film festival during a pandemic is that if it spikes, then all of the planning suddenly goes out of the window. On the way to the Lumiere Film Festival in Lyon, the French President announced that there would be a nationwide curfew at 9 p.m. to suppress the spread. There was a massive rejig on the schedule, and while I loved watching classics like Wong Kar Wais In the Mood for Love, Ousmene Sembens Mandabi, and Joseph L. Mackiewicz 'People Will Talk, the vibe of the festival was mine Time has arrived somewhat subdued.
I also made an effort to go to one of the eight screenings the London Film Festival was holding as physical screenings. This is where I saw Mangrove, the first of the Small Ax films. But even though tickets were free to the public, even as a socially distant event, there appeared to be plenty of free seats, which shows how difficult it is to get people into theaters during the pandemic.
Towards the end of the year, the second wave and now the British mutation dominated the headlines. Berlin 2021 has already canceled its February event and opted for two phases – digital for industry in February and physical for the public in June. These are worrying times for the film industry, cinemas, and the health of many people in general. The immediate future is far from certain.
Looking back on 2020, there was much to admire how film festivals, despite everything that was thrown at them, continued to seek ways to continue and how film seems more important than ever as a form of entertainment.
Looking ahead, I don't doubt that festivals starting in 2020 will learn a lot of lessons and come back with a much firmer look at where they can transform our cultural lives. After all, it is the importance of film festivals as a cultural entity that kept them going after the financial disaster. If anything, 2020 has proven just how important film festivals really are, not just for the presentation of films but also for the well-being of industry and society.