Asian Slate Strong at Toronto but Region’s Films, Fests Continue Struggle Under COVID Concerns

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When Cannes announced it was going ahead in July, and pulled off a successful festival complete with red carpet glitz, it seemed the global film community breathed a sigh of relief. “Before Cannes, many producers were not so sure about submitting their films to the festival. But when Cannes announced and it went ahead, then, suddenly, there was a new festivals-are-back feeling and we saw a surge of submissions,” says Giovanna Fulvi, Asia selector for the Toronto Intl. Film Festival.

But if Toronto has been lucky enough to operate with a degree of normalcy — Canada reopens its borders to vaccinated visitors from Sept. 7 and the festival can host in-person screenings — many in the industry are worried about the direction and future of film festivals in Asia and that feature Asian fare.

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Fulvi faced submissions from Asia that approached normal levels, but the number of available slots was slashed by budget cuts and COVID concerns to about a third of Toronto’s previous scale; however, Fulvi has been able to cherry-pick the best titles.

She is confident that she has a strong lineup.

The Asian selection ranges from “Inu-Oh,” a 14th century-set Japanese animated musical that already has tremendous buzz, to “Aloners,” a strong debut film by South Korea’s Hong Sung-eun and “Yuni,” by Indonesian director Kamila Andini that marks a distinct departure from her
previous efforts.

The Asian selection also includes the much-admired “Drive My Car” from Hamaguchi Ryusuke, which premiered in competition in Cannes, and “Ripples of Life,” the sophomore effort of China’s Wen Shipei, which was also at Cannes, and Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog,” which Toronto shares with the Venice and San Sebastian festivals.

But the relative health of big-budget A-list festivals such as Cannes and Toronto doesn’t reflect the instability of Asian festivals, and many in the industry are worried.

“Festivals are in a real quandary,” says Mike Goodridge, U.K.-based producer and artistic director of the Intl. Film Festival and Awards Macao. “People have so many issues with hybrid festivals. How do you balance local and international profiles at a hybrid?

“How should festivals compete with streaming platforms? Who do programmers deal with at Netflix, a company set to make 70 films this year? Why is there a lack of support from organizations like FIAPF?”

Goodridge and Fulvi are planning to hold a conference in the coming months to address these and other questions.

Other insiders have suggested that because of the current COVID-related shortage of in-person premieres, smaller festivals are programming too many films from Cannes, Venice and Berlin. As a result this year’s festivals are becoming too alike and boring.

“Art films are no more fun. Festivals are no more fun,” says Ho Wi Ding, the Malaysian director of 2018 Toronto title “Cities of Last Things.” “They are nothing but digital screenings, nothing but streaming. It is becoming harder and harder for filmmakers who want to show their film on the big screen. We have come back to the days when TV is threatening the movie business.”

His “Terrorizers,” an upscale genre film, will have its world premiere in Toronto, but without Ho in attendance.

Albert Lee, executive director of the Hong Kong Intl. Film Festival, disagrees that festivals have become boring or too similar.

“There has always been pickup from and overlap with the Cannes, Venice and Berlin selections and other more local festivals,” Lee says. “What is becoming clear these days is that [rights holders] are taking pragmatic decisions for their films. That often means priority to commercial releases and putting festival strategy second.”

The ever-changing palimpsest of local lockdowns, quarantine conditions and cross-border travel restrictions may hamper festivals’ chance to achieve their best for months or years to come.

“When you are running any cultural event of scale these days it is incredibly difficultto operate under any degree of confidence,” says the Melbourne festival’s Al Cossar. “We planned for every contingency and were put through our paces. We made multiple pivots under difficult circumstances.”

The HKIFF, which COVID has twice forced into an online format, is now embracing more digital components. It is operating its HAF Film Lab industry event as a series of online lectures. And its youth-oriented spinoff, the Cinefan Summer Festival, has chosen a hybrid format for half a dozen of its titles.

“The results for CineFan are not big, but they are better than we expected,” Lee says. “Hybrid festivals are here to stay.”

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