What’s Next for Film Festivals After a Pandemic Year of Mostly Virtual Events?

·6-min read

Film festivals in 2021 are maintaining some virtual elements introduced during the pandemic year of 2020, but live screenings, panels and community events are back — and dominating the action.

Even though pandemic streaming has caused a panic for theatrical exhibitors worried that movie fans will continue to prefer at-home viewing to going to a movie house, Lela Meadow-Conner, executive director of the Film Festival Alliance, said the live experience is central to the film festival experience.

The Film Festival Alliance has about 250 members, but Meadow-Conner said there are thousands of small film festivals around the country. Unlike the larger “market” festivals such as Sundance that have become hubs for movie deal-making, she said regional festivals still emphasize the screening experience with panel discussions and chances to mingle. “Our member organizations are very rooted in their communities for 15 or 20 years; they were very much missed in their time off,” she said. “They have community support.”

Last year around this time, some festival directors told TheWrap that virtual programming In 2020 and early 2021 was so successful that it would likely remain a major part of future festival planning, pandemic or not. But others say the virtual screenings, panels and other events demanded by pre-vaccine COVID-19 protocols did not live up to expectations.

Ojai Film Festival founder and director Steve Grummette was one of those disappointed by the reality of virtual events. Last November, before the all-virtual 2020 Ojai fest, he was bullish about the potential. Like a number of other festival directors, he told TheWrap he believed that online screenings and other events would allow for global connections between filmmakers and fans that would not be possible at a live event that typically drew 3,000 to 5,000 people. Even without pandemic travel limitations, the cost and logistics of travel can make live festival attendance impossible for many independent filmmakers.

As the 22nd Annual Ojai Film Festival approaches next month, Grummette said he and his team did not take into account the difficulty of promoting virtual events to an audience that spans the globe. Nor did they realize how the growth of streaming during the pandemic would take over some of the role of film festivals by providing more access to independent and international films at home.

“Last year of course we couldn’t do anything but virtual — we didn’t have any other option,” Grummette said. “We knew there were pros and cons (but thought) an advantage was that people don’t actually have to come to where you are to see the movies; they can watch them from anywhere in the world.”

The down side, his team discovered was that virtual events need “a much larger marketing push.” “Now you have to reach the whole world not just people who might be able to come to your little community where the festival takes place,” he said. “Based on previous years, I think it’s safe to say the turnout would have been better if we’d done it live.”

Grummette cops to another mistake: trying to replicate the live screening experience by only streaming films at specific times, rather than allowing virtual festival goers to log in and stream the film on demand. This year, the festival still will have some virtual screenings, but with no set streaming times. Live Q&A sessions will also be available with any screening, although the audience will not be able to ask questions unless they are either attending the live event or livestreaming it.

The New York Film Festival has already had a chance to test the waters with its return to a live festival that took place from Sept. 24-Oct. 10. NYFF found success in 2020 with an attendance increase of 9% from 2019 and a mix of virtual events and drive-in screenings. Over 70,000 people attended the 2020 New York Film Festival, which was among the most-attended ever in its six-decade history.

Although attendance numbers aren’t yet tallied for this year’s festival, Leslie Klainberg, executive director of Film at Lincoln Center, the nonprofit that oversees NYFF, said a live festival is definitely the preferable option for the future. The audience makeup skewed younger than usual this year, she said possibly because older filmgoers are still more wary about returning to indoor cinemas in the COVID era. (She noted that there were no reports of COVID cases tracked to festival events, which all required proof of vaccination and mask-wearing at all times.)

“It’s a part of our mission that we want to present in a way in the manner in which a filmmaker intends, the best possible projection in the best theaters possible. That’s what we’re about,” Klainberg told TheWrap. “We really embrace the ability to be able to get back into our theaters.”

Not only does the festival prefer live screenings, she added, but they can be a deal-breaker in booking a new film. Last year’s festival involved a labyrinth of individual negotiations to be able to stream a film rather than presenting it in a live venue. “You know, I don’t think the studios and distributors really wanted to go back to that model,” she said. “They really wanted to go back to their original model and the original business plan, which, is the streaming to be available at another time.”

One other drawback, Klainberg said, was that COVID protocols meant the suspension of other movie-theater features: “No popcorn. Maybe that’s the hardest.”

Some smaller regional festivals are still maintaining significant virtual elements, including the ongoing SCAD Savanna Film Festival (Oct. 23-30) and the Austin Film Festival (Oct. 21-28). Austin festival CEO Barbara Morgan told TheWrap that about 15% of this year’s festival remains virtual but live programming is key. “The virtual event was wonderful, but we did miss the people,” Morgan said of last year’s event — which even set up a virtual version of the festival’s live hangout venue Driskill Bar that sold out every night. “We are on the ground right now and I am hearing again and again from our registrants that they are thrilled to be back at the live event.”

Claudia Puig, president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and new director of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, is taking a wait-and-see attitude. That event returns live March 2-12, 2022 after a largely virtual fest in March 2021. “There’s the ‘festival fever’ that sets in, the excitement of meeting fellow film lovers and having conversations about the film you just saw,” she said. “On the other hand, being in a crowded theater is still rather fraught for many people, especially given the possibility of breakthrough COVID infections even for the vaccinated.”

However, Puig predicts that some virtual presence is likely to be part of regional film festivals for the foreseeable future. “It definitely expands the reach of the festival, but it also may allow for a more intimate and revealing interview with the filmmakers, who are speaking from their homes or offices as opposed to on stage in front of a crowd, sometimes limited to just a few minutes of chatting to audiences between screenings,” she said. “From a filmmakers’ perspective, their film can reach more potential viewers and from a festival programmers’ perspective, the festival can raise its profile as people from all over the country — and the world — can attend virtually.”

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