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Dark Streaming Clouds, Virtual Platforms and Coronavirus Tests: The 2020 Year in Film Festivals

Their Algeria

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Sorry, Mr Dickens, there was no best of times in 2020 for film festivals. Indeed, some may question whether my annual trip down memory lane is even needed in a year that saw festivals shutting doors, industry-wide job losses and movies continually postponed and then delayed yet again. But with the coronavirus pandemic an accelerant to long-simmering changes in the film industry, for film festivals 2020 may be remembered as a critical inflection point. The cancellation of festivals — or more accurately the move to digital and hybrid editions — has forced festival heads, sales agents and filmmakers to re-assess and redefine the place of the film festival and cinemas in the movie value-chain. 

Let’s start by talking about the elephant in the room — namely, the great dark streaming cloud that has loomed over festivals and theatrical exhibition as Netflix has freely jettisoned the rules concerning theatrical windows for their titles. (In film festival jargon, this is known as “the Cannes vs Netflix debate,” dubbed so because the head honchos at Cannes have refused to put films in competition unless Netflix commits to playing their films in French theaters before heading to streaming.) As 2020 ends, this battle, this debate, is effectively over. The streamers have won. At best, cinemas are going to reopen with a three-weekend head start as signalled by the Universal deal. The idea that cinema is the unique preserve of films destined for theaters seems laughable now that Dune, Matrix 4 and Soul are just some of the studio movies debuting on the small screen, either instead of or at the same time as their theatrical releases. Henceforth, it seems that cinemas will be just another option for audiences deciding where to watch a new movie. It’s created a new paradigm that the whole film industry is being forced to address quickly. 

Yet this is not the death of cinema. For those who love cinema, and want the best screen experience, cinema is still king. Not just because it’s a much better experience on a technical level, but also because the local theater is a terrific 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’s time for the cinema chains to embrace the new competition. Instead of advocating for protectionist and monopolistic policies, they should state the case as to why audiences should come to their dream palaces. 

So with the very existence of cinemas called into question, it’s understandable that film festivals face very similar questions. What is the purpose of a film festival? Are they there to promote new voices, showcase films, facilitate business, create buzz, or put bums on seats? They are all of the above, but what exactly are they showcasing? Films yes, but what type of films, for whom and where? 2020, was a time for a lot of introspection as film festivals went back to basics to look to the future. 

For me, at least, 2020 was the year that I visited the least amount of film festivals (remarkably, I still attended seven physically). I watched fewer films than any other. But it was the year that I spoke the most about film festival mechanics and the importance of theaters. 

The year started in concerning fashion, and it had nothing to do with the pandemic. I was at Norway’s Tromso Film Festival, where I give program advice, host Q&As, introduce films, watch great movies such as Dag Johan Haugerud’s Light From the Chocolate Factory, and have been known to write some reviews too. What concerned me was that there was so little snow around. It was the first time I’d seen the pavement in many years attending the event. 

Climate change has become a hot topic in the film industry. One of the film industry’s challenges at the start of the year was how to make their events more environmentally friendly. There is only so much good that comes from showcasing films about environmental catastrophe at an event where everyone flies in for a week, burning fuels, using plastics and leaving an ugly human footprint.  

One of the steps taken by The Rotterdam Film Festival is that wherever possible guests should arrive by train.  I jumped on the Eurostar from London, an experience far more pleasant than the plane, and not that much slower. At the Dutch festival, it was my great pleasure to host a masterclass with the legendary composer Howard Shore. I got to watch Crash with a live orchestral score, before the next day chatting to Shore about his work with Cronenberg, Jackson and on Saturday Night Live. 

I did one other interview while I was at the festival, chatting to the underappreciated Belgium filmmaker Marion Hansel. The festival was hosting a Deep Focus on her work. Sadly, Hansel would pass away a few months later, so I feel lucky that I spent an hour in her fantastic company. 

Film festivals got a mighty shot in the arm when the Cannes Palme d’Or winner Parasite won Best Picture at the Oscars. It suddenly felt possible that films from around the world, coming out of film festivals, could create heads of steam that could lead to them taking the most popular prize in American cinema. Film festivals had never seemed so relevant… 

Meanwhile, in China, news of a deadly virus had shut down a city of 11 million people. Suddenly everyone knew about a place called Wuhan. A few months later, it would be the subject of movies. 

As Berlin came around, there was still a sense of ignorant bliss about the virus. It would be wrong to say that Berlin was not affected by the coronavirus. Chinese companies cancelled their market booths and filmmakers could not travel. In a short space of time, China has become the second most important box-office market globally, where films such as Nadine Labaki’s festival hit Capernaum could make over $50 million, so the non-attendance was felt. 

The other dominant Chinese news was the pulling of Zhang Yimou’s latest picture, One Second, at the last moment from a competition berth. Questions of censorship continue to highlight the political importance of film in the battle to win hearts and minds. The ability of film festivals to highlight the world we live in is a fundamental reason we need them. 

By the second week of the festival, conversations had finally started to concentrate on coronavirus because people had begun to die in worrying numbers in Lombardy, northern Italy. At the screenings of Never Rarely Sometimes Always, there was a smattering of mask-wearing spectators, which seemed overly cautious to me. And yet, the speed of change was such that this was the last screening I would attend in 2020 without wearing a mask. 

There were several reasons I didn’t go to many screenings in Berlin beyond the virus. The change in venues being one of them, but mostly it’s the increasing use of film links sent to journalists before the festival to encourage reviews and interviews to happen at the event. The theory around sending links is good – it allows for face-to-face meetings with directors; it stops there being clashes when journalists have to make decisions between films because of timetable clashes and inevitably choose the film more likely to be the easier sell to editors; and it frees up time to write at the festival to meet deadlines. 

And yet, it’s not a trend I particularly like, especially when one states that they have no time to see a film, a link is offered as if that would suddenly create more hours in an already impossible schedule. And I’m not too fond of it because the best way to watch a film is in the cinema with an audience. However, it’s massively convenient to receive links. As festival premieres are becoming more like the first weekend in theaters, with the success and failure of a movie depending on how it jumps 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 right publication can create the necessary buzz that will help the bottom line of some movies. It is the plague of the digital age. Little did I know then that links and the ability to stream would keep me in employment while colleagues who report on theater, art, and music concerts would see work dry up. Sometimes you don’t know who your best friend is. 

Bering being the last “normal” film festival I have attended, it was awesome that long-time Filmmaker Contributing Editor Brandon Harris was at the festival in his current guise as an Amazon exec. It’s these serendipitous meetings and coming across old and new friends that make festivals so wonderful and such a great place to be. Of course, you all have the usual talking points: “What have you seen? What’s good? “Gunda, the dialogue-free pig movie,” was the correct answer.  

However, the big question in week two of Berlin was: would Cannes happen? (I put on my sandwich board and rang the bell for Team: The End is Nigh.) By the time Berlin ended, major conferences and events across Europe were being cancelled, and I wondered whether I should have turned up at some social events. 

The first film festival cancellations started to happen shortly after Berlin announced its winners. Qumra, the inaugural Red Sea Festival and CPH: Dox all put up the stop sign for guests. Then miraculously in no time at all, CPH: Dox transferred to being an online-only film festival. Now the fact that I could watch links and talk to directors on Zoom was so great. Indeed, I realized that sometimes the Zoom interview was better for all concerned. 

But before anyone says, “That’s a wrap, why show up to festivals if they can be covered this way, and it helps the environment too,” I also immediately started noticing some drawbacks. The main one being, I struggle to find time to watch films while living my everyday life, even in a lockdown. There are so many distractions at home — the washing up, making lunch, and relationships that make logging on to watch through a computer less appealing. Whereas usually, I watch many films at the festival in the hope of making a discovery, already at CPH: DOX, I was only watching things to fulfil commissions. Only at the end of the fest, did I tune in to watch Songs of Repression by Marianne Hougen-Moraga & Estephan Wagner, because it had taken the top prize. The festival experience had changed — and not for the better. 

There are other work advantages. For the first time in my life, I “attended” Vision du Réel in Nyon, Switzerland. Well, I attended online, and again only for the films that I had to watch for work. However, this is the digital age, and one of the people I spoke with, Lina Soualem, whose film Their Algeria was playing, I would get to meet AFK (Away From Keyboard) and become pals with. So it would be a bust to say that friendships and networks are not formed at digital festivals, they’re just harder to create. But as the pandemic accelerated, with hopes that early shutdowns would quickly “stop the spread,” filmmakers were facing a tough choice: should they premiere their films online, after spending years making them with the hope that a live audience would appreciate them?

Soualem told me that her decision to premiere online was made out of necessity more than choice. The film had been announced as part of the program when it was due to be a physical event and so would be considered a 2020 film, and there was a desire for the public to see it, especially as it was unclear when a physical premiere would happen. That premiere was still many months away, and so it was a wise choice.

By now, the industry was in full-on crisis mode. James Bond had been pulled from cinemas, lockdowns across the globe were being implemented, and a collective sense of claustrophobia and depression was kicking in. That film festivals were taking place at all was a much-needed shot in the arm for the film community. 

For many, the online film festival seemed to be more of an event for the industry, even if CPH:DOX and Vision du Réel told me that many everyday viewers were signing up for ticket packages. Still, it all felt unreal, the ecosystem becoming even more stratified without a live festival to create crossover between industry, media and public.

While documentary film festivals were finding a way to make deals with filmmakers and sales agents, festivals reliant on fictional fare fared less well. SXSW and Tribeca both shuttered their live plans and then struggled in the online space. SXSW tried to showcase some films on Amazon in the United States, and it was a failure. Quite rightly, filmmakers didn’t want to sign up for a festival screening that might undermine their films’s marketplace value. (Physical screenings also offer better protection against pirates.) Questions of rights, and the pathways to market, which had seemed established, suddenly became hot topics. What was the role of film festivals, how can they help filmmakers, while also enticing audiences? 

It was no surprise when Cannes cancelled. The dithering over the decision was an indication of their desire to put on an event. What became apparent when they announced that the film industry part of the festival, the Marché du Film, would go online, while the red-carpet newsworthy side would be annulled, was that the big film festivals are more than one event. For Cannes, the market is where they facilitate deals, but would deals happen and distributors get into bidding wars over movies watched on their computer screens?  The festival tried to create the environment for that to happen by creating the Cannes 2020 label, given to the films that would have made the festival in other circumstances. This list would not include films that turned down the title preferring to debut at different events or those that decided to wait and launch at a physical event next year. 

By the time the market happened in the summer, George Floyd’s death and the Black Lives Matter protests became global news. The fallout from these protests hit a nerve across the globe that was not escaped by the film industry, which has traditionally been slow to take up race issues. The Cannes Market organizers managed to put together hundreds of Zoom events, one of which was an event that I had the pleasure of hosting, which took a look at inclusivity in the film industry. Titled “Creating the New Normal: Intersectionality in the Film Industry,” it saw Anna Serner of the SFI, Emilia Roig of the Center for Intersectional Justice, and The Black List’s Franklin Leonard call on the film industry to tackle bias at all levels. 

There were very few films carrying the Cannes label that managed to breakthrough. At the top of the list were Fanny Liatard and Jérémy Trouilh’s mesmeric Gagarine and Magnus von Horn’s Sweat. What was apparent was that their respective sales agents, Totem Films and New Europe Film Sales, treated the release as if they were opening at a physical Cannes, hiring publicists who emphasized trade and breaking reviews. It also helped that both films are ace. Yet for the most part, sales agents reported flat sales, with only bigger titles selling out their territories. Movies with especially large budgets, or those that had more riding on them financially, stayed under wraps.

One advantage of the digital marketplace that should be preserved was the format’s enabling of a broader demographic to participate. Those not able to afford a visit to the South of France could still attend a level-playing field. The industry side of film festivals will likely carry on having digital elements, so hopefully, this trend is here to stay. 

September was interesting because the Venice Film Festival managed to host a physical festival in that halcyon moment between the first and second wave. I didn’t go to Venice because I was launching a season, Redefining Rebellion, at the British Film Institute. The BFI Southbank was reopening to the public for the first time in months, and the season marked the 25th anniversary of La Haine. I heard Venice was a great event from all accounts, but I will have to base my observations on physical festivals on the San Sebastian Film Festival, which followed the same model as Venice and ran a couple of weeks later. 

I attended the hybrid version of the Toronto International Film Festival. The Canadian festival took an interesting approach. They allowed socially distanced screenings for the paying Toronto public and held online screenings for 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 launch their movies at film festivals during a pandemic. Apple also chose not to go to Venice with Sofia Copolla’s On the Rocks,  preferring to launch straight onto their branded platform. But the films in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series, due to play in Competition at Cannes, went for a New York Film Festival launch before launching in the U.S. on Amazon Prime later in the year.

Arguably, the only film that punched over its weight at these festivals was Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland, which won Venice and had a special drive-in Telluride screening in Los Angeles before playing at TIFF. It was a festival season where the story was that the film festivals were taking place, not the films being showcased. There were brilliant films at TIFF such as Dea Kulumbegashvili’s Beginning, but that would only make a splash when it won four awards at San Sebastian, a physical event. Trying to watch films with limited viewing windows from a different time zone proved tricky. The experience of remotely following Venice and TIFF was not a great one. 

Being at the San Sebastian Film Festival was an entirely different affair. The job of watching films in the cinema, even poor Woody Allen efforts, offered some semblance of normalcy. A film festival with fewer films, bigger gaps between screenings and theaters with a seat free next to you is delightful. I even had time to watch the whole of Luca Guadagnino’s We Are Who We Are television series in one sitting. 

And yet the absence of many members of the industry, as well as fellow journalists, was keenly felt. Better than a digital event, this year’s San Sebastian was still far from ideal. And yet, I shall not complain too much, as a month later, I was at the El Gouna Film Festival in Egypt and the lack of concern by many attendees about COVID-19 was way more frightening. It’s hard to know what is right in these odd times. While I would complain about El Gouna’s receptions and parties, they did test for the coronavirus rather than just have temperature checks. Swings and roundabouts. 

The other two festivals that I attended around this time were also odd affairs. The risk of putting on a film festival during a pandemic is that if there’s a spike in cases suddenly all the planning 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 9pm to quell the spread. There was a massive rejig in the program, and while I loved watching classics such as Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love, Ousmene Sembene’s Mandabi and Joseph L. Mackiewicz’s People Will Talk, the mood of the festival was somewhat dampened by the time I arrived. 

I also made an effort to go to one of the eight screenings that the London Film Festival put on as physical screenings. It was where I saw Mangrove, the first of the Small Axe films. But despite the tickets being free to the public, even as a social distanced event there seemed to be a lot of spare seats, showing how difficult it is to get people into cinemas during the pandemic. 

As the year draws to a close, the second wave, and now the British mutation is dominating headlines. Berlin 2021 has already cancelled its February event, electing to go in two stages — digital for industry in February and then physical for the public in June. These are worrying times for the film industry, cinemas and the health of many in general. The immediate future is far from certain. 

Looking back on 2020 there was a lot to admire in how film festivals continued to look for ways to continue despite everything thrown at them, and how film as a form of entertainment seems more important than ever. 

Looking forward, I do not doubt that festivals will learn many lessons from 2020 and come back with a much firmer handle on where they can make a difference to our cultural lives. After all, it is the importance of film festivals as a cultural entity that has kept them going as the financial catastrophe has hit. If anything, 2020 has proved just how vital film festivals really are, not only for showcasing movies but also for the well-being of the industry and society. 

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