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The Year of the Hybrid: 9 Ways to Make the Most of a Hybrid Festival Premiere

Nixon protestors outside the premiere of 18 1/2

This is a very weird time for film festivals and filmmakers. During the first year of the pandemic, it was fairly simple:  Almost every festival around the world became online only. There were a few exceptions, of course: The Göteborg Film Festival in Sweden stranded one person on a tiny island for a week to watch every film. The Oldenburg Film Festival in Germany had living room premieres. And many festivals pivoted to drive-in and other outside venues (especially where the climate allowed for that). By summer of 2021, the feeling among festival organizers was that now that we have a vaccine, we’ll have this Covid thing in our rearview mirror and we can go back to live film festivals – Woohoo!!!  But as we know, by mid summer, the Delta variant and vaccine hesitancy among many (especially in the States) had meant that fall festivals for 2021 had to rethink their plans and re-invent a new kind of hybridized live/online festival.

Some European fests like Cannes and Venice had strict vaccine rules and managed to hold successful events that at least sort of resembled their 2019 versions. (But yes, some people still got COVID).  In the States, many festivals had cautiously moved toward some indoor screenings hybridized with online screenings and outdoor events. Telluride proudly declared itself a vaccine bubble and maintained strict vaccine and masking rules for screening and other indoor events. But crowded outdoor events and some maskless indoor industry parties flaunted the rules, and yes, people got COVID, despite the “Mission Accomplished!” bravura of festival publicists.

Traditionally if filmmakers didn’t get into the select tiny group of “meaningful” festivals, then they would twiddle their thumbs, wait four months, and submit to the next A-list festival. But if COVID has taught us anything, no one can predict the future. If a festival with safe, live screenings invites your film, and it’s during a trough between variant spikes, then go! You never know if the next four months are going to bring another round of quarantines and festival closures, or even what your own health or mortality will be. Trust me, as someone with a rare foot in the festival organizer world and another foot in the filmmaking world, take the bird in the hand when you’ve got it. (As indie filmmaker veteran Eugene Martin told me succinctly, “Go where the love is.”)  No one at any festival more than four months out can say anything with any certainty, and if they are, they’re fooling themselves and probably fooling a lot of other people, too.

This is truly the Wild West: Filmmakers and festivals are constantly jockeying for position, relative premiere status and renegotiating their own circumstances. Festivals and anyone in the industry, press or creative community can no longer regard the same small number of festivals as the arbiters of what’s hot this year. If acquisitions executives are invariably watching all films online (as was honestly the case long before the pandemic), then there’s no reason to think you can’t create your own arbitrary deadlines for them to watch your film and make an offer, tied to a festival or not. Likewise, if film critics are going to major festivals from the comfort of their homes, then they have no excuse not to attend minor festivals the same way. To adhere to the same festival schedule and rules that guided us for the last 40 years is to deny the earth-shattering realities of how the festival world has changed around us.

In this environment, what’s a filmmaker to do? Some films that eschewed online fests for a year are finding they can’t keep waiting and are just entering the festival fray now. And there’s a raft of new films, made during the pandemic, that are finishing now. Meanwhile, many festivals are cutting their number of films in half, some fests have shut down entirely, and others are in existential limbo. Consequently, there’s twice as many films fighting for half as many festival slots.

For me, the question about which festivals to screen my new Watergate thriller/dark comedy 18½ has come down to where we could get the most most bang for our buck? But defining that bang, and measuring the buck can be done in many different ways. For example, is there a way to meaningfully engage with an audience? In other words, are there (relatively COVID-safe) indoor screenings with live Q&As? Does the festival have cool drive-in or other outdoor screening options? Are there intros or Q&As for the online screenings, either live or pre-taped? Are there meaningful ways to meet other filmmakers, in either live or virtual settings? Is the festival providing travel or accommodation, and if so, will there be enough live events to make it worthwhile? Is it in the part of the country or world that’s safe to travel to right now? And if it’s mostly an online fest, are they at least doing revenue sharing to make it worth our while? The good news with the pandemic is many more festivals are willing to pay screening fees or otherwise compensate filmmakers for screening their films online. Can the festival geoblock or otherwise limit the number of people seeing the film? And is that desirable, even, for your particular film? Is the film eligible for awards, and are there cash or other prizes? And of course, the evergreen questions about festivals: will there be any press or industry presence there?

So if you’re a filmmaker, and you are going to a hybrid festival this year, here’s a few suggestions for how to make the most of your experience. Most of these are things I recently did at my world premiere of 18½ at the Woodstock Film Festival. I think Woodstock was a pretty good model of the kinds of events we’re likely to see this year: A mix of indoor theatrical screenings (with limited capacity, and vaccination and mask mandates), outdoor evening screenings (for Woodstock, it was the second year of pop-up drive-ins on a 70-foot-screen), and online screenings.

1. Wear Branded Masks

Mirvish masked

If you’re going to be wearing masks most of the time, you might as well get your film name or logo emblazoned on it. In our case, my 1st AD’s wife makes custom masks, and it was easy to have her use our 18½ logo for masks for myself and my writer/producing partner Daniel Moya.  Instead of the classic festival experience of awkwardly not recognizing someone, then staring towards their midriff to spot their name on their festival lanyard, this was much simpler. People could look me in the face and instantly know what film I was with, even if they didn’t know my name. I remember when the Russo Brothers showed up at Slamdance with their entire family wearing hats for their first film, Pieces. I guarantee if they were doing it today, they’d all be wearing branded masks, too. By wearing such a mask, it also helped eliminate the somewhat awkward practice of people taking masks off for publicity photos. No one needs to see my ugly mug. I’d much rather keep my mask on and have people see my film’s logo. It’s both safer and better publicity for the film.

2. Write Closed Captions 

After a year of doing online only, most festivals have perfected the way they present films through their festival websites or portals. Companies like Eventive or Cinesend are now servicing hundreds of festivals a year and have successfully figured out ways to add things like closed captioning to online screenings. This has solved a major accessibility problem that most festivals have long had with deaf and hard of hearing audiences. But also, the number of people who now regularly watch all their “content” with subtitles has gone up tremendously since the pandemic took hold. After months of large families and roommates all locked in houses together, Zooming and streaming all day, subtitles have become a normalized means of watching things with the sound turned down. Traditionally, most indie filmmakers only prepared closed captions once they had to get ready for distribution deliverables, or at the earliest, when they had to get subtitles ready for a big international festival. But now, it’s incumbent on filmmakers to prep their captions early and upload them for their first festival. And once you’ve got a solid .srt file ready for one platform, format or language, it’s much easier to use it at the next festival. Whether you’re using YouTube for free, or services like Rev.com for a little more than a dollar a minute, there’s no reason not to have captions ready early. Both Rev and YouTube allow for extensive editing of your captions. As a director, I find captioning a film to be one of the last creative ways to put a spin on my films, playing with the timing and nuances of the captions in a way that a hired pro or AI program could never do strictly on their own.

3. Use 2nd Audio Channel

Another unique advantage of online streaming for festivals is that some platforms (like Eventive) allow you to upload a second audio track. This was initially designed for Audio Descriptive Tracks, used to add accessibility for the blind.  In our case, I’m still looking forward to finding the right professionals to work with on creating this Audio Descriptive track in a compelling and informative way. But in the meantime, I was able to record a director/writer commentary track (with myself and Daniel Moya), simply and easily in a couple hours in my garage. We were able to upload this as our second audio track for our Woodstock screenings. In the case of Woodstock, there was no option for online Q&A, so this was my way to make up for that and give answers to how and why we did things in the form of a commentary.

4. Post Soundcloud Commentary

In addition to putting the commentary track directly on our online festival screenings, I also uploaded the track directly to Soundcloud. Inspired by Rian Johnson and Kevin Smith, I’ve uploaded my director’s commentary tracks for my last two films (Between Us, and Bernard and Huey) timed to their theatrical releases. That way someone can watch the film twice – once with regular sound, and a repeat time listening on headphones to the commentary track.  But I figured why not do it earlier in my film’s lifecycle? If festivals are more likely to do revenue sharing now than in the before-times, then I’ve got a financial motive for encouraging audiences to see a film twice at a festival. But far beyond the monetary motivation, it’s a unique way to engage with an audience, whether watching the film online, in theaters, or listening to the commentary by itself on their daily COVID walkabout or Peloton workout.

5. Record Audience Reaction

At a time when uncertainty reigns and nobody knows if festivals will ever return to in-theater screenings and distributors are still theatrically-hesitant, an in-theater screening with a live audience might well be a rarity. In order to preserve that potentially unique experience, I recorded our premiere audience at Woodstock on my laptop as a Quicktime file. We’ve now got that festival experience preserved forever. On an eventual BluRay, or some future streaming option (either upon distribution, or even at other festivals), audiences will have the option to watch the film as if they were at the world premiere in Woodstock. Essentially, it’s a glorified laugh track: Complete with applause, hearty laughs, side-splitting screams, chuckles, guffaws, masked coughs, a woman trying to find her seat in the dark, and a man leaving at the credits and telling me, “Phenomenal movie!” I did a similar thing on the DVD release of my real estate musical Open House, in which I recorded our premiere at Slamdance, and offered the track as a Slamdance-o-rama option. I guess this time, it’ll be in Woodstock-o-Round.

6. Film Your Q&A

Filming your own Q&A is advice I give fellow filmmakers even when there isn’t a global pandemic. But especially now, it’s even more important to preserve these unique experiences. It’s going to be much more rare moving forward to have any of my cast or crew with me on stage at a festival. At Woodstock, we were lucky enough to have one of our actors, Cathy Curtin, available for our Q&A, as well as many of our New York-based crew. I brought my own DSLR and entrusted a friendly DP in the audience to shoot the Q&A, as well as a second iPhone version just in case. Between the two, we now have a nice version to preserve, whether for social media sharing, YouTube, BluRay or other “extras” release.

7. Decentralize Your Team

With fewer festivals paying for filmmakers’ travel, host families less willing to put up strangers, and every airplane ride and airport stopover fraught with tension and some level of health risk, there’s less of a compelling reason for everyone on your team to go to every one of your festivals. Fortunately, in my case with 18½, I’ve got well over 400 cast, crew and especially investors and crowdfunders spread all over the globe. In Woodstock, we had local backers and their friends put us up in their houses. Other backers threw an outdoor fire-pit afterparty for us. When executive producer Tel Ganesan was in Orlando and couldn’t make the screening, we had associate producer Brandon Keeton drive five hours in his pickup truck from Pennsylvania to help us prep for the screening. In other festivals coming up in the US and abroad this fall, I’m going to participate remotely while various crew members and backers represent the film live. The advantage of making a film during a pandemic is that we wound up working remotely with people all over the globe. So why not let them have some festival fun now?

8. Stage a Photo Op

At the recent New York Film Festival there were two sets of protesters that got a lot of attention. The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s own union workers handed out fliers and used projection mapping on the outside of Lincoln Center to fight for a better contract. And an obscure Catholic sect was protesting Paul Verhoeven’s new lesbian nun film, Benedetta. That group’s giant banners and signs warned people that Verhoeven’s lesbian nun film was a blasphemy! After these banners were ‘grammed, ’tweeted and ’tokked by festival goers and passersby, this was the best press that Verhoeven and his film could have gotten. So, naturally, a week later when 18½ was playing in Woodstock, I was shocked (shocked!) to find that we had similar protesters in front of our in-theater world premiere. Held aloft by self-described die-hard Nixon fans, their banners proudly proclaimed “Nixon. Now More than Ever,” “Nixon Loves You!” and “18½ is Blasphemy!” At one point, traffic slowed to a crawl as drivers stared at the hullabaloo in front of Woodstock’s Tinker Street Cinema. Thankfully, the festival staff and security kept things calm and peaceful, and after many photographs, the screening went off without a hitch.

9. Write Your Own Press

Fewer members of the press and freelance film critics in particular have the means and/or desire to travel to as many festivals as they once did. Media budgets are slashed, travel restrictions are in place, and an increasing number of film critics and press would rather breathlessly review the latest streaming episodic series or cover the upcoming awards race (with films that already have distribution), than rush to a festival with true world premieres of films with all rights available. Thankfully at Woodstock, we were able to reach out to enough freelance critics who all gave us rave reviews. But when in doubt, write your own press! Offer up first-person accounts of festivals to media outlets that might not otherwise provide coverage. And meanwhile, keep ‘gramming, ‘tweeting and ‘tokking as much as you can. If this is indeed the Wild West of film festivals, remember the line from the end of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “This is the West sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Dan Mirvish is the director/producer of 18½, with Willa Fitzgerald, John Magaro, Vondie Curtis Hall, Catherine Curtin, Richard Kind, Sullivan Jones, and the voices of Ted Raimi, Jon Cryer and Bruce Campbell as Richard Nixon. 18½ will have its international premiere at the upcoming São Paulo International Film Festival. A Bugeater Films and Kyyba Films production, 18½ has all rights available. Focal Press/Routledge just released the second edition of Mirvish’s book, The Cheerful Subversive’s Guide to Independent Filmmaking.

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