In 2020 film festivals had no other choice but began moving their programming online. Covid-19 has already changed the face of many sectors and how the business will be conducted in the future.
Will film festivals follow the suit and adjust to changing trends and audience expectations?
The sudden move online has already allowed for wider international accessibility to films and knowledge that was reserved only a year ago for the privileged few, who could afford to splash out on those expensive events. Before the pandemic, to attend A-list film festivals you needed quite a substantial budget, and if you were a parent you also had to sort out childcare, which film festivals still don’t have on offer.
If your project was a part of the competition, the expenses were justified. However, if you were going as an audience member or a freelancer, the costs were often too excessive to rationalise. It more often than not was nothing less than an expensive, thematic holiday.
Online screenings, virtual meeting rooms or parties, and educational events and workshops could be a fantastic way to allow many more filmmakers and artists to participate in film festivals, that are so often out of reach for so many of us.
Easy access to knowledge and learning could open doors to filmmakers from developing countries and underprivileged backgrounds, allowing the landscape of filmmaking and cinema to truly change. The world needs diverse voices, and only by democratising the filmmaking process, from learning to distribution, we can talk about diversity.
In my eyes, the move to accommodate online screenings by major film festivals only cements the notion that films can be successful on a big and small screen, and there is no shame in working for streamers or engaging with your audience online. I know that some established filmmakers have (or rather had) a problem with a small screen. If my well-known colleges cannot accommodate new technologies, evolving market and the audience demands, please move on and make room for people who can, but please stop complaining and diminishing platforms many of us use to reach out to our niche audience.
An audience is an audience and thinking about your audience exclusively as cinemagoers is outdated. How many people, who considered themselves as such, have been to the cinema last year? Audience members access films in many different ways, and our job is to make our films as available as we can to as many people as possible.
As filmmakers, part of our job is to set trends, and if we cannot make films, especially impact films, easily available to the audience worldwide, we are doing something wrong.
The landscape of film distribution will change drastically after the pandemic is over (I know it has been changing for years but the change has now accelerated). The creative distribution will take off and won’t be frowned upon (for the sake of your current and future projects learn about creative distribution).
Film festivals could lead the way. Just like they paved the path for many careers to take off, now they can help democratize the industry by leading the creative distribution revolution. That, in turn, would allow audience access a variety of diverse filmmaking voices from all over the world. I know we have been talking about diversity in the film business for years now, but the change is slow, and the gatekeepers are still the same people who believe we need more “diverse voices” but are reluctant to take decisive actions.
On the practical and commercial side, if film screenings were even partly to move online, that would generate limitless programming possibilities. Programmers wouldn’t have to worry about the timings and theatre hires, which would help keep the costs down and share some revenue with the filmmakers.
Can you imagine how life and career-changing that could be for filmmakers? Filmmakers look for audience and film festivals have access to that audience. If you put those two together, maybe indie filmmakers wouldn’t need second jobs to support their passion and talents. Film festivals should start shifting focus towards directly connecting audience members with films, which would result in building sustainable filmmaking careers for many more of them.
The current film festival model connects a very selected audience with few films, and in our digital age, this approach is not fit for purpose anymore. Film festivals should open their platforms to truly help filmmakers, building a symbiotic relationship with them, and this is what I wish film festivals will gravitate towards in the post-pandemic world.
1. Certain films are screened for free, other films will need to be paid for. Exclusive screenings with Q&A is also an idea worth exploring.
2. Genres screenings are organized online and available on the festival’s platform. Filmmakers either get paid a flat fee for screening their film on that festival’s platform or have share in the revenue at the end of the festival/licencing period.
3. Workshops, panels and Q&A’s are streamed and recorded and are accessible online for free.
4. For the in-person events, film festivals provide childcare for visiting filmmakers, who cannot afford childcare but shouldn’t give up on opportunities, just because they have children.
5. Festivals focus more on working with filmmakers to find their audience and fans, which could sustain their careers over a lifetime. (No more 2nd jobs for filmmakers to pay the bills.)
6. Different continents should have their section at film festivals websites and be equally represented alongside the English-speaking films.
7. One of the media points of focus during festivals should be on up and coming filmmakers, instead of exclusively focusing on celebrities. Media reporting from festivals should be kept accountable for that.
I genuinely hope film festivals aren’t going to go back in time to small exclusive clubs with limited reach once the pandemic is over.
Film festivals could become a positive force of change (I believe visual media has tremendous possibilities to change the world for better), and not only act as bodyguards for those, who are already on top.
PS. The positive side of film festivals trying to survive in the pandemic is weeding the market of dodgy money grabbers, who bring no value to filmmakers. As always, be very selective about the festivals you choose.