Why Online Festivals During COVID-19 Are Essential

Christina Raia
Apr 6, 2020 · 6 min read
Will we miss in-person festivals? Absolutely. But online may be our best shot at getting back to IRL.

As we’re all sheltering in place and dealing with the anxiety around the circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve noticed a lot of social media posts from my filmmaker peers that amongst all the anxiety and loss they’re experiencing right now, they also can’t help but feel a sense of mourning for their latest project — and specifically, all the hopes and goals they had for its festival run this year. I can relate. As the period of time we all must stay inside gets extended again and again, and as we see what happens when countries ahead of us try to reopen things like movie theaters (and then have to close them again), I think we’re all realizing that it’s unlikely that large social gatherings will be safe again anytime soon.

We’re seeing many of our favorite in-person events scheduled well into the summer pivoting into virtual versions; and it’s become clear to me that most, if not all, of the film festivals I plan to screen with are going to have to move online if they’re going to happen at all this year. And I’ll be honest, as a filmmaker I initially had mixed feelings about this. When I think about why I love attending film festivals, it’s not just the discovery of new work, meeting new collaborators and exploring a new city, it’s the specific impact my work can have that attending film festivals in person makes possible.

Looking back at my 2018–2019 festival run for my feature About a Donkey, I know my whole strategy would be out the window if it had been this year. Our goal was to get people who wouldn’t typically seek out progressive content to come out for a film about a fairly heteronormative seeming family and find themselves watching (and hopefully rooting for) a romance between two women, as well as other forms of representation they probably wouldn’t normally empathize with. So we did a ton of research on festivals around the country and spoke with filmmakers who had been on the circuit with a feature over the last few years. We specifically targeted festivals:

  • In conservative districts (based on 2016 election data)
  • Where they were the only festival and/or received widespread promotion by local press and businesses
  • A history of high local attendance
  • With that attendance largely made up of non-artists (the types of people who don’t seem like frequent patrons of the arts but come out to the festival because they like movies and there’s nothing else to do in their city).

This plan worked. We sold out screenings with audiences of largely older, conservative people. Some walked out, most stayed. Many engaged in conversations with us afterward. Our physical presence challenged them to stay and discuss. We got to witness little moments of our work having a direct impact on individuals.

This couldn’t happen with an online festival. Even if the festival were marketing heavily to their local audience, I don’t think the target audience in this case would “show up” in the way they would in person. I’ve seen other filmmakers with their own impact-based strategies for their festival run express the same hesitancy, feeling that an online version wouldn’t fully accomplish the goals that a traditional festival screening would. And even beyond goals and strategy, sitting on the couch watching on a TV or laptop screen is not at all the same as watching your film on the big screen while feeling the energy and hearing the reactions of strangers surrounding you.

There’s no sugarcoating or spinning this: having your film as part of an online festival is simply not the same as being part of a traditional, in-person one. And because of this, I initially thought about pulling my current film, “Affliction,” (a short we’re hoping will encourage further conversation around consent) out of consideration at festivals all together and just releasing it online on my own earlier than planned. I figured putting it online myself would essentially be the same thing as a festival doing so, so I might as well just do it on my terms.

If I’m going to have the career that I want, then I need to support the ecosystem that makes that possible.

But I realized that that would be a selfish move. If I’m going to have the career that I want, then I need to support the ecosystem that makes that possible. If I’m ever going to be able to repeat what I did with About a Donkey with another project and, if any filmmakers are ever going to do the same for their strategic goals, then festivals need to survive. We need them to retain their sponsorships and afford their overhead this year, so that they’ll be able to come back in their original form next year (and the year after that and the year after that).

So, I believe, we filmmakers need to recalibrate our plans for a festival run this year. We need to adjust our expectations of what a festival run should be, and support the festivals that are still trying to get our work seen, which means saying yes to the online screenings they may offer us throughout this period. And it doesn’t have to be looked at as just a disappointing alternative to what could’ve been. There are some positives that come with this new approach:

  • Festivals could still get our films seen online much more in general than we could on our own. Every partnership comes with their own reach (email list, social media following, advertising budget) that they’ll be marketing your film to. Then think about the average theater size — an online streaming of your film could potentially reach far more people than the traditional screening would have. Take Queens World Film Festival, for example, one of the first to pivot online in mid-March. Their opening night lineup streamed the same night that it would’ve happened in the theater. I noted that it had 2,385 views that night. The Redstone theater at the Museum of the Moving Image seats 267. Again, while sitting at home watching doesn’t compare to sitting in that beautiful theater with the audience, the online version reached nearly 10 times as many people. That’s a replicable experience with every online festival.
  • Being online means your film is more accessible, including to people living with disabilities. I believe this pandemic has made us all more aware of how much society caters only to able-bodied people, and how much more inclusive we need to be. Maybe there are individuals who always wanted to experience their local festival but couldn’t in the past. They may now feel included in a way they hadn’t before, and now they have the opportunity to discover your film.
  • There are still ways to have a community feel to your festival streamings if everyone’s creating enough simultaneous buzz online. I see festivals using video meeting services to facilitate virtual Q&A’s and happy hours. On the filmmaker side, we could livestream or live tweet our own viewings with commentary. And we could use social media to cross-promote with other filmmakers, especially those we share screening blocks with. We could even create our own virtual panels to discuss the themes we share that made the festival program us together.
  • Creative solutions have emerged to keep your distribution options open. For features with existing distribution or plans to pursue traditional distribution, there are definitely various factors to consider before agreeing to go online, and ultimately there is no right answer for every film or every festival. But thanks to tech solutions like geoblocking and ticket capping, going online doesn’t have to kill your future distribution plans or options. Seed&Spark’s Film Festival Survival Pledge has collected 160+ commitments from festivals and distributors to suspend the moratorium on online exhibition and adjust other standard practices related to production deadlines and premiere status that typically restrict when and how a film can screen with a festival.

At the end of the day, this shift to only participating in festivals online is temporary. We’re undoubtedly entering a new world in a lot of ways on the other side of this. However, humans will, without doubt, get back to gathering and socializing when it’s safe to do so. If there’s anything we’re realizing right now, it’s how much we crave physical togetherness. Let’s work with the festivals in their online alternatives this year so that we can hopefully get back the full experience of them next year and beyond. Just like how we all have to adjust to how we live our lives right now so that we can try to save all the things (and people) we love… so is the case with film festival plans.

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