Art in adversity: Tribeca, SXSW film festivals move online due to coronavirus

Big film festivals will screen shows for audiences via Facebook and Amazon

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 1: Atmosphere at The Tribeca Film Festival Premiere Of Sony Pictures Classics' "Maiden" at Village East Cinema on May 1, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Paul Bruinooge/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images)
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The Tribeca Film Festival is no stranger to adversity. The event, co-founded by Robert De Niro in 2002, was launched after the 9/11 attacks as a gathering to unite a grieving New York community. The event, which was scheduled to open on Wednesday, April 15, and run until Sunday, April 26, seems determined to bring that same defiant spirit into this latest challenging period by moving select parts of its programme online, going live on the planned opening day.

The festival’s organisers said: “While New York City is hurting once again and we do not yet know when we will be able to share that magical experience of being in a theatre together – we are bringing the festival experience to your doorstep. We are thrilled to announce the debut of select 2020 festival programming online, so that storytellers and audiences can continue to experience Tribeca together – apart.”

Of greatest interest to the public is probably the news that the festival will move its virtual-reality-focused Cinema360 programme online, and continue with its already live "A Short Film a Day Keeps Anxiety Away" schedule.

This year’s Cinema360 projects will be available to users of the Facebook-owned Oculus platform. The films will be curated into four 30 to 40-minute programmes, which will be available via Oculus TV, Oculus Go and Oculus Quest to owners of the VR headsets. The Short Film a Day programme, meanwhile, will offer a daily curated title from Tribeca’s catalogue, completely free of charge, on the festival’s website and social media channels.

Tribeca's competition films include 12-Hour Shift, from writer, director and Heroes star Brea Grant; and an uncannily timed pandemic drama, Little Fish, from Morris from America maker Chad Hartigan. The entries will be judged online by this year's jury members – Slumdog Millionaire director Danny Boyle, Shaft actress Regina Hall and Star Trek and Wonder Woman's Chris Pine. The winners will be announced on Tribeca's website during the festival's originally planned dates, although there are currently no plans for public screenings online.

The Tribeca Extranet – the online hub for industry and press feature screenings for accredited delegates, promises a record number of films this year, with 90 per cent of competition entries signed up.

The New Online Work Showcase section for web series and short-form content makers, and the TV Pilot section for independently produced episodes, will also be moved online, again for press and industry only. The organisers have also promised screenings and virtual meetings between filmmakers and buyers and distributors.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MAY 04: Jane Rosenthal attends "Yesterday" Closing Night Gala Film - 2019 Tribeca Film Festival at BMCC Tribeca PAC on May 04, 2019 in New York City.   Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival/AFP
Tribeca Film Festival chief executive Jane Rosenthal. AFP

It is fair to say that the general public has limited access to Tribeca’s online programme, but that will hopefully be a temporary issue. The team remains insistent that a live event will still take place later in the year. Although chief executive Jane Rosenthal has so far declined to discuss new dates, saying it’s “too early”, industry insiders expect a scaled-down event taking place concurrently with Tribeca TV Festival in September.

Meanwhile, down in Texas, the South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival is set to make news even more publicly. SXSW, which should have taken place in March, has announced its competition winners via online judging – a move that Rosenthal admits inspired Tribeca to press ahead with its virtual programme. The Texas event has also teamed up with streaming giant Amazon to launch an “SXSW Film Festival Collection”.

We are supporters of independent film festivals, and hope this online festival can help give back some of that experience, and showcase films that audiences might otherwise not have had the chance to see.

Details are sparse at present – all filmmakers who were listed to screen their work at SXSW were contacted by Amazon last week and given the option to “opt in” to the streamed event.

It is possible that filmmakers who may already have a distribution deal in place with a rival will pass on the option. Amazon has stated that participation will not grant it any rights or exclusivity outside of the still-to-be-announced “festival” dates, expected to be at the end of April, and that filmmakers who hoped to use their SXSW screening as a springboard to a distribution deal, will still be allowed to do so if they sign up to the online version.

Amazon Studios chief Jennifer Salke said: “We are honoured to be able to provide a space for the first time for SXSW filmmakers to share their hard work and passion with audiences. It’s been a privilege collaborating with the SXSW team to bring these films to viewers around the country. We are supporters of independent film festivals, and hope this online festival can help give back some of that experience, and showcase films that audiences might otherwise not have had the chance to see.”

The Amazon deal seems to have the potential to be a game changer, particularly if other cancelled festivals should choose to take the Amazon route to screening. Even though the SXSW films have only been confirmed to show on Amazon in the US for now, it still represents a potential audience of more than 100 million, larger than the biggest festival could hope to reach.

PASADENA, CALIFORNIA - JANUARY 14: Head of Amazon Studios Jennifer Salke speaks during the Amazon Studios segment of the 2020 Winter TCA Press Tour at The Langham Huntington, Pasadena on January 14, 2020 in Pasadena, California.   Amy Sussman/Getty Images/AFP
Head of Amazon Studios, Jennifer Salke, says the company is a supporter of independent film festivals. Getty

On the face of it, that is great news for independent filmmakers, who Amazon also says will be paid screening fees for their films.

Should Amazon continue to work with postponed or cancelled events, and possibly become the go-to online platform for film festivals in the future, some very interesting questions may need to be asked. Could Amazon be expected to continue with a policy of giving a premiere to festival films, then letting a rival obtain rights to screen the most popular titles? And, as a major content producer, could Amazon’s films compete in a festival that the company is also hosting?

For now, these are purely hypothetical scenarios, but in a movie industry that was already undergoing seismic changes before the coronavirus outbreak, a close eye will be kept on developments.