Can film festivals take place online and still gauge audiences?

We weigh up the pros and cons of delivering the festival experience over the internet

epa08307974 (FILE) - A worker sweeps the steps under the official poster of the 69th annual Cannes Film Festival on the Palais des Festivals facade, in Cannes, France, 09 May 2016 (reissued 19 March 2020). According to media reports, the Cannes Film Festival 2020 was cancelled, organizers announced on 19 March 2020, over the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus causing the Covid-19 disease. The 73rd annual Cannes International Film Festival was due to take place from 12 to 23 May 2020.  EPA/IAN LANGSDON *** Local Caption *** 52744762

With public gatherings increasingly barred or limited around the world amid the coronavirus crisis, and cinemas closed in many countries, film festivals have become one of the latest victims of the pandemic. Like concerts, museums and plain old-fashioned social interaction, some of the casualties are trying to reinvent themselves by moving into the online space.

Copenhagen’s CPH:DOX, one of the world’s leading festivals for documentaries, which take place on Sunday is taking place as an internet-only event, making some of its scheduled films available online to audiences and ploughing ahead with its main competition section by having the jury judge films not in a Copenhagen theatre, but on their laptops or smart TVs. The CPH:DOX training and co-production sections are also taking place online, and the  team said in a statement ahead of the reformatted event: “The well-known CPH:DOX social experience will have to reinvent itself in a whole new way, and the team is now working 24 / 7 to make it happen.”

We’re living in unique times, and credit is due to festivals that use any means at their disposal to keep going in the face of the current adversity, but can we really replicate the film festival experience online?

In the era of Netflix, we all know it's perfectly possible to enjoy watching a film online, and even for online films to dominate at the Oscars. But the key word in CPH:Dox's statement seems to be "social". Can we really replicate this vital part of the festival experience online? Surely a crucial part of a festival is the concept of watching a film in a group, discussing it afterwards, meeting like-minded people and having great ideas. And isn't that unlikely to happen in front a laptop?

Andrei Florescu, director of The Monthly Film Festival, in Glasgow, which has awarded prizes every month since 2015 and was described by Short Film Connection as "the most famous film festival currently on the web", unsurprisingly thinks the online space is perfect for a festival. However, he does admit that his own is a slightly different beast to the giant gatherings that take place in Cannes and Venice each year. 

<span>Online film festivals play an important role in the industry, given the rise of online distribution.</span>

“Online film festivals play an important role in the industry, given the rise of online distribution,” he says. “One downside is the networking, which is non-existent here, but that doesn’t mean the films we receive are ignored. On the contrary, we promote them as much as possible, writing reviews and building awareness. Recently, we launched a community where producers look for screenwriters and vice versa, all with the purpose of connecting filmmakers online.”

Florescu says that, far from posing a threat to traditional physical festivals, events such as his can perform a useful service to filmmakers, where the bigger names fail. 

“I don’t think anyone should worry about the rise of online festivals,” he says. “After all, it is another way to promote yourself when regular festivals fail to do so or when the big festivals are too strict in selecting independent works.”

Sam Lahoud, head of Beirut Film Society, which hosts several festivals including the now postponed Beirut International Women Film Festival, isn’t so sure. “Part of the main objective of film festivals is the direct contact between the filmmaker or the film and the audience – discussions, Q&As, and networking between filmmakers and potential producers, or between filmmakers themselves who may start mutual projects,” he says. “A lot of great films started after the screening of other films in festivals. If we lose the human contact experience, we lose a big part of a film festival.”

When asked if he would move the Beirut International Women Film Festival online, should its proposed new date of April prove unworkable, Lahoud leaves no grey area. “I would rather postpone or cancel than do it online,” he says.

Lahoud’s commitment to the cause is commendable, but desperate times surely call for desperate measures. Some film festivals actually seem perfect for the online sphere – the short films that Florescu’s event focuses on typically find it hard to find a big-screen airing, while the training element of a festival such as Doha’s Qumra, a largely industry and mentoring-focused event that moved online last weekend, could surely take place just as well over the internet.

<span>A lot of great films started after the screening of other films in festivals. If we lose the human contact experience, we lose a big part of a film festival.</span>

What about the big boys though? All eyes are currently on Cannes, which finally threw in the towel over holding its annual event in May. Could a huge gathering such as this succeed online? Ever the optimist, Florescu thinks so. "I believe as a one-off, they could work," he says. "It's not that hard to allow specific people, as well as judges, to watch films online, vote and even award them. The ceremony could also be moved online. It could be streamed to thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people, and they could even make some money out of that if they charge a fee for people to watch the nominated films. I would do an international audience voting for the audience award, and so I'd give everyone the opportunity to vote for their favourite films without even attending."

We don’t know yet whether Cannes, and maybe even Venice and Toronto later in the year, may be forced to follow Florescu’s lead, but his use of the term “one-off” seems significant. These are unprecedented times, and any form of festival is surely better than none while the world is on lockdown, but ultimately a festival is a living, breathing event, as anyone who has experienced the irreplaceable buzz of Dubai International Film Festival will testify.

You simply can’t replicate the same experience. In the grand scheme of things, film festivals are a minor worry in the current crisis, but for their sake, and many more important reasons, let’s hope the pandemic passes soon, and we can all celebrate together in a cinema before too long.

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