Almost every major global cultural event was torpedoed by the coronavirus pandemic last year, but it felt like film festivals suffered more than most. Everything that typifies these celebratory cinematic gatherings – community, coming together, crowds – was deemed dangerous during a public health crisis, so movies had to take a back seat.
But necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention. And the film industry fought back – whether it was staging a socially distanced festival as Venice managed to, or offering up hybrid events, as seen in Toronto, New York and London.
This year, the film festival season is set to kick off with a virtual Sundance, Utah's nod to independent cinema that's launched the careers of the Coen Brothers, Steven Soderbergh and Quentin Tarantino among many others. Online Q&As and targeted events are planned, but it remains to be seen how the industry will cope without the on-the-ground audience buzz that festivals always bring.
Here, we outline the current plans major film festivals have for the year, what to expect and what films you might be able to see.
Sundance Film Festival: January 28 - February 3
"There is no Sundance without our community," announced Robert Redford, the Sundance Institute founder and president, recently. And like so many, the Sundance Film Festival is going virtual this year, with online premieres available to the public in the US and some international territories, as well as in-person screenings in art house venues in the US, where public safety allows.
The good news is, Sundance has had almost a year to prepare for this event, meaning it should run smoothly. The selection may have been slimmed down, but with 71 features from 29 countries, you'll hardly notice.
As ever, the line-up is eye-catching. It features Nicolas Cage's criminal / supernatural tale Prisoners of the Ghostland, as well as Passing, an adaptation of Nella Larsen's novel of the same name about two African-American women (starring Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga). It has actress Rebecca Hall stepping behind the camera for the first time.
A Glitch in the Matrix, a documentary by Room 237's Rodney Ascher, about people who believe the world around them is not real, is also on the roster. Another addition is Coda, which stands for Child of Deaf Adults,casts real-life deaf actors. The film is directed by Sian Heder, who made 2016's Tallulah.
Land, a two-hander set to the stark backdrop of the American wilderness, directed by and starring Robin Wright, will also premiere.
Berlin International Film Festival: March 1 - 5 and June
For as long as possible, the Berlinale held out hope that its coming 71st annual event could be staged physically. Rising Covid-19 infections in Germany now means that's not possible, but rather than cancel, the festival will unfold in two stages.
Firstly, in March, the programme will be presented to the industry, with buyers allowed to view films in a virtual European Film Market. A jury will also award prizes to the competition entries (including the newly modified performance awards, which will be gender neutral). In June, the winners will be presented to the public.
The films on show have yet to be announced – they will come in February – but given the postponements and delays of last year, you can expect a rich selection.
The Berlinale competition line-up is usually geared towards world cinema – last year Iranian film There Is No Evil by Mohammad Rasoulof took the coveted Golden Bear. But don't bet against a glossy film or two making an appearance. Perhaps British filmmaker Edgar Wright's 1960s-set horror Last Night in Soho, starring The Queen's Gambit actress Anya Taylor-Joy, which is currently scheduled for an April release.
Cannes Film Festival: May 11 - 21
Last year, the world's most prestigious film festival was cancelled for the first time since 1968, at which time the event was brought to a halt by directors sympathising with the student and labour strikes across Paris. With the idea of going online rejected, last year's official selection was announced belatedly in June and there was even a three-day showcase of films at the Cannes Palais in October.
This time, the festival has put contingency plans in place, working with local authorities to consider three separate blocks across June and July should it still not be possible to hold the festival in May.
Although nothing official has been announced, seemingly several of the films selected for 2020 have been held over for this year. Among them, Paul Verhoeven's Benedetta, his first film since 2016's Oscar-nominated Elle. The story of two 17th-century nuns – starring Virginie Efira – is seemingly guaranteed a competition berth whenever Cannes finally gets under way, as is Wes Anderson's The French Dispatch, which was set to open Cannes 2020. Since then, studio backer Disney moved its release date to October, before it disappeared off the schedules – presumably to reappear for Cannes.
After all, where else is a Paris-set "love letter to journalists" going to make its bow, but at France's premiere film festival?
Venice International Film Festival: September 1 - 11
A festival that was once mocked for screenings that ran late and poor organisation, the Venice Film Festival truly stepped up to the plate in 2020. Rigorous temperature checks, mandatory face-mask wearing and hand-sanitiser stations wherever you looked kept Covid-19 at bay – helped by the fact the festival area on the Lido was tightly controlled by security. You woke up with a high temperature, you weren't getting in.
After the success of that event, which ended with the acclaimed Nomadland winning the Golden Lion, the plan is to once more stage an in-person festival in Venice – for both the industry and the public.
What films will play there is pure speculation. Last year there were fewer blockbusters and hardly any stars, as was necessary, and those who did show up found the red carpet was shielded from view for safety measures. But this year could offer a glut of glittering A-listers, as long as they're allowed to travel.
One movie that could well be in contention is Paul Thomas Anderson's latest, Soggy Bottom. Anderson has form in Venice (he bowed The Master there) and this 1970s high-school set tale starring Cooper Hoffman, son of Anderson's late regular actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, looks like a delicious prospect.