Film festivals adapt to pandemic with new formats that could stick around

Like every other major event of the past year, film festivals were forced to adapt to the pandemic. Many were forced to shut down or go online for a year. As festivals evolved in 2021 to meet the challenges of remote events, they ushered in several remote ways to engage with audiences. 

These remote events, while forced by the pandemic, also created opportunities for film festivals. By moving into virtual spaces, festivals can now develop audiences outside of their geographic area. This can potentially open up opportunities for festivals in the midwest, southern and western states, rural areas, and other locations outside of the industry hubs in New York and Los Angeles.

There are 3,000 film festivals in the United States and over 10,000 festivals across the world. For many of these, the sudden switch to online programming proved a challenge too hard to overcome, and some canceled outright. Others embraced the transition when the normal world came to a halt.

Photo by Travis Wise via Flickr

“We are all adjusting, and we are all trying to figure it out as filmmakers. At any given time there is way too much to see, everyone is shifting and adjusting and trying to figure it out. This is a bad time to be passive,” said Katha Cato, founder and executive director of the Queens World Film Festival in New York. The 10-day festival was slated to launch on March 19, 2020. When  New York shut down events on March 16, they rallied volunteers, interns, and the skeleton staff, contacted filmmakers around the world for permission, and reprogrammed their slate of 191 films to launch online and on time. Running through March 29, it was the first festival to go virtual due to the pandemic. With over 30,000 views of the 2020 event, the festival’s effort met with a resounding embrace from audiences.  

The worldwide shutdown hit the entertainment industry hard. Big awards shows, even ones as well-resourced as the Golden Globes, Film Independent Spirit Awards, and the Academy Awards, postponed their events. Major film releases were also pushed back. 

Movie theatres struggled, and even in states where theaters could remain operational, they fought to keep their doors open. Although vaccines are now on the rise, there is still uncertainty about whether the public will ever again “go to the movies.”

In this cultural landscape, film festivals occupy a unique place. They run once a year, and most rely on ticket sales to make their shoestring budgets. In 2020, when the powerhouse festival SXSW was forced to cancel, it did not bode well for smaller events. Others, like Telluride, Cannes, and Edinburgh Film, followed suit: pushing back dates, recrafting programs, and canceling. It seemed daunting to attempt to connect with loyal festival audiences during the COVID era.

Many Midwestern festivals also shut their doors for 2020, like the Cleveland International Film Festival, the Traverse City Film Festival, Wisconsin Film Festival, Roger Ebert Film Festival, and many other well-established events. 

In Carbondale, Illinois, the Big Muddy Film Festival, the oldest student-fun festival in the US, included smartphone entries for the first time and a virtual festival.  

Sarah Lewison, Big Muddy faculty advisor and a professor at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, which hosts the festival, said it was always visible to filmmakers looking at online entry systems like FilmFreeway. “On the other hand, our audience has always been physically limited to the city of Carbondale and the nearby region,” she said. The new virtual format was beneficial. “We definitely had a wider audience, with viewers from all over the country,” Lewison said. “It was also a bigger audience than we’ve had with a physical fest for the last few years.

Streaming with video on demands, where people can see new films all of the time, “is changing the game for small festivals like ours,” she added. 

Sara Livingston, a Chicago-based writer whose film, “This Year,” was just selected for screening at the Imagine Rain Independent Film Awards, an online monthly shorts competition, said new virtual formats definitely benefit festival-goers. “As a festival attendee, I remember rushing to get to the next screening and missing the talk back session,” she said. “ I’m hoping the virtual setting will open the door for long Zoom-enabled talk-back sessions and after screening discussions.”

Her film, “This Year,” is composed mostly of the black and white photos she took this past year, with text and an improvised piano soundtrack by Moby.

”Festival screenings have not been very accessible to a general audience,” she said. “If a screening were streamed to a home screen in one’s own living room, the films might seem more available. It would open possibilities for audience members who don’t have the resources or time to get to a special venue, or to people with mobility issues or need closed captioning.”

Film festivals date back to 1932, originating with the Venice International Film Festival. They have survived many cultural and economic tribulations. 

Festival culture is strong, and at the beginning of the pandemic, a crowdfunding platform for filmmakers, Seed & Spark, created the “Film Festival Survival Pledge,” which invited festivals and distributors to support the independent film community during the pandemic by redefining traditional rules in light of new realities. It included easing eligibility criteria for competition categories, upholding premiere status, providing geoblocking waivers, temporarily waiving production timeline policies for films released during the pandemic, and accepting films that screened virtually.

The Pledge had overwhelming appeal. Two weeks after lockdown swept the nation, 32 festivals had already signed on. A year later, that number has grown to 250. The world’s largest film submission portal, FilmFreeway, even created a special page to search for these festivals.

How do audience members interact with filmmakers in an online festival? And could festivals reimagine their traditional audiences outside of their geographic locations?  

“Cinemas are often in affluent white spaces. It isolated audiences in major ways,” said Mia Bruno, a distribution and marketing strategist who released the film Coded Bias, during COVID. She reflected on the positives of distributing and marketing online:  “We have seen a lot of numbers go up because [remote releases] separated distribution from the way it has been into what it could be.” In this vision, festivals can leapfrog traditional boundaries of geography, culture, economics, and established attendance, and forge ties with audiences anywhere.

During the lockdown, everyone grasped for online social interactions: Facebook concerts, Instagram dance parties, Zoom birthdays. Film festivals were always a hub for interaction, networking, and hanging out with filmmakers, but going online meant finding new ways to maintain social interactions. Simply streaming films was not enough: without much-needed interactions, filmmakers and audiences remained isolated. 

The Queens World Film Festival has a reputation as a “filmmakers festival,” with a program designed for filmmakers to network with each other, unique in the crowded marketplace of celebrity-driven and red-carpet festivals. They held “Wednesdays at 9,”  a selection of films connected by theme followed by a live Q&A with directors on Zoom. They held 19 live discussions and programmed 91 films, which had 19,000 online views — evidence that audiences craved a safe way to talk to each other.

Cato reflected on the new opportunities. “The three essential things that have been marginalized, ignored, pushed to the side —the first thing to be cut, the first thing to be hurt — have all been deemed essential now,” she said. “Those are the arts, brown people, and health. And I find that very encouraging, I find that voices are being heard for the first time, and people are being empowered to tell interesting stories.” 

Online has its advantages. “The press has said their ability to see so many films has been incredible,” Cato said. 

Other festivals found similar ways to adapt. ImageOut Film Festival, an LGBTQ+ focused film festival in Rochester, New York, which has a dedicated and large following through its focused programs, navigated a smooth transition to the new digital format. It hosted activities like live filmmaker Q&As and drive-ins. It also “windowed” films – making a film available online only for a select set of days and times — to create a sense of a special event. 

The Jackson Wild Film Festival, based in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, is attended by many major international broadcasters and vital in the programming pipeline for channels like Discovery, National Geographic, and European science and nature broadcasters. Their late October event dove headfirst into the challenges of remote interactions: they created virtual spaces like “campfires” and “hotel lobby” sections, where you could click on a digital table or campfire and chat with others, as a way to replicate what you would experience in a live event. 

Most important for all of these events, festival organizers created a deliberate atmosphere of openness about reaching out to other attendees and fostering conversations. This helps remote gatherings avoid feeling like work meetings, and encourages the sense of connection that film festivals traditionally provided.

Cato summed up 2020’s most important lesson. “This is a bad time to put your cameras down, do not stop showing us what you see,” Cato said. 

Melanie La Rosa is a filmmaker and assistant professor at Pace University in New York, who screened at and participated in multiple online film festivals in 2020. Ohio native Anna Wolfgram Evans is a junior in the Film and Screen Studies program at Pace University and volunteered with many online film festivals in 2020.

Share our journalism