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This time last year, Tabitha Jackson was preparing to helm her first Sundance Film Festival—she was also preparing to helm the first Sundance to be held amid a global pandemic. Because of Covid-19, the 2021 fest was held completely online, with each movie, as well as filmmaker Q&As and panels, streamed online. At the time, Jackson told me, it was an experiment, not so much a blueprint for the festival, but “an opportunity to gather evidence for what we might wish to see.” Earlier this month, she put those lessons to use. Amid plans for a virtual-live hybrid festival for 2022, Omicron cases spiked. Sundance would be going all-virtual once again.
This time, though, Jackson and her colleagues were prepared. Since they’d held the festival online last year, they knew what to do. And in planning this year's festival as a hybrid event, they found most of the mechanisms for pivoting to streaming were already in place. When the event launched last night, it was practically seamless. For the next week, films will stream online, Q&As will take place via Zoom, and attendees looking for the social aspects of the fest will be able to hang out in The Spaceship, a virtual—it’s tempting to call it “metaverse-ian,” but no—hub for post-screening conversations. (Yes, you can go in VR.) “The saving grace was the online platforms,” Jackson says of the festival’s late-in-the-game planning pivot. “A massive silver lining is that we could have a festival we are still excited about.”
All kinds of events have faced upheaval amidst the pandemic—concerts, conventions, awards shows, Broadway productions. But for film festivals, the industry ecosystem they’re a part of was going through a massive shift even before the coronavirus hit. It used to be that a film festival would screen dozens of independent films and studios would show up, buy the best ones, and then release them into the world. In theaters. Around 2016, that started to change. Suddenly, Netflix and Amazon started showing up with their seemingly bottomless bank accounts. They’d snatch up festival favorites for eye-popping sums and then put them on their streaming services. Maybe they’d release them in a couple of theaters for prestige, or if they wanted them to qualify for Academy Awards. Now that the movies being showcased at festivals might end up spending their opening weekend screening on your iPhone anyway, does it matter if the festivals that launched them happened on a bunch of laptops?
Yes, and no. Yes, the audience's relationship to film is changing—people are now fairly comfortable using multiplexes and home theaters interchangeably. But so, too, are filmmakers’ relationships with the people who consume their work. Directors like Denis Villeneuve and Christopher Nolan can, justifiably, insist vociferously that their movies get seen in theaters, but these filmmakers are a far cry from indie directors who just want their films to get seen by anyone. Festivals provide a way for them to do that, but what they lose when that festival is online is the opportunity to see people’s reaction in real time—to feel the room.
Shari Frilot thinks about this a lot. She’s been curating Sundance’s New Frontier program for 15 years and has seen it evolve from a few interactive performance and virtual reality projects into a massive part of the festival. The Spaceship exists largely because she wanted people to have a virtual platform, regardless of the festival's format—it just came in very handy when the event went online. She notes that when a movie is streamed, filmmakers often have little understanding of how audiences felt, beyond a few reviews and maybe some data points. So for her, the conversations that happen at film festivals are crucial, even if they’re online. “We built a room, a platform, to hold hundreds of people at a time to talk about these films,” she says. “Without the lockdown, we wouldn’t have found this really important piece to keep pace with cinema-going online.”
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So what, then, does the film festival of the future look like? In the short term, it needs to be agile and encompass some form of digital and in-person involvement. Right now, each fest seems to be reacting to the evolving situation it’s in—Omicron made Sundance in Park City, Utah untenable, but organizers are still planning for an in-person Berlin Film Festival in February, although it’s been shortened. But even if Covid is, one day, a thing of the past, another virus could take its place. And film festivals have always struggled with accessibility issues that can be mitigated by allowing people to attend from home. So perhaps hybrid festivals are the future even in the best of times. Cinema culture exists on multiple planes; it’s time film festivals did too.
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