This is the second installment of a series on the fate of film festivals and non-theatrical exhibition in the age of COVID-19. Please email comments and questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. (Also, please scroll down for a running list of canceled/postponed festivals with TFC films, as well as previous installments in this series.)
Recent days have lanced our hearts again, what with the postponements, cancellations and disruptions of such Industry stalwarts as Visions Du Réel (April 17 – May 2), BAMcinemaFest (mid-June), Provincetown International (June 17-21), and the 30th anniversary of Toronto’s Inside Out LGBT Festival (May 21-31). There are still some optimistic hold-outs in the schedule (especially special screenings), but for the most part, we know what’s up now…we’re looking at a near-total cessation of regularly scheduled public programming stretching until at least the 2020 summer solstice…and hoping that the longer days to follow will shed further light on the situation.
But let’s put this in perspective. There are very real lives at stake here. Two weeks ago, as this was just all getting started, I was furiously messaging back and forth with a small LGBT festival in the Basque region of Spain, feeling desperate to get a few films booked before their print deadline. And then, silence. A few days ago I finally heard back from the head programmer, and he wrote:
“Sorry we haven’t sent you news before. We are overrun here in Spain. Because of COVID we are all in quarantine in our houses. Actually, my husband is very ill and we are very scared. All cinemas and theatres are closed, so we have cancelled our Festival. Please, I beg you to give us a little time to see how things develop, and we’ll let u know something asap.”
Ok, right. We are humans first. It is painful that he had to beg me to remember that.
We in the film community create (and transact business in) stories about people’s lives, their struggles, their triumphs, their heartbreaks. And, despite what some in the general public think, we are real people too. It behooves us to remember that at this time, lest our drive to make a buck make us monsters.
Now, I am not suggesting those of us who are healthy and housed at the moment should be feeling lucky—far from it. For many of us, especially the filmmakers and those in the Industry based around their work output, our ability to stay healthy and housed means we must find our way through this, and to continue to bring our films to a viewing public that probably needs them more than ever.
So let’s look squarely at what we are dealing with. In this morass, everyone brings very different perspectives and agendas to the table. Many of us have films that were fortunate enough to have A-level premieres in Fall 2019 and at Sundance/Berlin 2020, and this is a serious disruption in the normal distribution flow that would bring their films to market in the next few months. The Film Collaborative represents a number of these, such as the 2019 Locarno/IDFA prize-winning The Euphoria Of Being, the 2019 AFIFEST/Doc NYC portrait He Dreams Of Giants, and groundbreaking Sundance 2020 social impact docs Disclosure, Welcome To Chechnya, and On The Record, among others, each of whom were scheduled to play many Spring festivals that will never take place as intended.
Then there are those of course who are the most impacted of all, the hundreds of “unicorn” films now facing a situation never-before-seen in my lifetime: those films who had their Spring 2020 World Premiere and subsequent launches canceled by COVID-19. I think we are all the most concerned for them right now, including such beautiful TFC films as The Dilemma Of Desire (SXSW 2020*), My Darling Vivian (SXSW 2020*), Cicada (BFI Flare 2020*), P.S. Burn This Letter Please (Tribeca 2020*), Akicita: The Battle Of Standing Rock (Hot Docs 2020*), and many others.
So now what? Pause and take a breath…
First, let’s face the fact that nothing much is likely to happen for a couple of months now, other than “social distancing,” various stop-gap online measures, and the voracious streaming platforms continuing to buy up and spit out films for home consumption. So we can afford at least a few moments to reflect.
I suggest we start by re-considering and remembering why we do Festivals in the first place, and to reconfigure our diverse agendas accordingly.
We must recall that, even in the age of binging, we show independent films in public gatherings to 1) expose the film to the Industry including buyers, sellers, agents, etc; 2) to build word-of-mouth and marketing buzz; 3) to generate press/reviews; and 4) to generate a revenue stream based on screening fees, educational licenses, non-theatrical fees, box office shares, etc. In the immediate future, that isn’t going away or being replaced, it is on PAUSE.
For most, the World Premiere of a film is just as much an emotional inflection point as it is a business necessity. And that’s OK…remember I am trying to remind us that we are human beings first. As director Maria Finitzo of the SXSW 2020* Official Selection The Dilemma Of Desire wrote me today:
“Launching a film at an A level festival matters so deeply for filmmakers not only because of the buzz and potential marketing opportunities for the film that come as a result but also because the moment a film is seen for the first time with an audience is a celebration of all of the hard work that was done by all of the artists who worked on the film. It is a moment we all long for and need. Many of us have spent years making our films and way too much of our own money keeping them going. We do that because we believe deeply in the mission of the film and know that the best way to ignite the conversation at the heart of the film is with a Festival run. Seeing a film with a Festival audience that loves filmmaking is one of the greatest rewards filmmakers can receive.”
I firmly believe that even though The Dilemma Of Desire’s SXSW physical premiere was canceled, nobody can or will ever try to take away the fact that it was an Official Selection of the elite Festival. From a pure business POV, that should remain extremely valuable, as it still marks the film as having been vetted and chosen amongst the best. SXSW in turn chose to give out its awards online as selected by virtual juries, and SXSW films were still offered to the press to review. But the emotional inflection point did not happen, and to be frank, there have not been anywhere close to the usual flood of reviews that this excellent doc would normally attract. At least, not yet.
And so, The Dilemma Of Desire and so many others face the hard choice…to soldier on and accept any and all Festival invitations once the circuit resumes, or to refocus and attempt another A-level premiere at a later date? If SXSW were the only major festival to have been canceled, I would strongly lean towards the former, believing as I said that the original premiere laurel will never be taken away. But The Dilemma Of Desire and so many others have now had numerous Festival invites cancel, and the summer months are generally lacking in top-level Festival launches (except for a few notables in Europe and various niche opportunities, especially LGBT pride festivals).
But is re-focusing now for a Fall re-launch even a viable option? In many ways, this will fall to the major A-level festivals like Toronto, Locarno, Venice, San Sebastian, IDFA, and, yes, 2021 Sundance/SXSW/Berlin and beyond to grapple with and decide. Will they allow a film with 2020 SXSW (or Tribeca, Cannes, Hot Docs, etc.) laurels to circumvent their normally strict Premiere guidelines? I am guessing they will, to some limited degree, although what that will look like I can only guess (special sidebars and sections perhaps?). I cannot imagine they will relax those premiere restrictions entirely, even if some will claim they are, if only because there won’t be enough hours in the months and days for their programmers to watch all of those. Even in normal times, those Festivals are extremely difficult to get into, and now they are certain to be exceedingly so, as the competition for limited slots will likely be overwhelming.
I know that there will be some films that are either so well made or on particularly hot-button topics (does anyone have a film on how to survive a pandemic, perhaps?), that the choice to wait for Fall (or later) will be simple. Most likely those Festivals will get word of your film soon and start telling you that, behind closed doors, anyway (truly great films don’t tend to stay secret for very long).
For the rest of contemplating our paths forward though, I would ask filmmakers to consider the following questions:
- How much does your film need to build word of mouth to find its audience? Is it a specialized film for specialized taste that requires critical attention to break through?
- What is your financial situation and how much do you need to maximize return-on-investment to get whole? Can you afford to short sell the film without the traditional premiere and critical and WOM attention a festival run can create? Is it even possible for you to sell the film now? Will you survive if you wait for a more opportune moment?
- How much do you really personally want the experience and the attention of the Festival circuit? Is showing the film in front of live audiences one of the main reasons you made the film in the first place? Are you ready to give up on that yet?
- Does your film fall into a subject matter, genre, niche, or celebrity-driven mold that may fit the existing appetite of commercial buyers and find their audiences via broadcast and streaming alone?
- Does your film already have a distribution deal in place, with a hard stop to a Festival run already dictated by other release windows?
I think that once a filmmaker has taken a soul-searching look at their priorities and survival strategies based on the questions above, the answers will likely be obvious to them, based on their own perspective.
Of course, a number of these questions will best be answered in consultation with a sales agent. Most sales agents are finely attuned to what a Festival run can do for your film, as Festivals are the primary launch pads for their efforts as well. I am hearing from some sales agents that the streaming platforms are already getting hungry for new content now, in light of the upsurge in subscriptions and the drying up of new productions that are also a casualty of this plague. I spoke to one producer today who has a slate of films with varying levels of financing in place, and she was honest with me about a sacrifice she is already willing to make. She explained that given the difficult landscape of what the Fall festivals will likely look like, she is indeed ready to sell a particularly commercial doc in late post now to an interested streamer, instead of treating it with the normal Festival premiere and run it would usually merit, given the difficult road we face ahead.
For those films fortunate to already have distribution deals in place, these decisions about next steps forward are of course easier. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t painful. Such TFC films as Welcome To Chechnya and On The Record, both Sundance 2020 premieres, were gearing up for productive Spring festival runs that would have helped bolster the issues raised in the films, and been important in garnering critical claim and awards. But both those films have HBO broadcasts just a few months from now, so those windows have largely closed. And still many more films were counting on festival runs to build momentum and press to Fall theatrical releases, such as the Venice 2019 premiere House of Cardin, which informed me today that they had 14 festivals canceled in the last few days, and that they were now reconsidering when the theatrical run would take place, assuming they could restart the momentum when the world returns to “normal” (whatever or whenever that may be).
I personally think the most important question of all is, “How will we treat each other in the wake of such disruption, if and when the world returns?”
How will we as an Industry react to the very real crisis of so many hundreds of worthy films left without a traditional launchpad? Can we even imagine communal responses to support each other? While we are sparked by adversity to dream of new solutions to health care, housing, and unemployment, can we envision ways to rise from these ashes to become a better vocation? Will we be humans, or will we be monsters?
NOTE: It is with great sadness that we learned yesterday of the death due to coronavirus of one of the greatest playwrights of our era, Terrence McNally, who was also the subject of the 2018 Film Collaborative documentary Every Act Of Life by Jeff Kaufman and Marcia Ross. He was a legend among legends, and the lights of the American theater will never burn as bright without him.
Reprinted with the permission of
©Jeffrey Winter, The Film Collaborative, March 26th, 2020