The COVID-19 pandemic has meant many exhibitors have had to re-evaluate how they deliver their events and engage their audiences. One challenging question has been that of networking: how do you foster a sense of community and connection over a video call? In this blog, freelance programmer, writer and producer Rachel Pronger describes her experiences of attending various industry events online this past year and the ways in which organisations have tried to forge connections between attendees in the virtual space; as well as considering how these new ways of working have democratised access to such events and whether these innovations will continue into the future.
2020 was a year of professional upheaval for many, myself included. Last September, after nine-years working for cinemas and festivals across the UK, I left my job as a film programmer and went freelance. Newly independent, I was eager to network and develop skills, but also keenly aware of my vulnerability. No longer working within an organisation, I was concerned about becoming detached from the industry. This anxiety was compounded when I relocated from Newcastle to Berlin. How would I build new relationships and stay connected to UK exhibition?
This year has been an intensely difficult time for freelancers. The problems created by the shutdown of the film industry, the lack of protections for workers and gaps in government support have been well-documented. Yet, despite these huge problems there have been some silver-linings. The shift to remote working has widened access to screenings, networking and industry events, removing financial, geographical and physical barriers. I’ve been offered work – hosting Q&As, running workshops – that I’ve been able to accept without needing to factor in travel and accommodation costs. Over the last year, I’ve “visited” festivals around the world, attended events in multiple countries and completed training programmes that I could never have accessed pre-pandemic.
Finding positives in these circumstances feels uncomfortable, and clearly personal privilege has informed my experiences (I am healthy, have no caring responsibilities and a safe home). However, I feel strongly that there are things we can learn here. While some virtual events have offered temporary fixes, others have innovated and set new standards. If we really want to confront our industry’s diversity problem, we need to radically rethink professional development. Our year of virtual work can teach us what a more inclusive industry could really look like.
Virtual Connections, Real Networking
In January 2021, I was invited to take part in Berlinale Talents, a professional development scheme attached to the Berlin International Film Festival. I would be representing Invisible Women, a film collective of which I am co-founder, in the Market Studio Talent Labs, a series of workshops with curators and distributors from around the world. This was an exciting, if bittersweet, opportunity. I would be attending my first Berlinale, and my first major industry programme as a freelancer, entirely from within the confines of my bedroom. No big screen, no in-person events. The strangeness of this was enhanced by the fact that a few months earlier I had actually moved to Berlin – from my new flat, I was only a short walk from the festival hub.
Despite these reservations, the Talent Labs still managed to be an enriching experience. The Berlinale Team acknowledged the situation’s fundamental weirdness and worked hard to foster a sense of community. Over the course of a week in March, I attended five Zoom workshops, peering into the bedrooms and lives of eleven participants from Panama, Brazil, Indonesia and Canada, commiserating over time differences and swapping film recommendations. The sessions were not radical in format – the usual combination of group presentations, breakout rooms and screen sharing – but what did feel refreshing was how quickly, despite the barrier of our screens, we formed warm relationships. There’s something about the intimacy of broadcasting from your personal space every day. Despite never being able to go for a post-workshop coffee, the connections we formed felt real.
The most dramatic loss for many in the industry this year has been the disappearance of in-person networking. The classic lanyards-and-white-wine experience has proved difficult to replicate digitally. While many festivals use video conferencing to offer virtual spaces, the issue remains that it’s difficult to replicate spontaneous IRL encounters. Zoom doesn’t let you bump into a former colleague outside the loos or strike up a conversation with the person sat next to you.
Some organisations have experimented with pushing the boundaries of video conferencing to try and capture at least some of that experience. At Berlinale, multiple Zoom spaces were on offer, including a Hang Out Room, an open space where anyone could drop in throughout the day. Annual exhibition conference This Way Up 2020 aimed to enable mingling with their five-minute speed-dating style networking sessions, which encouraged randomised encounters between participants.
At the more extreme end, some festivals have used software like Gather to offer virtual parties. At the Berlinale Closing Night party I was able to build an avatar of myself (millennials, think Habbo Hotel!) and then walk around virtual locations, including a hotel lobby, a burger bar and Berghain (appropriately, you couldn’t actually get inside the famously exclusive club and were instead left to hang out balefully by the bins). Your avatar was connected to your webcam and whenever you passed nearby someone you would be able to see their feeds, giving you the option to begin a conversation. There was even a karaoke bar, where I ended up singing House of the Rising Sun with two delegates I’d met five minutes before, all of us attempting to overcome the sound delay through sheer force of will. Sitting alone in my bedroom listening to the caterwauling from my laptop, a glass of white wine perched precariously on my bedside table, was a memorably weird experience.
Opening up the Conversation
Another big challenge faced by exhibitors has been of finding ways to deliver events that feel energising and engaging within the limits of the technology. The cleverest organisations have sought to maximise the potential of video conferencing as a tool of collaboration and conversation, rather than broadcast. The chat function of Zoom for instance, can be something of a minefield, but with mindful moderation (you need someone keeping an eye out for questions and, unfortunately, trolls), it can also be a relatively democratic tool. While co-hosting a Q&A for Document Festival in January, I was struck by how the chat function allows attendees to carefully formulate questions and comments, and the host to strategically select questions based on relevance, rather than how loud or visible the audience member is. The buzz of a full screening is impossible to replicate online, but a busy chat feed can provide a space for conversation, even within the boxy limits of a virtual world.
Moving Industry programmes online has meant that many events have been automatically archived in a way that they might not have been if they had taken place in person. All the publicly available industry events at this year’s Berlinale have been made available for free in a digital archive. This collection includes Q&As with filmmakers like Celine Sciamma and Apichatpong Weerasethakul and craft-based panels on subjects such as co-production, stop-motion and inclusive cinema (an event that included a pre-recorded Q&A with Ava Duvernay).
Similarly, This Way Up, have made all talks from their December 2020 summit available on YouTube. The titles of these sessions – The Radical in the Practical; Diversifying British Film Culture; An Injury to One, is an Injury to All – reveal the extent to which the Pandemic has reframed existing conversations around audience development, racial justice and working conditions. That these conversations are now in the public domain, for all to see, offers the potential for wider audiences to engage. Optimistically, I’d suggest that this represents a greater degree of accountability for the industry as a whole. Exhibitors have publicly acknowledged that these issues exist, in front of an audience that extends beyond simply a finite audience of peers – perhaps as we return to venues, it will become impossible for us to continue to ignore them.
Physical and Financial Access
While recordings of festival Q&As are not an innovation, the sheer quantity of high-quality industry content released for free over the last year has been remarkable. The impact of this is both de-mystification and democratisation – no matter your career stage, job title or financial means, anyone can theoretically access these events. However, availability is not accessibility. Moving industry events away from physical spaces removes some access barriers – stairs, wheelchairs spaces, lack of signage – but it does not negate the need for other access adaptations.
One potential advantage offered by the shift online, is that it makes it easier than ever to offer captions. The advantages of captioned screenings, not just for D/deaf and Hard of Hearing (HOH) audiences, but also for those with English as a second language and/or neurodiversity, are clear (see the ICO manifestos from Megan Mitchell and Charlotte Little). The ability to offer optional captions, switched on by the viewer, has made it possible to offer a wider range of subtitling options and rendered arguments about captions “putting off” hearing audiences null and void.
Subtitles (although not always HOH captions) are becoming a common default offer for both virtual screenings and recorded Q&A events – all the This Way Up recorded sessions for example come with subtitles. However, there is no question that there is much farther to go, and it is still notable when organisations do take extra steps to improve accessibility. It’s heartening to see, for instance, organisations such as Glasgow Short Film Festival (which took place this March) and Femspectives (for their upcoming weekender) committing to delivering live captions on their Q&As. We will have to wait and see if this commitment to additional access will survive the shift back to physical events.
Alongside physical access, financial access is another issue that has received extra attention over this year. When you host events online, throwing festivals and conferences into the same virtual throng as Netflix, Amazon and YouTube, organisers are forced to think carefully about questions of value. More exhibitors have offered sliding scale ticket prices, while others have made whole programmes available for free. To a greater extent than ever before, organisations are beginning to acknowledge structural inequalities and reflect this in their pricing, by for instance offering separate rates for freelancers, under 30s, those claiming benefits and/or Black, Asian or ethnically diverse delegates.
Financial access goes beyond ticket prices. The majority of industry events still take place in capital cities and expensive urban centres, disadvantaging those based regionally and rurally. The travel and accommodation costs of attending events in other cities are significant, and that’s without considering the often-unacknowledged cost of time and energy that come with regularly travelling for work. For freelancers, those with caring responsibilities, or those with multiple jobs (not uncommon in this infamously low-paying industry) these costs are often prohibitive.
Even for those with salaried positions these barriers remain. A lack of resources means that in many organisations professional development opportunities are rationed amongst staff members, with junior staff missing out. Even as a salaried employee, I have in the past claimed only partial costs to attend events in other cities, crashing with friends to keep costs down and not claiming expenses due to a fear of missing out in the future if I was perceived as too expensive. That I had the resources and contacts to strategically self-subsidise is a mark of personal privilege. This is just one of the many ways that we have quietly continued to deepen intersectional inequality within the industry below the radar, even amongst those who have managed to break in.
Digital industry events have offered a chance to break this pattern. This year I have been able to mix and match programmes from around the world – “attending” events in Berlin, Glasgow and New York all in one day – without once having to board a 7am train. The removal of geographic barriers also offers an unprecedented opportunity for regional exhibitors to prove themselves alongside the big guns and to build new audiences.
Alchemy Film & Arts, a Scottish Borders based organisation where I serve as a Trustee, was one of the first UK organisations to hold a full virtual festival back in April 2020, an innovation that was recognised with strong viewing figures and press attention. Incidentally, that first lockdown festival also set new access precedents for Alchemy that will continue into their second virtual edition (29 April-3 May). All 171 screenings will include d/Deaf captions, a selection will also feature audio description for blind and partially sighted audiences, and the entire programme screens worldwide for free. As a Trustee, I will do whatever I can to ensure that this legacy of inclusion will continue when the festival resumes as a physical event. As an industry as a whole, we should all be working to ensure that such innovations and ways of thinking last far beyond lockdown.
Rachel Pronger is a freelance programmer, writer and producer. She has nine years’ experience working in exhibition for organisations such as the BFI London Film Festival, BFI Flare, Picturehouse, Alchemy Film & Arts and Tyneside Cinema. She is also co-founder of feminist film collective Invisible Women, and a Trustee for Alchemy Film & Arts. Alongside writing, curation and script reading, she is currently developing short film projects as a producer.