European Film Festivals Going Virtual: A Defence Strategy or A New Opportunity?

Posted on April 2, 2020 by Davide Abbatescianni

Categories: Festival Reports, General

Amidst the ongoing coronavirus outbreak, what can festivals do to keep the film community active and give authors their deserved visibility? How can they successfully transition to a fully digital event? Davide Abbatescianni, Ireland correspondent for Cineuropa, spoke to the staff of three European festivals, to find out. Hopefully, this piece can inspire further collaboration between festivals and provide insight into putting an effective digital plan in place during this difficult time.

We’re living in an unprecedented crisis that is hitting the audiovisual industry hard all over the world. Over the last few weeks, cinemas have been shut down and strict social distancing measures have been enforced, halting a number of productions and putting at risk the financial stability of many creative enterprises. One of the first obvious consequences was the cancellation or postponement of many film gatherings. As of today, we’re not certain if one of the Big Five, Cannes Film Festival, will be able to take place this year.

However, a growing number of festivals, different in size and scope, are reacting to the emergency by going virtual. I’ve spoken to three programmers from Denmark’s CPH:DOX, Lithuania’s Vilnius International Film Festival and Hawick-based Alchemy Film and Arts to discuss their process of virtualisation, in the attempt of gaining precious insights and sharing good practices for the festival community. Sadly, we don’t know when the pandemic will come to an end and going online might be the only available option for many future events. It also provides an occasion to explore interesting perspectives on festival digitalisation, and perhaps the industry can learn something useful from this provisional defence strategy and consider new opportunities.

“This is just a temporal, forced shift”

I spoke to Aistė Račaitytė, Programmer at Vilnius International Film Festival (19 March-2 April). The festival was forced to implement its full virtualisation in less than a week and the staff had to face crazy challenges to adapt its programming.

As it hit us at the very last minute, the programme consisting of over 120 features and dozens of shorts was all in place. Films were translated and marketed, tickets were sold. During renegotiations with sales agents and local distributors, we managed to shift approximately 70% of the programme to TVOD (transactional video on demand), while the remaining titles are on hold as we have paid their screening rights. We hope that there will be a possibility to screen them in theatres when they are able to open again,” Račaitytė explained.

Vilnius International Film Festival campaign artwork

The team also realised that the two weeks duration of the event was not sufficient to reach the planned outreach results, so Račaitytė confirmed that the festival is conducting talks regarding  the extension of rights.We want to keep the content available until the end of the quarantine, and it seems like we’re going to be able to do so.

Besides a good number of live Q&As modelled on the traditional live format, Vilnius proposed another initiative that may be interesting for other festival teams. 7 Conversations Near the Hall consisted of Facebook live conversations attempting to recreate the atmosphere of the festival, where “everyone is talking about the films they have just seen”.

Vilnius had a few Lithuanian/domestic premieres planned, but these could not take place; nonetheless, these titles are participating in the competition and will be considered for awards. Speaking about the jury work, Račaitytė appreciated their availability to watch the films at home. In this respect, she added: “The awards will take place on the 2 April. We’ll handle all the physical and nominal awards for the winners right after. The ceremony will be live-streamed and we’ll reach out to the filmmakers to participate via Skype as well. 

Vilnius International Film Festival campaign artwork
Vilnius International Film Festival campaign artwork

Račaitytė offered a tip for fellow programmers: “Try not to think that you’re doing something against the idea of cinema itself. This is just a temporal, forced shift. Spectators and the industry will be grateful that you’re not giving up. Be ready to face a lot of technical and practical issues. For example, we reoriented two teams, which were responsible for events and hospitality, to act as a virtual helpdesk. Furthermore, many of our spectators didn’t know what TVOD was, so we had to start from the very basics. From a broader perspective, we’re offering strong content and promoting legal watching practices in a country where pirating is widespread. I am confident that these efforts will boost local VOD platforms too.

Interactivity, platforms and talks

Niklas Engstrøm, Head of Programme Department at CPH:DOX (18-29 March), explained that most of the preparatory work was done two days before 11 March, when the government announced its ban on all gatherings with more than 100 people. The staff’s immediate reaction was crucial: “I was in a sort of war-room situation with the rest of the management group and the board, planning how we could possibly transform the festival into something digital. We had meetings in digital spaces with all the providers that could be of help. Right after the government’s announcement, we started contacting producers and sales agents, and the day after, we were ready to announce the first 40 titles. It was extremely hectic.

CPH:DOX office, credit Maria-heloisa Aalling

The outbreak has also changed the festival’s programming strategy. “Initially, we made an agreement with a streaming platform to present only 40 titles. That was their maximum capacity in the beginning. We thought it was an ambitious goal – to convince 40 filmmakers to present their films online, many of them were world premieres.” Engstrøm was pleased to experience an “extremely friendly attitude from everyone in the film community”, which eventually made it possible to confirm around 150 of the 200 selected titles. This also saved the competitive aspect of the event.

Speaking about the event’s outreach, the crisis also opened up an interesting opportunity. “Of course, it was a setback that the tens of thousands of tickets that had been pre-sold all had to be refunded, but when we started communicating the new version of the festival, we had this incredibly warm response. And with the festival being digital, we actually had the chance of really succeeding in doing something we have been trying to do for years: launching the festival as a national event, not just as a Copenhagen-based gathering. Suddenly, everyone in Denmark had an equal chance of watching every film.

Watching films from CPH:DOX online, credit Sofie Bymar

Nevertheless, developing interactivity remains a major challenge. “Instead of Q&As, we asked filmmakers to send us presentation clips, so that each film would still be introduced. We had planned over 160 talks and panels with politicians, scientists, NGOs, and so on. We’ve managed to implement over 20 of those events, and with surprisingly great results.” In particular, Engstrøm mentioned the impact of Edward Snowden’s talk, which had more than 30,000 viewers, whilst the original planned venue could host 650 seats. The work to build up the required IT infrastructure had to be rushed but proved effective: “We sat down in a virtual meeting with a New Zealand company, Shift72, and in less than 24 hours they had built a platform for us. Setting up a call center was the next step; the people who initially were tasked with taking care of physical venues provided great phone support to the attendees.”

Niklas Engstrøm announcing the Next Wave award at the CPH:DOX online awards ceremony 2020

“An opportunity to slow down and take stock”

Finally, I talked to Alchemy Film and Arts’ (1-3 May 2020) Creative Director Michael Pattison, who considered the option to go digital quite early. “As soon as that decision was made, we got in touch with some organisations who were planning similar initiatives, or who had done digital streaming previously, such as Glasgow Women’s Library and Ann Arbor Film Festival. When we found their guidance to be in line with our own research, we contacted every artist in our cinema programme inviting them to participate and clearly spelling it out for them, that this would be a once-only live stream more or less secure from bootlegging. We were also transparent about our intentions and terms.”

Speaking about the programme, Pattison confirmed that all of the 15 programmes are curatorially intact. “Our priority was to platform the films and artists that came to us through our submission system, which in ordinary circumstances might have a more limited shelf life due to the extent to which the festival landscape is governed by market forces and their emphasis on premieres, the never-before-seen, the Latest New Thing. We decided that our Special Focus programmes, consisting of artists invited to screen work as part of a retrospective, and Guest Curated programmes could be wholesale postponed until our 2021 edition, because their quality isn’t determined by a so-called shelf life.” 

Despite the smaller scale of Alchemy, the team is managing to organise everything internally, through virtual meetings at regular intervals to work through logistics and ideas. In conclusion, Pattison offered some good food for thought for the whole sector: “The key is to accept this moment at the very least as an opportunity to slow down and take stock. I’m not convinced that the solution to the present problem is merely to do more, or to continue dumping content into what was already a saturated market.

Prioritising staff means protecting jobs, fees and salaries in the immediate term, yes, but it also means rethinking the property relations that created widespread precarity and which continue to govern mass levels of anxiety and inequality across the cultural industries.”


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