What’s the next step for film festivals after a year of pandemic of mostly virtual events?

Film festivals in 2021 maintain some virtual elements introduced in the pandemic year of 2020, but live screenings, panels and community events are back – and dominating the action.

Even though pandemic streaming has caused panic among theater operators fearing that moviegoers will continue to prefer home viewing to the cinema, Lela Meadow-Conner, executive director of the Film Festival Alliance, said the experience in direct is at the heart of the film festival experience.

The Film Festival Alliance has around 250 members, but Meadow-Conner said there are thousands of small film festivals across the country. Unlike larger “market” festivals such as Sundance which have become hubs for making film deals, she said regional festivals always emphasize the screening experience with roundtables and shows. opportunities to mingle. “Our member organizations have been deeply rooted in their communities for 15 or 20 years; they missed a lot in their free time, ”she said. “They have the support of the community.

Around this time last year, some festival directors told TheWrap that virtual programming in 2020 and early 2021 has been so successful that it will likely remain an important part of planning for the future, pandemic or not. . But others say virtual screenings, panels and other events demanded by COVID-19 pre-vaccine protocols have not lived up to expectations.

Ojai Film Festival founder and director Steve Grummette is one of the disappointments of the reality of virtual events. Last November, ahead of the fully virtual Ojai 2020 festival, he was optimistic about the potential. Like a number of other festival directors, he told TheWrap that he believes online screenings and other events will enable global connections between filmmakers and fans, which would not be possible during a live event that typically attracted between 3,000 and 5,000 people. Even without travel limitations in the event of a pandemic, the cost and logistics of travel can make it impossible for many independent filmmakers to attend the festival live.

Heading into the 22nd annual Ojai Film Festival next month, Grummette said he and his team had failed to consider the difficulty of promoting virtual events to global audiences. Nor had they realized how much the growth of streaming during the pandemic would take over part of the role of film festivals by providing more access to independent and international films at home.

“Last year, of course, we couldn’t do anything other than virtual – we had no other option,” said Grummette. “We knew there were pros and cons (but we thought) that one advantage was that people didn’t have to come to where you are to see the movies; they can watch them from anywhere in the world.

On the downside, his team found that virtual events need “a much bigger marketing push.” “Now you have to reach out to the whole world, not just the people who might come to your small community where the festival is taking place,” he said. “Based on previous years, I think it’s safe to say that the turnout would have been better if we had done it live. “

Grummette cops to another mistake: trying to replicate the live screening experience by only showing movies at specific times, rather than allowing virtual festival goers to tune in and stream the movie on demand. This year, the festival will still offer a few virtual screenings, but without fixed broadcast times. Live question-and-answer sessions will also be available with any screening, although audiences will not be able to ask questions unless they are attending the event live or streaming it live.

The New York Film Festival has already had a chance to test the waters with its return to a live festival that ran from September 24 to October 24. 10. NYFF was successful in 2020 with a 9% increase in attendance from 2019 and a mix of virtual events and drive-through screenings. Over 70,000 people attended the 2020 New York Film Festival, which was one of the busiest in its six decades of history.

Although attendance figures have yet to be counted for this year’s festival, Leslie Klainberg, executive director of Film at Lincoln Center, the nonprofit that oversees NYFF, said a live festival is certainly the preferable option for the future. Audience makeup is younger than usual this year, she said, perhaps because older moviegoers are even more reluctant to return to theaters in the COVID era. (She noted that there had been no reports of COVID cases followed at festival events, all of which required proof of vaccination and mask wearing at all times.)

“It’s part of our mission that we want to present in a way the filmmaker sees it, the best possible projection in the best possible theaters. That’s what we’re talking about, ”Klainberg told TheWrap. “We really embrace the ability to be able to come back to our theaters.”

Not only does the festival prefer live screenings, she added, but they can be a barrier to booking a new movie. Last year’s festival involved a maze of one-on-one negotiations to be able to broadcast a film rather than showing it live. “You know, I don’t think the studios and distributors really wanted to go back to this model,” she said. “They really wanted to go back to their original model and the original business plan, which is streaming to be available at another time.”

Another downside, Klainberg said, was that COVID protocols meant the suspension of other movie theater features: “No popcorn. This is perhaps the most difficult.

Some smaller regional festivals still maintain important virtual elements, including the SCAD Savannah Film Festival (23-30 Oct) and Austin Film Festival (21-28 Oct). Austin Festival CEO Barbara Morgan told TheWrap that about 15% of this year’s festival remains virtual, but live programming is key. “The virtual event was wonderful, but we missed people,” Morgan said of last year’s event – which even set up a virtual version of the festival’s live hangout, the Driskill Bar, which was fully booked every night. “We are on the pitch right now and I hear again and again from our registrants that they are delighted to be back at the live event.”

Claudia Puig, President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and new director of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, adopts a wait-and-see attitude. This event returns live from March 2 to 12, 2022 after a largely virtual festival in March 2021. “There’s the ‘festival fever’ taking hold, the excitement of meeting other moviegoers and having conversations. on the movie you just saw, ”she said. . “On the other hand, being in a crowded theater is still quite difficult for many people, especially given the possibility of COVID infections, even for the vaccinated.”

However, Puig predicts that some virtual presence will likely be part of regional film festivals for the foreseeable future. “It certainly broadens the scope of the festival, but it can also allow for a more intimate and revealing interview with the filmmakers, who speak from their homes or offices rather than on stage in front of a crowd, sometimes limited to just a few minutes of chatting with the audience between screenings, ”she said. “From the filmmakers’ point of view, their film can reach more potential viewers and from the point of view of festival programmers, the festival can increase its visibility because people from all over the country – and the world – can attend virtually. “

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