Film Festivals in a New Era: 5 Keys to Virtual Success

Online Film Festival header
While internet technology cannot replicate theatrical projection, and virtual engagement is no replacement for a live festival experience, COVID-19 turned the world, and film festivals, upside down.

These events were faced with tough choices. Shut down. Postpone. Or move online. 

With hundreds of fests picking their battles, many of them chose virtual integrations, looking to create alternative revenue streams, while honoring the commitments they had made to filmmakers, sponsors, and local audiences. 

Indeed, COVID-19 has triggered a new era. While fests ease their way back into theater screenings and socially distanced receptions, some believe the festival formula has forever changed. Yes, it’s been tough and things are still evolving, but let’s take a look at some of the positives. 

2020 SXSW Film Festival
2020 SXSW Film Festival

Virtual Cinema

Once the pandemic set in, theaters had no choice but to shut down due to public health orders. Of course, this caused several problems for festivals. They would not be able to present movies or other special events to their enthusiastic audiences, engage in lively Q&A's with filmmakers, and they would lose box office revenue. Most festivals, with enough time to pivot, turned to the internet. As painful as it was to accept to not be able to sit in a dark theater, feel that audience connection, and see the movie on a silver screen, there have been virtual solutions. And two out of three ain’t bad.

SXSW was one of the first to move screenings online, partnering with Amazon. Unfortunately, the films were free for audiences, and with the wide public reach of Amazon, a number of filmmakers pulled out. Brooklyn partnered with Vimeo to offer films for free to registered users.  Ashland and Hot Docs geoblocked, only allowing viewers from their respective regions. With Shift72, CPH:DOX online had wider reach in Denmark than ever before, and limited viewership to 1,000 per film, with a few exceptions, approved by the filmmakers. The Copenhagen-based festival seems excited to expand its offerings as it looks to 2021.

The trick will be to find the right formula for filmmaker screening fees, whether fests choose a revenue share or flat fee structure. The model is shifting, and if done properly, both film festivals and filmmakers can increase their revenues.

CPH:DOX
CPH:DOX

Pitch Sessions

Over the years, a number of festivals have integrated pitch programs. Some focus on more for the development of narratives or TV series. Others emphasize social impact documentaries or lab development. Independent filmmakers will always need financial support and these programs serve such a purpose. Utilizing new digital platforms, filmmakers will likely be able to reach more audiences, industry, and funding organizations.

At Hot Docs, its international co-financing market event saw 22 pitch teams representing 19 countries pitch their projects to top decision-makerswith over $190,000 CAD awarded to the pool of winners.

Paying less for venues, while expanding the viewer base, points to an increase in these programs in 2021.  

Awards Shows

Again, there is quite a range of awards shows. Fests know they should not try to be the Oscars, or take several hours to get through the event...but it happens. I’ve been to many such events, where you sit around a table drinking mediocre wine as the host rambles through 30 categories. The best ones are typically the shortest and have different presenters. Even better when they are comedians! Let’s face it, awards are not what filmmaking is all about, BUT we all know that winning a top prize from a reputable festival can make a difference for a filmmaker. It can generate more invites from other fests, generate more attention from distributors, and be a nice bonus for their press kit.

Hot Docs presented its Rogers Audience Award in a 23-minute program on YouTube, with messages from its team and video responses from the 5 winners. And the Ashland Independent Film Festival was hosted online by the innovative digital platform Film Festival Flix, with its Awards Show successfully hosted by actor Bruce Cambell. 

Hot Docs 2020
Hot Docs 2020

Panel Discussions

These events come in all shapes and sizes, from moderated conversations to group discussions. For industry fests, there’s always plenty to cover regarding emerging technologies and new distribution models. Community fests often put the artists center stage to share stories from behind the scenes or offer insights into their craft. Regardless of the subject and participating guests, these programs are meant to be educational. There is something to be said for allowing more people to watch the discussions. Some fests have even creatively offered Q&A options, bringing audiences into the conversation.

At CPH, panels and talks were presented online via a combination of Webinar Jam software and Facebook. In the past, these were only available to small local contingencies. For the 2020 event, they were available across the globe and will continue to live on YouTube. Total views are over 5,000, which is more than 3x that of previous years!

Networking

From Happy Hours to Breakout sessions, Speed Dating to Round Tables, film festivals exist to bring people together. Yes, it’s great to share a drink or a meal in person. There is no doubt that a connection is stronger when made face-to-face. But the purpose of networking is to get to know someone, explore future collaborations, and share stories. A number of fests over the past few months have delivered on such goals, managing to create a sense of community in a digital space.  

The granddaddy of all film festivals, Cannes, had to cancel its screenings, but the Marché is where most of the business and networking takes place and it expanded its programs for the digital space. Along with its digital market screenings taking place, viewed by many fest organizers, the Marché introduced The Producers Network and curated Speed Meetings. These initiatives have largely been embraced by the international festival community. 

In other news, Filmocracy is working with Remo, to introduce some terrific tech and audience solutions to support online conference and virtual meeting options for festivals.

Marché du Film Online
Marché du Film Online

In Summary

Thanks to these evolving models, online experiences will expand audiences for films, educational panels, and other programs. In addition, this hybrid model will forge new paths for networking opportunities. Whether it’s Remo or other tech partners showing the way, filmmakers will have a chance to connect, albeit virtually, with industry professionals they would otherwise not have met. Not everyone can fly to international festivals, so this virtual model will benefit many. And when theaters open back up, and we can see movies in the dark, on the silver screen, everybody wins.

Festivals will thrive once again, even with all the changes. They can generate more revenue streams, increase overall ticket sales, and expand their slate of programs. They just have to adapt. Sponsorship models will be reimagined, events redesigned and filmmaker fees restructured. 

We don’t really have a choice, so let’s embrace the Film Festivals of a new era.     

The co-founder of the Slamdance Film Festival, Jon Fitzgerald has directed a number of festivals (AFI, Santa Barbara, Naples, and more). He has consulted for many other festivals while providing festival strategies to indie filmmakers and will continue with Film Festival Mastery. A published author ('Filmmaking for Change: Make Films that Transform the World'), Fitzgerald recently launched iGEMS.tv as an internet guide for audiences to discover engaging movies and series, and iGEMSpro as a resource for independent filmmakers.

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