“We are in survival mode right now…”
SXSW. Tribeca. Hot Docs. SFIFF. One by one, nearly every upcoming film festival has been called off in the face of COVID-19. If you’ve been working for years on a film or waiting your whole life for the chance to premiere at a big fest, it’s a bitter pill to swallow.
But we’re in the middle of a pandemic.
So what happens to indie filmmakers and their films when the launching pad is postponed indefinitely? We sorted through the headlines and asked affected directors, publicists, and film entrepreneurs to weigh in on what this means for them, as well as all independent filmmakers, in 2020.
One Big Question for Filmmakers: How Do We Get Our Films Reviewed Now?
A film festival is one of the few ways that a genuinely low budget indie filmmaker can get a review from a film critic. As every filmmaker who's made a film that DIDN’T play a top tier fest probably knows, it’s damn hard to get a review—unless you have the cash to fork over for a 2-week run. (And critics don’t even promise to review every 2-week run anymore.)
This is one part of the puzzle for the filmmakers of We Are As Gods, a documentary about counter-culture legend Stewart Brand as he uses biotech in the mission to resurrect extinct species.
"Everything is murky...When will it play publicly, if ever? How will the COVID-19 recession affect sales?"
The filmmakers, Jason Sussberg and David Alvarado, are no strangers to SXSW, having premiered 2 documentaries before. After their first film, The Immortalists, premiered, the prestige of playing SXSW, combined with a good reception and successful run, helped propel their careers upwards. Their next film would star world-renowned icon Bill Nye and became the biggest documentary fundraised on Kickstarter. That trajectory is what filmmakers hope for when they apply to a top-tier fest. This year, unfortunately, they are back to the drawing board.
"It was confusing and crushing when we learned SXSW 2020 was canceled the same day we finished the film,” explained Sussberg to No Film School. “Nearly 2 weeks later, we don't really know the plan going forward. Everything is murky—will the film still be reviewed by the trades? When will it play publicly, if ever? How will the COVID-19 recession affect sales?"
Alvarado echoed the sentiment. “We are in a holding pattern for now, looking for the best time to get reviewed and then take it to market,” he explained to NFS. “Not very exciting, is it?”
It’s not as exciting as being accepted into a top tier fest, having a sold-out premiere followed by glowing reviews, and then getting decent distribution for your film.
Life (Distribution) After Death (Festival Cancellation)
By now you might have seen this funny meme about Coronavirus social isolation and video editors. Filmmaker Casimir Nozkowski had actually taken that premise one step further.
His debut feature film The Outside Story starred Brian Tyree Henry as an introverted video editor, which was set to premiere at the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival.
“I can't lie, I'm pretty heartbroken,” described Nozkowski to No Film School. “The irony is The Outside Story is about an isolated man in his apartment cut off from the world who sort of unlocks his life by engaging with humanity face-to-face. It's all about connection so at this moment it feels extremely timely and I just wish I had a way to share it with the world RIGHT NOW! Brian Tyree Henry, Sonequa Martin-Green, Sunita Mani—they're all so damn good and funny and I was so honored the film got selected by Tribeca to premiere there. I love Tribeca and I know their programmers and staff are hurting along with all the other filmmakers in my same exact position. So all I can do now is lock it down like my main character, get the word out and get to know my neighbors—meaning the audiences for this film - and bring it to them soon in this changed forever world."
"I can't lie, I'm pretty heartbroken...I just wish I had a way to share it with the world RIGHT NOW!"
There are still distribution deals happening for filmmakers. And there are still more film festivals to play (we hope) after we have survived COVID-19.
Jim Dobson has been a top entertainment publicist for over 30 years—he has seen a lot. Never, of course, a catastrophic global pandemic, but that doesn’t stop him from continuing to move forward with the long-term life of films. His firm, Indie PR, carefully selects a handful of titles to represent at top tier fests and has covered filmmakers from Ava DuVernay to Robert Duvall. This year, Indie PR was representing The Outpost, Holler, and Good Ol Girl.
“We are actually in survival mode right now, planning our next steps,” said Jim Dobson. One of his movies has pursued another distribution avenue that can’t be announced publicly yet, and another was already accepted into multiple film festivals after SXSW. “So we are just trying to manage our movement. I did hear that SXSW may do a virtual film festival which may not be popular with many of the filmmakers who wish their films to be seen on the big screen.”
Ancillary Costs of Fest Cancellation: No Events, No Networking, No Parties
Of course, networking with fellow filmmakers and members of the film industry is very valuable to your career; it’s half the reason many people attend. Filmmaker Alejandro Montoya Marin, whose indie cred meant he shot his first feature for only $7K, was scheduled to speak on a SXSW panel. He was also going to take the opportunity to screen his upcoming Y2K [computer] virus dramedy, Millennium Bugs during the festival. After a year of crowdfunding, production, and editing, Montoya Marin wanted to get the film in front of a live audience. And he was going to have a massive 1990s party afterward to celebrate!
“We were going to go full-on 90s, themed drinks, live music,” explained Montoya Marin. “We had bands like PLEASE (Empire Records) Red Light Cameras and Robert Harrison (Cotton Matter) that were going to perform live for our guests and badge holders. Actually, we got lucky, we were able to get all our money back. The only things we were stooped with were the business cards, postcards, posters with dates, invitations. Hahaha!”
Not everyone was so lucky. Other filmmakers wrote to No Film School to let us know they had lost all their money on their festival travel plans and that Alamo Drafthouse was not refunding any SXSW rental fees.
Montoya Marin says he will find another way to screen his film. "We worked too damn hard to not show it to the world. I went to the hospital because of how intense the prep for this movie was."
"Actually, we got lucky, we were able to get all our money back."
Direct Costs of Fest Cancellation: Millions From Local Business, Unknown $$$ From Indie Filmmakers
SXSW will no doubt be the biggest hit of all the fests. (Read NFS editor George Edelman’s article about repercussions to this in Could One of the Casualties of SXSW 2020 be SXSW 2021?)
From a financial standpoint, SXSW has the biggest economic impact of any festival stateside. According to KVUE's source Greyhill Advisors, SXSW brought in around $355 million to the city of Austin alone in 2019. That was $5 million more than in 2018, so we can assume that in 2020, the festival would have netted $360 million to the Austin economy. Of course, that also includes income from the Music and Interactive parts of the festival, so we don't know what SXSW Film brought in on its own.
Most importantly, but least observable, is the loss of money to filmmakers and the indie film industry because, without festivals, indie films might not get sold. DIY distribution may not bring in the money that is needed to continue to support indie filmmakers and film crews.
We will have to wait and see just how much distribution deals and film releases of indies will be lost to the cancellation of fests. Indie films can’t just release early on-demand the way that studios with millions of P&A can do and still have an audience. What happens in the wake of festival cancellations could be a huge turning point for indie filmmakers going forward.
Least observable is the loss of money to filmmakers and the indie film industry.
Going Forward: Why Bother With Digital Screenings? (Because You Could Get Awards!)
In this media landscape, there is nothing special about being able to watch something online, let alone an indie film, so a virtual film festival won’t be any kind of substitute.
However, if the festival uses a virtual screening space to still give out awards, that’s a game-changer.
Winning an award at a festival, even a small one, is incredibly valuable to a film, the director, and the film’s prospects of being reviewed or picked up. One of the disappointing things about a festival being canceled is that you also miss out on the chance to win an award. And SXSW is trying to make sure those awards are still given out.
"This was going to be a transformative event, and with the cancellation, the filmmakers were left stranded and scrambling," said the head of SXSW film Janet Pierson in an announcement on Friday. "We had several Special Awards juries already in place via links, and since we are not able to present the event, we decided to continue and expand to all the juried competitions, if the majority of the filmmakers opted in and juries were available. We know it’s no substitute for the live SXSW event with its unique and fantastic audience, but at least it’s some way to get attention for these wonderful films."
"Film will still be there when we get to the other side.”
At the End of the Day, Art is Life and Life is Art
From pandemonium to pandemic, we are facing a real crisis that honestly most of us (myself included) didn't even understand a week ago. Even the longest-running film festival in the Americas, the San Francisco International Film Festival, has been canceled. It would have been its 63rd year. It was at SFIFF that filmmaker Sean Gillane was excited to premiere his documentary short Loch Ness Swim, which follows swimmer Patti Bauernfeind's attempt to swim the length of Scotland's Loch Ness while mourning the loss of a loved one.
“Having our film set to premiere at SFFILM Fest was a huge honor, especially in the final installment with Rachel Rosen as Director of Programming, so the festival's cancellation hit hard,” said Gillane to No Film School. “But it's quickly becoming apparent that the health and economic effects of this pandemic will overshadow the loss of these celebrations at a scale that we can barely process. I hope that we can redirect all of our strengths to taking care of those hit hardest and restructuring our systems to serve those trapped in impossible positions. Film will still be there when we get to the other side.”
Let’s hope so.
Congratulations to all the filmmakers whose work had been selected to play one of the film festivals that has been canceled because of COVID-19. We can't wait to watch your films.