Film Festival is evolving for the better

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This time last year, Tabitha Jackson was preparing to host her first Sundance Film Festival — she was also preparing to host the first Sundance to be held amid a global pandemic. Because of Covid-19, the 2021 festival is held entirely online, with each film, as well as the filmmaker’s Q&A and panel, being streamed online. At that time, Jackson told me, it was an experiment, not a blueprint for the festival, but “an opportunity to gather evidence for what we might want to see”. Earlier this month, she put those lessons to use. Amid the plans for a virtual live festival in 2022, Omicron cases increased dramatically. Sundance will once again become completely virtual.

This time, however, Jackson and her colleagues were prepared. Since they held the festival online last year, they knew what to do. And when planning this year’s festival as a hybrid event, they found most of the rotation mechanics for streaming were already in place. When the event launched last night, it was practically seamless. Over the next week, movies will stream, Q&A will take place via Zoom, and attendees looking for the social aspects of the festival will be able to hang out in The Spaceship, a virtual—real game. tempting to call it “metaverse-ian,” but not — the hub for post-screening conversations. (Yes, you can use VR.) “The savings opportunities are online platforms,” Jackson said of the festival’s late-game planning axis. “It’s remarkable that we can have a festival that we’re still very excited about.”

All types of events face upheaval in the midst of a pandemic — concerts, conferences, award ceremony, Broadway productions. But for film festivals, the industry ecosystem they are a part of was undergoing a major change even before the coronavirus hit. There used to be a film festival that would show dozens of independent films and studios would screen, buy the best films and then release them to the world. In the theater. Around 2016, that begin changing. Suddenly, Netflix and Amazon started popping up with their seemingly bottomless bank accounts. They will collect carnival favorites for hot coins and then put them on their streaming services. Maybe they’ll release them in a few theaters because of the prestige, or if they want them to qualify for an Academy Award. Now that movies shown at film festivals will likely spend opening weekend screenings on your iPhone, does it matter if the festivals showing them take place on a bunch of laptops?

Yes and no. Yes, audiences’ relationship with movies is changing — people are now quite comfortable using multiplexing and home cinema interchangeably. But so is the relationship of filmmakers with the consumers of their work. Directors like Denis Villeneuve and Christopher Nolan may, justifiably, insist that their films be seen in theaters, but these filmmakers are far from indie directors who simply want their films to be seen by everyone. viewers whoever. Festivals provide a way for them to do that, but what they lose when that festival goes online is the opportunity to see people’s reactions in real time — to get a feel for the room.

Shari Frilot thinks about this a lot. She has curated Sundance’s New Frontier program for 15 years and has seen it grow from several virtual reality projects and interactive performances into a large part of the festival. Spaceship exists in large part because she wants everyone to have a virtual platform, no matter the format of the festival — it only becomes very useful when the event is online. She notes that when a movie is streamed, filmmakers often don’t understand much about how audiences feel, beyond a few comments and possibly some data points. So for her, the conversations that take place at film festivals are crucial, even when they’re online. “We built a room, a platform, to hold hundreds of people at once talking about these movies,” she said. “Without the lockdown, we wouldn’t have found this really important work to keep up with the pace of online cinema growth.”

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