The future of film festivals

The front awning of a cinema at the Sundance Film Festival.
A man smiling at the camera in the back of an open top car as people look on in the 1960s.
A woman sitting against a wall in a coldly lit room.

Cinema founder and Soho House Berlin’s Programme Manager, Verena von Stackelberg, muses on the changing role of the industry

By Verena von Stackelberg   Above images clockwise from top: A cinema at the Sundance Film Festival (courtesy of Sundance Film Festival); Andy MacDowell in Sex, Lies and Videotape by Steven Soderbergh, 1989 (Ronald Grant Archive); Sean Connery arrives at the Cannes Film Festival in 1965 (Getty)   Tuesday 12 May, 2020   Long read

My whole working life has been geared towards building a lively, social space for independent film, and it’s been shaken at its core by the pandemic. I’ve worked for cinemas, distributors and film festivals, and I’m the Programme Manager for Soho House Berlin’s cinema. Three years ago, I founded my own, Wolf, with a cafe-bar and post-production in Berlin, and it’s become a meeting ground for neighbours and the wider film community. Like many others working in the industry, I’m realising that the effects of social distancing create a fundamental threat to the way we engage with films. My most recent appointment as a member of the selection committee for Berlinale’s competition and Encounters section meant that I was part of one of the last big film events pre-COVID-19. A few weeks later, we were all in lockdown and found ourselves in a paralysis of sorts, not knowing what restrictions next year’s edition will face and what the domino effect will be in terms of the bigger picture. 

Festivals and its films reflect on the world of politics, the world at large, a certain zeitgeist. They unite thousands of people in the magical moment when a film is shown for the very first time. They are a crucial platform to draw attention to the most outstanding arthouse films of the year. Often, these ‘hot’ titles premiere at A-list festivals, such as Cannes, Venice or Berlinale – in the best case, receiving rave reviews by film critics and winning awards that put them on the radar of the general audience who devour them in their local cinema after a few months of sweet anticipation. Then, the Oscars highlight some of these films once more, enabling a second wave of cinema visitors before their online release. This organic circuit is now broken. Many of the smaller arthouse films that were due for theatrical release have been put straight onto VOD platforms; some film festivals have moved their programme online or cancelled them altogether. 

Cannes was due to take place this month and has announced the idea of a Cannes label that will be given to the films that would have been shown, but it’s unclear how this could be implemented. A virtual Cannes film market will take place in June where rights holders can sell films in virtual film booths. For the industry, festivals like Cannes (and many others) have been a fixed, physical meeting point, where people haggled for licences, created a buzz around film titles, caught up to discuss shared concerns about industry developments and bonded over their shared passion for cinema while sipping on a glass of rosé. This was the upside.
A woman directing next to a large film camera.
Soho House member Radha Blank, winner of the U.S. Dramatic Competition Directing Award at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival for The 40-Year-Old Version
But even before the pandemic, critical voices became louder about the thousands of flights taken to exotic destinations in order to attend even a small festival for two to three days. The amount of booze, waste of carpets (in Cannes they are changed daily), and so forth, are just a small part of the fact that turbocapitalism reached the world of art and culture a long time ago. As cinemas became more and more divided between mainstream films and arthouse, hundreds of new festivals sprouted around the world. They became the single platform for many ‘smaller’ independent films, whose makers could only sustain their work by frequently travelling to the furthest corners of the world for a couple of days, living off the grand buffets of the daily festival parties, staying in generously supplied hotel rooms and, if lucky, receiving the occasional screening fee that would mark the only monetary income for their films.

This is the status of many independent film-makers and by that I don’t mean they are not well known. Sadly, this fragile existence concerns a great deal of brilliant film-makers and the majority can only cross-finance themselves with other income or heritage. The days of equality for all film-makers across society are long gone (if they were ever there); art in film is hardly supported outside this niche market. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against festivals. Aside from the magic moment of watching films come to life with an audience, there is no replacement for the personal networks that can be built while attending festivals. Half my career and address book is built on the networking I did at these events. You meet directors, producers, sales agents and critics – basically, anyone at a festival reception can be of potential interest to your project. Can this personable encounter be transferred online? While it is clear that we are a long way away from getting back to normal, the move for festivals to become pure virtual platforms seems like a semi-attractive solution. 

If I had to make some predictions for the future, I imagine that the big A-list festivals may become something a lot more exclusive, and it’s not a good thing. Only a limited number of guests, such as well-known film-makers, actors, critics and sales agents, can attend screenings (good for the environment, bad for elitism), fewer films will receive large reviews as there will probably be less space for cultural journalism in the face of economic crises, and industry meetings will be smaller and more concentrated. I anticipate that VOD and online platforms will get access to premiering their own film productions as soon as they are finished, becoming solely responsible for getting them visibility, and thus, the small ‘outsider’ films will be much less visible as they are not a festival discovery anymore. But it is exactly these films that make up the beauty of a film festival – the unforgettable moment of a 10-minute standing ovation after a world premiere by a formerly unknown director. I believe the mainstream will become more mainstream, and the niche will become more niche in the months to come. Because of this, there’s got to be collective pressure on governments around the world to ensure the value of the independent film scene is acknowledged beyond its economic reach and to help find new solutions for which we can’t find an answer on our own.
The film industry at large will be challenged to strike a fine balance between pragmatic economic solutions and a reckless belief in film as an art for all. As I write this, Venice has sent out a questionnaire to regular festival guests asking if they are planning to attend, stating that perhaps the number of screenings and guests will be reduced. Some live components may be replaced by interactive, online Q&A sessions, and there may be safe virtual screening rooms. The key question is how we prevent it from becoming a hyper-exclusive event for the few and keep film as art accessible to the masses in physical spaces. This is how it was intended upon cinema’s invention, due to its relatively cheap way of replication and comparatively low ticket prices, to be the most democratic art form of all. 

Here are some film festivals that are currently taking place online:  

Oberhausen, one of the best and oldest short film festivals is going online, showing 350 films for €9.99. 

The wonderful Festival du Réel just closed, but is showing some winning films here.

Hot Docs from Canada is an internationally established documentary festival that goes online at the end of May.