Don’t Call It a Comeback: 2021 Film Festivals Remain Vital in Whatever Form They Take

Don’t Call It a Comeback: 2021 Film Festivals Remain Vital in Whatever Form They Take

A year ago, the film industry was packing their Canada Goose and Bludstones for Sundance, the opening salvo for another frantic 2020. Park City proceeded as usual, with the occasional news about a virus across the world, and we all know what happened next.

The Berlin festival barely squeaked by before shutdowns swept Europe, and after that it was all about cancellations — SXSW, Tribeca, Cannes, Telluride and nearly everything in between. New York and Toronto cobbled together a combination of online and drive-in events. The Venice Film Festival was one of the few to host a physical edition, with masks de rigueur for the red carpet. Meanwhile, many distributors thought “cobbled” was too close to “hobbled” and held back their movies in hopes that more conventional circumstances would soon prevail.

So what happens now? By any metric, the pandemic is far from over and the disruption continues. Sundance goes virtual for seven days in late January, in tandem with a nationwide smattering of physical screenings and events. (This week, Sundance canceled its Los Angeles drive-in screenings as COVID cases surged.) The Palm Springs Film Festival, typically key in driving awareness for international Oscar contenders in early January, has been canceled. The Berlinale settled on a virtual edition in early March followed by physical screenings of its selection in the summer.

None of this seemed to slow the filmmakers. A rep for online submissions platform FilmFreeway said that submissions in 2020 fell just 4% from 2019. Those 2020 movies that held off on premieres will face greater pressure to debut in some fashion or risk being buried by a sea of newer titles. This year, we have an advantage denied us in 2020: hindsight. Prominent festivals including Toronto, Venice, Karlovy Vary, and New York have already settled on specific dates, with some planning physical editions even as they maintain elements of the virtual solutions applied last year. Others, most notably Cannes, remain enmeshed in a state of ambiguity.

Marche Du Film Opening Night at the 72nd Cannes Film Festival

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Cannes appears to be trapped in a state of deja vu, again messaging business as usual even as it considers several contingency plans. Last year, the festival refused to admit defeat until late March, when French president Emmanuel Macron banned gatherings of 50 people. At that point Cannes said it would postpone from May until late July, and when that proved impossible it simply announced a lineup without the festival. Several “Cannes 2020” selections screened in other festival lineups, including the San Sebastian Film Festival, which hosted a physical event in September.

For 2021, Cannes again says it will hold a May gathering, although it’s hard to imagine how that will happen. French theaters remain closed at least until end of February, and European borders continue to operate with severe restrictions in the wake of a more contagious variant of the COVID-19 virus. With a diminished presence for international press and industry, Cannes would have a hard time pulling off the kind of influential event that lures world-class cinema.

“May is still on the calendar,” festival representative Aida Belloulid said. “But we have options in case the situation doesn’t improve … The festival will take place this year.” The festival is also exploring several alternate dates, including the end of June or the end of July.

That timing would create other challenges, as it would overlap with major European festivals. The Karlovy Vary Film Festival in the Czech Republic currently plans to hold a physical festival July 2 – 10, while the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland has August 4 – 14 on the calendar. The Tokyo Olympics are still set to take place July 23 – August 8, which throws in another practical challenge for any major global media event.

In a phone interview this week, Karlovy Vary executive director Krystof Mucha said he was unconcerned about any potential Cannes overlap. “Maybe we can use that to our advantage, sharing guests or films or whatever,” he said. “People in the Czech Republic are dying to go to festivals. They want to watch films in the cinema and hang out. This is our main focus.” He was encouraged by the Berlinale’s plans to host physical screenings of its selection in June as the country shares a border with the Czech Republic. “The situation is obviously better than last year,” he said.

If any of the European festivals do take place over the summer, they will have plenty of 2020 holdovers to choose from including Apichatpong Weerasethakul (“Memoria”), Leox Carax (“Annette”), Mia Hansen-Love (“Bergman Island”), and Paul Verhoeven (“Benedetta”), all of which eyed Cannes last year and could still wind up in its 2021 competition, depending on how it comes together. San Sebastian, which boosted its profile thanks to the Cannes selections that premiered there, plans to take place as a physical event September 17 – 25.


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In North America, it’s safe to assume that no festival will look anything like its old self prior to what White House coronavirus advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci has deemed “the back half of 2021.” America’s vaccination efforts remain a fragmented, state-by-state affair, with hopes pinned to the idea that vaccines could find strong penetration by June. In theory, that would create an opportunity for the Tribeca Film Festival, which set dates for a physical edition June 9 – 20, two months later than usual. Several industry sources said some filmmakers and sales agents passed on opportunities for virtual premieres earlier in 2021 in the hopes that Tribeca could offer a better option.

That will depend on the regulations of New York state, which currently prohibit movie theaters in New York City from opening and bans mass gatherings of more than 25 people. The situation is likely to evolve over the summer; most adults in the United States are expected to have access to vaccines between May and September. However, most summer festivals aren’t in a position to risk the time and resources to plan a physical event that might not happen. For example, Philadelphia’s Blackstar Film Festival has already decided to hold its 10th edition as an online event in August.

The rollout plan could be good news for the fall circuit, although most main players are hedging their bets. There’s one major exception: Venice locked dates for a physical edition running September 1 – 11. Having launched Golden Lion winner “Nomadland” into Oscar season last fall, Venice has emerged as the greatest existential threat to Cannes in the quest for global festival prominence. Telluride, which typically takes place over Labor Day weekend and overlaps with the start of Venice, declined to comment as it was still firming up its plans.

TIFF has locked September 9-19, 2021. Its 2020 edition included physical screenings at reduced capacity at the Bell Lightbox, but international audiences were unable to attend and the U.S.-Canadian border remains closed for the foreseeable future. For the 2021 edition, the festival hopes to hold a more robust physical edition even as it expects some aspect of its virtual format to remain intact.

“Right now, we’re planning for every scenario,” programming director and co-head Cameron Bailey said by email. “We’re hopeful we’ll be able to welcome people back into Toronto cinemas in September, and that the progress of the vaccine will mean border restrictions can be relaxed.” At the same time, he added, “We also have to plan for less-rosy scenarios. Either way, delivering at least parts of the festival online will be a part of our future, and maybe for a lot of other festivals as well.”

NYFF 2020 drive-in opening night in Brooklyn, NY

Film at Lincoln Center

NYFF faces a similar situation. Like Tribeca, the Lincoln Center gathering is at the mercy of New York State regulations. In 2020, it reported some 70,000 viewers watching its virtual lineup across 50 states. That’s an impressive figure, but doesn’t achieve the same media visibility (and profit) as the physical festival. For now, the festival is considering a September 25 start date for its 58th edition, and it will likely adopt a hybrid approach. “We hope to return to our theaters on the Lincoln Center Campus while also building on the success of NYFF58’s virtual and drive-in screenings,” a festival rep said.

The Washington, D.C.-based AFI DOCS will go virtual in late June, but the awards-friendly AFI FEST has yet to finalize any plans as LA remains the center of coronavirus outbreaks. Some regional fall festivals have set dates, including the Hamptons, which locked October 7 – 13 for a hybrid edition that will include physical screenings “as much as COVID and New York State allow,” said executive director Anne Chaisson.

By that time, the circuit will face a different reckoning as it looks to 2022. By most estimates, the pandemic is expected to subside by then, but that doesn’t mean every film festival can resume normal operations. Festivals rely on a complex network of resources, from fragile noprofits to government subsidies, that have been disrupted by the pandemic along with the rest of the global economy. Those forced to improvise digital solutions will maintain some aspect of those features for the foreseeable future. Many will face a newly competitive landscape as festivals jockey for prominence.

For decades, festivals have been a reliable platform for launching new films. That platform will feel the pandemic’s impact long after it ends, but there’s little risk that it would disappear. Until there’s an alternate process for curating the thousands of films that enter the world every year, the festival circuit will remain a crucial part of the industry in whatever form it takes. “People want to gather around film,” Sundance director Tabitha Jackson told IndieWire over the summer. “These are vibrant communities.”

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