As more and more of the American population gets vaccinated, restrictions are being rolled back and a return to normal life finally seems on the horizon. This includes the reopening of many shuttered movie theaters and an anticipated removal of capacity limits on attendance. The Tribeca Film Festival has confirmed that it plans to host events for its 2021 edition, scheduled for June, in-person. This begs an important question that deserves to be pondered: when large crowds and sold-out premieres are once again possible, should something virtual still exist?
I know that I personally, as a reviewer, have been able to discover a number of festivals that I would not otherwise have traveled to during this at-home year, including NewFest and AFI Fest. The ease of using apps made for Roku or Apple TV or even plugging in an HDMI cable to screen ticketed content enabled me to see more movies than I have at any time in the past, albeit with a considerably smaller audience of one. There was no need to get in line an hour and a half early to ensure a good seat or that I would even be able to get in to a popular screening, and 48-hour viewing windows, which a number of festivals offered, enabled me greater flexibility to find a good time to watch after I first hit play. Add to that the opportunity for bathroom breaks, loud, messy snacks, and an ability to watch anything I want from the comfort of my own couch, and it might take a lot to convince me that it’s worth flying somewhere to run from theater to theater.
But of course there’s much more to it. While Zoom has been extremely successful in connecting people, both personally and in the film industry, watching a few talking heads smile through their small squares can’t possibly replicate the effect of seeing an entire cast and crew walk out to thunderous applause right after a world premiere in a packed auditorium. Waiting in line at festivals has introduced me to a number of interesting individuals and the chance to discuss all that I’ve seen earlier in the week with a vividly engaged audience. While I can watch five films back-to-back on my couch in less time than I might during my typical 15-hour film festival days at Sundance, for instance, there is something about being there with other people and in a cinema-oriented space that makes it infinitely more exciting. I also know filmmakers who have expressed frustration at festivals that went digital in 2020 yet required the same entry fee, which to them was far less worthwhile given the lack of potential interaction with producers and funders that can only really happen in person.
There are certainly advantages that come with hosting a virtual experience too. Exhibition costs may be reduced by online platforms, especially since many already exist and have worked positively in the past. Travel to the Sundance Film Festival, for instance, is prohibitively expensive since even the cheapest hotels in Park City are well over $500 per night, and those who take full advantage of the festival experience are spending precious few hours in those rooms. The ability exists to reach a much wider audience that might not be able to take time off work to fly somewhere or hadn’t previously considered attending, and some festivals have still managed to give their slates a unique, VIP feel by limiting eligible viewers to those in a certain geographic location. And even if filmmakers can’t engage in-person with filmgoers, their projects will surely reach a more diverse population that simply needs to log on in order to screen their work.
It seems inevitable that film festivals will return to the way they used to be, but there is hope for a hybrid model of sorts that could continue to allow access to those who, for whatever reason, are unable to attend in person. There are considerations to be discussed, such as whether certain premieres should be limited to those physically present or available to online audiences at a later date or time, and if the price of an electronic ticket or package should be significantly reduced. Smaller niche festivals may find that going online and saving overhead costs is well worth the adjustment entirely and forego their traditional gatherings that never match the numbers or income of a Sundance or SXSW.
For those of us who live and breathe movies, there is something distinctly special about going to a film festival and being absorbed into that world. I’m not sure that I’m ready to be surrounded by hundreds of people in a giant, dark theater anytime soon, but I think I would still jump at the chance to be back at a film festival again, feeding off the energy of others that truly complements the already incredible experience of marathoning great new movies.