Most cinemas around the world are shut, releases are held up, and the production of films is indefinitely delayed. The coronavirus pandemic has not spared the film festival circuit either. Major events on the calendar have either been pushed down the calendar or cancelled. The high-profile Cannes Film Festival has been delayed. While some other major events, such as the Venice Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival, are still on track, questions remain about travel arrangements for international delegates and safety protocols during screenings.
Some festivals, such as New York’s Tribeca, have moved part of their programmes online. Other festivals, such as Locarno in Switzerland, have jettisoned the main event and set up initiatives to support independent filmmakers who are struggling to finish their works or secure funding for future projects.
If education and doctor’s consultations can go online, why not a film festival? Deepti D’Cunha, a seasoned Indian film programmer who works with Locarno, Cannes and Pingyao, explains the challenges of going digital and the perils of making major changes to the festival calendar. D’Cunha also sources and curates films for the Viewing Room section and Work-in-Progress Lab at the annual market event NFDC Film Bazaar in Goa. She was a programmer for Indian films with the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival from 2015-2019.
“A film festival cannot be replaced easily by an online portal, because screening a film is just one aspect,” D’Cunha told Scroll.in.
Excerpts from an interview.
How has the novel coronavirus pandemic affected film festivals around the world?
This is definitely a challenging time for film festivals with public gatherings not allowed, theatres shut and travel restricted. Film festivals will have to reinvent themselves if they want to be held this year. Festival directors and their teams have to introspect as to what the core strength of their festival is and how to preserve that.
Two film festivals that I work for, Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes and Locarno Film Festival, have both decided to cancel their physical events this year. Directors’ Fortnight will announce its next edition by the end of this year. Locarno, which is one of the oldest film festivals in the world and has the world’s biggest screen at Piazza Grande – it seats 8,000 people – has decided not to hold the 73rd edition this year. Instead, Locarno is going to try an online initiative with the aim of fostering independent auteur filmmakers. What form this exactly takes, we will have to wait and watch.
But there is clearly a concern all over, especially with A-list film festivals in Europe, as they do recognise the power they have in starting off a journey of a film and the careers of many filmmakers. There is also a realisation that there won’t be much film production this year. For example, Director’s Fortnight, when it open for entries for the 2021 edition at the end of this year, will consider films that have submitted in 2020 but still retain their premiere status.
If a festival doesn’t happen in any given single year for any other given reason, there is a danger that next year we may have too many films competing.
What is lost when a film festival is not held in the traditional way and goes online instead?
A film festival cannot be replaced easily by an online portal, because screening a film is just one aspect.
Film festivals are a parallel distribution network. Cannes, for instance, is aimed more at professionals than audiences. A lot of buying and selling of world rights happen, meetings for the future of some other films. Cannes is also like a testing ground for a selected film. Its selection is highly competitive. You can be assured of cinematic quality.
A film at Cannes is assured of a run of hundreds of film festivals around the world. A film shown at Cannes can recuperate its budget within the festival network through screening fees. The director who may have also produced the film independently finds immense support from award money.
And, many directors get the chance to visit over 30-40 countries within one year, interacting not only with audiences but also meeting fellow international filmmakers and local talent. The exposure is tremendous. Funding for the next film becomes easier, because in a way you have already passed a quality test. You are a filmmaker of repute. In countries like India, you will in a way always have the acclaim of being known as a Cannes director. Your film can also secure theatrical rights across world territories.
A film festival runs on that ineffable quality called “buzz” – this too, surely, will be lost if the event goes online?
Recently, I was reading an article about how Shaadi.com was enabling online weddings. I couldn’t help but draw a parallel with film festivals. A digital-only film festival online can be compared to an online wedding. Yes, the couple is getting married perhaps to keep the sanctity of the date, but the family and guests are not physically present to enjoy the event. It’s a fractured experience and perhaps also very sad in a way.
Film festivals are about celebrating cinema, and all celebrations can happen only when you are with each other, together enjoying the moment. Covid-19 has changed the meaning of the word “together” for all of us.
What also happens at a well-organised festival is that screenings are specially organised for the press. Journalists from a hundred countries write about the films. Arthouse cinemas acquire films on the basis of this coverage, and cinephiles get to read about them too. A festival doubles up as an archive of the films of a particular year.
How will you replace the buzz? How will you know that a film you choose to write about is the best one out there? Who is going to connect the writer with the talent? You just don’t get this level of information through films showing on digital platforms.
How about if all film festivals declare a zero year and move all selections to 2021? Will that ensure that one event doesn’t upstage the other?
That is a Utopian solution. That imagines that all festivals are coordinated and are collaborators. For that, all of them will have to come together and discuss the situation.
Everybody is a bit scared of giving up dates because festival calendars are so minutely calibrated. Festival professionals and filmmakers usually hop from one festival to another. You don’t want a situation where one festival is clashing with another. Everyone wants the best films that are ready since no new ones are being shot.
A festival is also about the local culture – you experience an entire place. When you go online, that factor doesn’t matter any more. So will prize money become the deciding factor?
An online festival could bring out some surprising results. If festivals have to compete technologically rather than through local cultures and geographical beauty, this new race might bring out some new winners. The competitiveness might happen on a different level – such as, who is able to offer the best online platform? Who is the most tech-savvy?
How will the lurching in the global film festival circuit affect Indian film festivals and independent Indian filmmakers?
In India, film festivals have anyways been very vulnerable. Except for IFFI, which is centrally funded, there isn’t much support.
The MAMI festival [Mumbai Film Festival organised by the Mumbai Academy of Moving Image] almost wound down a few years ago, and great efforts went into reviving it. This was possible only because of the generosity of Mumbaiites and the collaboration of board members like PVR Cinemas, which was able to lend its screens. The festival was usually held before Diwali, and it fit in with the logic of mainstream distribution. How is PVR going to be able to give the screens this year considering so many mainstream films are waiting to be released?
IFFI takes place in Goa, which has been declared a Covid-free zone. But will the Goa government want all these people to come in from the outside?
The International Film Festival of Kerala is like a pilgrimage – a sacred week for the delegates. Especially here, I feel, the feeling of a film festival will go away if it is unable to happen on the same scale.
I don’t think Indian festivals have done too much for filmmakers, honestly. They have brought a lot of foreign films into India, but this hasn’t translated into a distribution network. What is the real infrastructure created for Indian talent except for some screenings and an audience question and answer session?
When an Indian filmmaker has a premiere in Cannes, Venice, Toronto and Busan, they face a huge room full of international journalists. The film is written about in multiple languages across various countries. The filmmaker goes from being unknown to known in a matter of days. That’s why these festivals can ask for premieres. Indian film festivals want to compete for premieres, but haven’t created the infrastructure to deserve it.
Can the market component of film festivals move online – the platforms where they create meeting places for agents, distributors and television and streaming buyers?
Not all film festivals have a market component. Cannes and Berlin have strong markets embedded into their structures. Venice doesn’t. Toronto has an informal market for North America.
Some festivals are just for audiences, and work like a parallel theatre network. Film Bazaar in Goa is not a local market but a sellers’ market, where international buyers are invited but don’t sell their own films. The buying of international films for India happen in Cannes, Berlin and Locarno.
It is possible for a market to move online, but buyers often don’t have the time to watch and choose films themselves. They buy depending on the success at the screenings.
Take Parasite, which won the Palme d’Or in Cannes in 2019. Bong Joon-ho was already a well-known filmmaker. I remember being in Cannes the day Parasite was being screened. The buzz around it was tremendous. Trusting the buzz, many buyers bought the rights. Hence, even for a market, you need indicators, which is why a market works well with a festival.
You can see small gems becoming very big. I was at the premiere of Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox in the Cannes Critics Week in 2013. The applause was unending (and it was timed). Right after the screening, as I went to congratulate one of the producers, Guneet Monga, she got a call from Harvey Weinstein. He had already heard of the film. It went on to sell in 25 territories after its first screening. That is the difference that the festival made to that film.
You won’t be able to create this immediate impact online unless some kind of voting or rating system is devised that cannot be rigged. But it still won’t replace the real experience of timing the applause.
You have been with Film Bazaar since 2011. If travel continues to be difficult over the next few months, what is the scenario going to be like for Indian filmmakers?
It will definitely be impacted, though some sections, such as the Viewing Room [where completed films are shown] can go online easily. But we have systems that allow a filmmaker to know how many views his film received per day, who showed interest in the film, and who should be approached for a meeting.
The good thing about being at a real place is the undivided attention. At Film Bazaar, professionals stay at the Marriott hotel the Bazaar takes place for four days. They interact with Indian and South Asian filmmakers from morning to night, listening to pitches and discussing films. This kind of undivided attention is almost impossible online.
There will be no one to introduce Indian filmmakers to European programmers just because he or she happens to be standing close by. Many filmmakers who come to Film Bazaar come from very small regions. They need translators. They are incredibly talented, but are shy to speak about their films. How does one ensure that a filmmaker is able to participate in this very alien and new atmosphere? The digital technology we have right now cannot successfully recreate the real.
Some argue that Indian independent filmmakers have the option of approaching streamers. But with talk of mainstream films also opting for online distribution to offset their losses because of the closure of cinemas, will arthouse films be affected?
Independent filmmakers anyway get a very bad deal from theatrical releases. The best slots always go to the mainstream films. A wonderfully positive thing about digital platforms is that they are unlimited. They lengthen the life of a film. I can still recommend Thithi to someone long after its festival run, and that too anywhere in the world. So in that way, it is a boon to independent filmmakers.
Streamers have shortened the gap between the film you have heard of and want to watch. But the question is – where did you hear about this film? This is where, again, film festivals and the infrastructure they provide in terms of juries, critics, and awards come in. A film festival is designed to make a good quality film into a desirable film.
I like to compare programmers to jade miners – we enter the cave to look at all the rocks and identify the one that can perhaps become a good jade stone that can then be polished and presented.
What happens to independent films that are ready and won’t get a festival showcase in 2020? And how will the pandemic affect arthouse films that are either half-made or going into production?
Many completed films may opt to go straight to streaming platforms as some producers who are financing with equity will need to recoup the money. Sadly, these films will not have a choice to strategise between the festival, theatrical and digital networks.
Festivals build a reputation for a film, increase its “must-see” value, which in turn helps sales of rights across regions. This, unfortunately, will not be the case anymore. This could reduce the bargaining power for films, as the competition will only be between digital platforms. They may not value the film as much. Not having that festival tag makes a film like any other.
It’s a terrible time for half-made films. This must be the worst nightmare for any director because so much planning goes into making a film.
We all know that the world is going into a recession and the money flow will be chocked. So many smaller films, especially from very vulnerable countries that don’t have a robust film industry, are possible only because of European funding. At Locarno, I work for the Open Doors programme, where we focus on a vulnerable filmmaking region, identify talent and then give them the tools and guidance on how to co-produce with Europe. We focussed on South Asia (excluding India) and had some really encouraging success stories. Now we are looking at South East Asia and Mongolia.
A film that’s not yet gone into production may just get delayed because of lack of funds, or might become a web film. This is already started, in a way. Independent directors in India are being wooed to make web series instead of films. I have seen completed films not being sent to festivals because their makers feel that the characters have the potential to become web series. A lot of rewriting happens because clearly the money will be with the digital platforms.
The one hope is that if people make web series that take care of the drama element of storytelling, then cinema will be forced to reinvent itself and we will come up with purer cinema.