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The Future of Online Film Festivals: A Permanent Solution?

Film Festival Feature by Charlotte Little

A worldwide pandemic has forced many festival organisers to create innovative online experiences for their audiences, but are we witnessing a perpetual shift in the festival landscape? Festival Directors are adapting to their new realities, determined to create a new kind of cinema experience - an experience you can log onto. We Are One was a global online film festival that brought together prominent festivals such as Cannes, Sundance, and Venice, and the BFI London Film Festival recently announced their plans for a 2020 edition, which will be the first-ever edition to be online and widely accessible across the UK for audiences to enjoy at home.

Accessibility of Online Film Festivals

What can virtual film festivals bring to the table? A word that springs to mind is accessibility. Many film festivals forget their disabled and D/deaf audiences, excluding these demographics from the buzz and cinematic excitement that every cinephile hopes to experience at a festival. It can often be a time of stress and anxiety for disabled individuals to navigate these events, with many opting to stay at home and endure FOMO instead. The format of an online film festival brings abundant opportunities for festival organisers to provide a stress-free and accessible space for disabled and D/deaf viewers to enjoy. This style of cinema-going means that potentially every screening could have captions and audio description, with audiences selecting their preference through their own devices in the comfort of their home. That’s the theory anyway, as some festivals have failed to take advantage of this opportunity, once again leaving disabled and D/deaf audiences as an afterthought rather than a priority by only having a small handful of their programme available with captions and audio description - or none at all.

Affordability of Online Film Festivals

Along with the luxury and hype that many in-person film festivals offer, comes a barrier to those who can't afford to spend vast sums on travel, accommodation, and the festival itself. Affordability is an essential factor to consider when discussing the pros and cons of online festivals. For some festivals, it is possible for viewers from around the world to join at the press of a button. Keeping this in mind, not everyone has access to the internet and some households might not even have the bandwidth to stream these online screenings and events. The main component of an online film festival is access to broadband, but this doesn’t come without its own problems. The vastness of the internet comes with issues but also resolutions and substitutes to the conventional atmosphere of a festival.

Engagement at Online Film Festivals

It could be argued that online film festivals have the potential to be more engaging, enabling people to access film screenings and events they might not be able to attend during their daily routine. The use of social media and live streams captures a moment that can be shared for as long as possible. People may be able to better participate virtually than in person, being able to gather their thoughts and articulate it as a comment on a post, rather than in person which can be intimidating for some. Everyone is on an equal grounding during an online festival, as there’s no such thing as “opportune seating” during Q&As and panels, and there are no queues before a screening.

The film industry has suffered drastically in recent months, but film festivals have continued to come through with inventive and imaginative ways to connect audiences with their love of cinema through these bleak times. We have rediscovered the adaptive nature of humanity, and it is hoped that certain practices and accommodations utilised by virtual festivals will continue to shape the landscape of the media industry. Film festival organisers shouldn’t forget the year 2020, but instead use the same tools and resources to tackle accessibility, affordability, and engagement for future film festivals.



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