What role online film festivals play in 2020

Film Festival Feature by Chris Olson


The adaptability of the film industry is known for its robustness. Changes to the way filmmakers make films or the way audiences see them have come from all kinds of direction: technological advances, societal progression, and economic fluctuations. Few, however, have had such a dramatic and immediate impact as the outbreak of Coronavirus in 2019 and 2020.


Cannes film festival was the first big name to cancel their event

After an initial wave of cancelled film events, production shutdowns, and delayed-release dates, the film industry started to collaborate and adapt.


One of the most obvious, and surprisingly tricky, transitions was to move the previously preferred in-person film festivals to online platforms. The results have been largely underwhelming, with many viewers still yearning for online film festivals to step up their game and recreate the actual aspects of festivals that make them so beloved.


Some film festivals are opting to eschew online versions and simply wait out the various lockdown rules and hope they can put their events on - either later this year or planning for a 2021 event (who knows what next year holds for us all!).


Cinemas will likely struggle during the oncoming UK and global economic recession

Those who have decided to provide an online version of their 2020 film festival have done so in a variety of different ways. The We Are One Global Film Festival, which coordinated films from a huge host of top-tier film festivals, ran their online film festival on YouTube and made all of the films free. It was a great opportunity for audiences to see an array of incredible films, however, the event lacked any of the interaction which makes film festivals so much fun. Viewers were left largely to their own devices and also suffered from a confusing mix of availability. Some films were available for the duration of the event, whilst others were time-sensitive. This lack of clarity perhaps stemmed from only having a short period of time to create their event.


One of the best UK film festivals, the London Film Festival from the BFI, has also announced that their 2020 event will include an extensive online component. Slated for autumn 2020, it will be interesting to see how the flagship film festival tackles the challenges of running an online film festival and how it attempts to meet the expectations of audiences who will have enjoyed decades of attending London screenings run by the LFF. Will the energy and buzz of its festival have the same feeling as seeing the capital taken over by their branding, red carpets, and celeb attendees?


Where film festivals will succeed is if they can strike the right balance between aspects they can recreate authentically and those they can improve on using the benefits of an online event. What benefits I hear you ask. Yes. There are positive impacts of having an online film festival, especially if festival organisers are able to fully grapple with the social aspect. Should they be able to implement live streaming, video chat rooms, and VR experiences without the experience feeling like a clunky Skype with your grandparents, we could see a new era of film events.


The future of film festivals should include an online element. There are plenty of reasons to keep them in-person (it gets a lot of us out of the house!) but for viewers across the globe, including some of the filmmakers whose films are in competition, allowing them to attend albeit digitally would expand their impact and open up a huge number of opportunities for festivals and filmmakers alike. One of the ways in which the UK Film Review Festival will do this in November 2020, is giving officially selected filmmakers 50% of the revenue made from their online ticket sales. This is just one of the ways in which festivals could give back to the filmmaking community (who have suffered massively in terms of finances in 2020).


Accessibility is also an important aspect of film festivals. Subtitled screenings are pretty rare and some venues can struggle to accommodate disabled attendees. Having an online option can open these events up to more people with extra needs.


As with all changes to the film industry, there will be a period of fluctuation and lesson-learning. With the world being reset, it seems the perfect time to reevaluate the film festival experience and not see online elements as a short-term distraction to keep their brand alive, but instead, at the very least, a way to enhance them for the future - whatever the hell that will look like.


#ChrisOlson