How COVID-19 Affects Film Festivals
When 2020’s film festival season was interrupted by COVID-19, festivals and filmmakers scrambled to adjust to the crisis. Most festivals were canceled, though some decided to go virtual. As film festival season gets underway again this year, filmmakers need to be aware of how the landscape has changed and how to safely guide their projects through those changes.
Many fests are still canceled, some are remaining virtual, and others are aiming for a hybrid of virtual and in-person. Before you settle on a festival strategy, we highly recommend finding a solid, up-to-date list that details what the major festivals have planned in 2021.
This article is designed to help you navigate the film festival circuit during a pandemic. To do this, we will focus on the following:
- The benefits of film festivals
- The drawbacks of film festivals
- Tips for navigating film festivals
The Benefits of Film Festivals
The size and nature of your film will dictate what benefit you might receive from debuting at a film festival. Smaller films may gain notoriety and distribution deals, while larger films may receive needed artistic credibility. Whatever your specific situation, there are a few overall benefits that nearly everyone can get from film festivals.
These benefits fall into three main categories:
Let’s take a quick look at each one of these.
The pandemic has dramatically lengthened our schedules and injected monumental amounts of uncertainty into our production processes. Together, this has led to cost overruns and an overall increase in our budgets. At this point, we are all looking for any way we can save money.
Film festivals offer built-in publicity and marketing, so we don’t have to spend as much on either. Our films plug right into the festivals’ already established pipelines for publicity. This saves money by alleviating the financial burden of promotion.
This financial benefit is multiplied by the fact that film festivals help build word of mouth. In a year when traditional theatrical distribution is uncertain, and it is increasingly hard to reach an audience, film festivals expand our reach while decreasing our expenses.
For decades, film festivals have been a place where filmmakers commiserate with one another, a place for community in a business that often lacks one.
In this time of isolation, quarantine, and social distancing, this communal benefit cannot be overlooked. We need connection right now, and film festivals— even virtual ones— offer a space for contact, connection, and community.
There is also another communal aspect to film festivals that connects back to your bottom line. The combined buzz associated with all the films at a festival far outstrips the buzz of any single film.
The weight of everyone’s success further increases everyone’s individual success, which further increases the communal and on and on it goes. This self-reinforcing, ever-increasing aspect of film festivals is a vital benefit in the COVID-19 era.
Let’s face it: We are all exhausted. If we never have to attend another COVID-19 protocol briefing, we’ll be happy people.
Whatever project you have safely ushered to completion during this pandemic, you are probably ready to let go of it. It has likely been an unrelenting source of stress, panic, and uncertainty. A roller coaster we all wish would end.
Film festivals offer that end, a place to let go of our films safely. They are also a place where audiences will see and enjoy all of your hard work. For many, that catharsis is reason enough to celebrate the existence of film festivals, be they virtual, physical, or hybrid.
While film festivals offer us financial assistance, marketing boosts, and a comfortable and safe landing zone for our pandemic projects, they are not without their drawbacks.
The Drawbacks of Film Festivals
Film festivals can be tricky. Pandemic film festivals even more so. There are several ways that they can hurt your production if you are not careful. We want to highlight two potential drawbacks to consider:
- Qualification issues
- Premiere designation issues
The potential danger in both has to do with the increasing reliance on virtual screenings in the COVID-19 era.
Most film festivals before the pandemic had a rule that disqualified a movie from consideration if it had been made available online prior to the festival. Most festivals still do. Obviously, this is a huge deal when nearly all festivals are showcasing their films via the internet.
Without proper consideration, it is possible that by screening your film at a virtual festival, you will have disqualified it from nearly all others. This uncertainty led to dozens of film festivals signing on to the Film Festival Survival Pledge in March 2020.
Among other things, the pledge removes online eligibility rules from all signatory festivals. This is helpful to all of us now, as we try to decide where to screen our finished films. But it is still complicated.
While the list of festivals that have signed the pledge continues to grow, so far, none of the huge, global festivals have signed it. Which has only exacerbated an already maddening decision-making process for filmmakers and production companies.
Premiere Designation Issues
Every festival wants a “World Premiere.” Short of that, many will settle for a regional premiere (e.g. a “North American Premiere”). Below those two designations are national premieres, state premieres, and even city premieres. A major festival may reject a movie because it already premiered in one (or all) of the above categories.
These designations are hard to define when movies are shown all over the world and nowhere in particular at the same time. Virtual film festivals have opened up a nesting doll of issues that we are all trying to understand as quickly as possible.
Premiering your film at a minor festival in Canada could accidentally revoke your premiere status at a European film festival. Because your film was available to people in a European country during the Canadian festival’s virtual screening.
The technology exists to place location-specific controls on who can and cannot view a virtual screening. Still, you should verify that your festivals of choice have such measures in place before allowing your film to screen at them.
The Film Festival Survival Pledge also removes these geographic-specific qualification issues from all the festivals that signed the pledge. But again, the global festivals have yet to sign it.
This is a knotted situation that we are all still trying desperately to untie. Many filmmakers, production companies, and distributors pulled their films from festivals in 2020, and that trend is continuing in 2021.
Tips for Navigating Film Festivals
Thanks to COVID-19, what was once a simple process of submission and acceptance (or rejection) has become a minefield. There is no clear path forward that applies to every film. We all must decide for ourselves what will work best for our projects. Here are a few tips to consider when navigating the film festival circuit during a pandemic.
- Define success for your project: For some, success is a premiere at Sundance with a seven-figure distribution deal from a studio. For others, success is getting recognition for years of hard work from a group of peers. Don’t get distracted by comparing your film to others’. This pandemic has hit all productions hard and in different ways. Be proud that you completed your film safely and move toward your own definition of success.
- Understand streaming: In the coming months, we will dedicate an entire article to this topic, but for now, we want to emphasize streaming’s effects on film festivals. Many movie theaters are still closed, which has caused most films— even major studio films— to wind up on a streaming service instead of in theaters. This means that distribution deals at festivals this year will most likely be heavily reliant on streaming. If this is a deal-breaker for you and your team, it might be worth considering holding off on your festival run until 2022 when, hopefully, things are better.
- Consider your audience: The beauty of virtual festivals is that our films can reach a much larger audience than they could have previously. What were once exclusive, expensive to attend festivals have become available to anyone with an internet connection and a little extra money to spend. This accessibility has increased the audience for all our movies. We should keep this in mind when deciding whether or not to screen at a virtual festival.
- Think twice about attending physical festivals: As the CDC makes clear, the worst place you can be right now is indoors in close proximity to other people. These safety guidelines make safely attending in-person, physical film festivals nearly impossible. Check with the festival to see if they offer alternative viewing experiences, such as drive-in theaters or outdoor screenings, before attending.
With these tips in mind, you can make the right choices for you, your team, and your film.
Festival Season should be a joyous time. A time to celebrate your success and to have others recognize the hard work you have done to usher your film through the unprecedented challenges of this global pandemic. You have completed your movie, and all that’s left to do is show it to the world.
Film festivals offer ways to save us money, build buzz, support each other, and finally let go of these projects. We must be aware of how virtual film festivals can affect our roll-out plans and understand that we can mitigate many of them. If we define our own success, understand streaming, and remain focused on proper pandemic safety, we can feel comfortable with our film festival plans.
If no one else has said it, allow me: Congratulations on reaching the distribution phase! Take the time to relax and enjoy it. Hopefully, by the time you are ready to dive back into pre-production on another project, the virus will be under control.
Brian Smolensky is a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy and a former Air Force Full Spectrum Threat Response Officer with over 15 years of experience in film and television production.
*DISCLAIMER: This information should not be considered comprehensive and is not a substitute for hiring risk management professionals and personnel trained in COVID-19-specific procedures. Please consult with your insurance company, your investors, all applicable union reps, and health and safety professionals before starting production in a pandemic.