Hybrid Film Festivals: The Game Changes

by Yoram Schaffer

In recent months I’ve been speaking to many film festival directors and producers. Rather than trying to sell them anything, most of the time I was listening to them. We were mainly talking about the online world and the tension or opportunities (depending on who I talked to) it brings to film festivals.

I heard and sensed reluctance, fear, hesitation, repulsion, anxiety, refusal, denial, sadness, pessimism.
Apologies for being so banal, but it was a perfect embodiment of Who Moved my Cheese fable.
I have, however, also spoken with the optimistic and enthusiastic film festival directors and producers. Some of their ideas inspired that post.

Stay constructive

I have no intention to scorn anyone. Actually, I don’t know if I would have reacted differently if I was in their position in this period of uncertainty. Film festivals are usually subsidized and are in the lowest part of the economical priority chain in hard times (and we are in hard times). The people I spoke to felt really threatened.

What?

Let’s get straight to the point: virtual film festivals are not an enemy. They do not threaten the existence or popularity of physical (in-person) film festivals and lastly, they do not necessarily create a hole in the budget.
On the contrary.

What are hybrid film festivals

Hybrid film festivals combine, in a harmonic way, between the physical event and the virtual event. Let me repeat this beautiful word: Harmony.
The two media complement each other, refer to each other, and create an experience that is unique to each platform.
How is this implemented in the real world? — I’ll get to it shortly. First, to some misconceptions about virtual cinema and online screenings:

Some misconceptions about virtual cinema

  • We hope to have a physical event, so there’s no point in planning online screenings.
  • Virtual cinema is only a response to COVID 19.
  • Virtual cinema is the last resort.
  • We’re short of budget anyway. Online screenings will only deepen our debt.
  • If films are online, no one will come to the venues.
  • Online screenings and VOD are the same.

Why “misconceptions”?

The pandemic created a cultural and mental change. People work remotely, do sports in their living room, and cook more at home, to mention a few changes which are well known to us all. More people become open to the idea of a remote, online event, in all of its aspects and instances (not just cinematic).
Of course, not everyone, not always. And that’s good because film festivals in theatres are great. I love them too.


Back in 2011 (yes, 2011), I was approaching film festival directors with the idea of an online screening in parallel to the physical one. They were horrified and refused to even experiment on a small scale, for example in the out-of-competition section. They thought it would cause a drop in attendance to the in-person screenings.
I did manage however to convince the director of the film school where I was teaching at that time. She was open-minded and I appreciate it today even more, given the fact it was almost 10 years ago.
We conducted parallel screenings and broadcast interviews with actors and film directors to live from the venue. I did it with my USB modem because cellphones didn’t have hotspots strong enough to handle it, connected the camera to my overheated Macbook Pro with a firewire cable, and added a wired dynamic microphone. It looked messy and improvised, but it worked. I’m not even sure what we used as a platform. Youtube live and Facebook live didn’t exist at that time. I believe it was Livestream, combined with OBS.
And the result? — packed physical screenings and hundreds of additional views online. No one that I know of, gave up the idea of coming to the theatre because of the online option.

A USB modem (bottom left, under my arm) and friends. Minutes after the live broadcast from Haifa Film Festival. The film director, just interviewed, is second from the left // Photo by David Atzmi

So who watched online?
Those who lived too far away and couldn’t make it to the screening, those who didn’t find the time to come, those who didn’t have transportation, those who hate crowded places, those who wanted to watch the film but not strong enough in order to change their schedule and free 3 hours of their time.
In other words, the two events complemented each other. We did not pretend the events were equal in power and experience. Nor did we aspire for that to happen.

No Need To Wait For a Pandemic

There was no pandemic at that time. Nevertheless, the screening went well and no films, filmmakers, or distribution deals were harmed during this online event.
So why the idea had to wait for so long?
The answer to that is more psychological. Film festivals, TV channels, and theatres feel under attack since 2008 when streaming of full movies really began to take off. And when people, institutions, and the establishment feel threatened, they react in an irrational way.
We all remember that the Cannes film festival refused to include a Netflix film in its lineup because it was not shown theatrically in France.
Silly me! until that moment, I thought that the value of a film is derived from things like creativity and aesthetics and not from the mode of distribution or the size of the screen on which it is projected.

Silly, or should I say naive: It was money, ego, conservativeness, pride and most of all — lack of understanding and denial of the changing world.

Banned from Cannes FF. ROMA filming location. ProtoplasmaKid / Wikipedia

That was in prehistorical 2018. In 2019, Cannes FF tried to resolve that complexity (a polite word for stupidity). it was one of the old-media’s last battles against reality.

Isn’t it time to stop fighting against the online world and start benefitting from it?

Speaking of benefit…

The question of budget

Online screenings have a cost of course, but also open up opportunities for generating revenue. Selling tickets is the first option that comes to mind, but there are other ways too:

  • Attracting sponsors, thanking them in a pre-roll video or slide. The potentially high number of viewers in an online screening is the biggest factor for sponsors looking for eyeballs.
  • Proving extended outreach to supporting public bodies: Since many film festivals are supported by government or local authorities, they must prove they are effective in reaching out to large audiences.
  • Accessibility: A factor which is important both for the authorities supporting the festival and to some festivals, ideologically: Online screenings make the films accessible to people who live far away from the festival venue, elderly people, which are at risk and cannot attend crowded places, disabled, people, with no access to transportation and more.

Not just streaming

A hybrid film festival is not just about streaming + projection. Exactly as with physical festival, which has many other activities such as Q&A, masterclasses, panels, discussions, etc. — the online screenings can be a playground for endless interactive opportunities. I wrote more about it here.