Notes from the Front Row: Film Festivals, Old and New

For the first time in nearly a year, film festivals are finally able to come back in all their crowded and in-person glory. Looking back to the end of February 2020, when the 70th Berlinale had just ended, it’s odd to reunite that event with the events that would occur not a month later, and send the world into lockdown. Having attended the last “normal” Berlinale, and then the first pandemic-friendly Venice Film Festival later that year feels, quite literally, like two different worlds.

The ‘Mostra’ of the Biennale

The 70th Berlinale feels like a relic of old; gone are the last minute rushes into theatres and taking any seat you could find, being packed like sardines atop one another in a crowded theatre, the cramped queue for tickets at press booths. With COVID-19, all that I thought was quintessential to the film festival experience was taken. And yet, despite the many reservations, the way festivals around the world have rallied and adapted to such a new form has been incredible to watch.

The COVID-19 pandemic demanded a new way of hosting and participating in film festivals. Specific to film festivals is the importance of locatedness. The three most popular film festivals in the world—Cannes, Berlin and Venice—are all named after their host cities. Each has designated ‘plaza’s that come July, September or February are transformed into red carpets and dazzling displays of opulence; a mecca for any cinephile. However the profound importance and connectedness with these locations means that they become inflexible and immoveable; Cannes cannot readily be moved to Paris or Dublin; to do so would be to destabilise the premise of the festival itself, and the rich cinematic history connected to these locales. Though some younger and smaller festivals moved online or took a half-and-half approach, the ‘golden three’ either cancelled or managed to continue entirely in person. 

Of course, it’s hard to entirely compare the pre- and post-pandemic festival experience because they are so vastly different. But besides the temperature checks and mandatory mask-wearing in screens, what truly sets the pandemic era film festival apart from its predecessors is just how accessible it has become.

Perhaps the most revolutionary change is the ticketing system. Anyone who has attended a film festival knows how painful getting tickets can be- especially as a student. It often means early morning starts after late night screenings and standing in a queue for hours, but Venice’s new system– which has been adopted by most other festivals hosting in-person screenings– makes that seem like a distant nightmare. While tickets had opened up for the public screenings in advance, pass holders only had access to tickets 72 hours before they premiered– which meant an online ticketing system that was a dream to use. Though many worried that reduced seating and use of an online system would result in sold out screenings in seconds, those fears were proven wrong; festival organisers made up for reduced seating with more screenings, which meant even if you do miss out one showing, you only had to wait a day to get access to the next. Venice (and later this July, so too will Cannes) did all this without cutting any of its accreditation (unlike Toronto International Film Festival), which is truly a miracle in itself.

But it is not just in comparison to the old method of film festivals that Venice is thriving; even in this new world we’ve found ourselves in it is outrunning its counterparts by miles. Firstly in it’s physical presence, and secondly in it’s health measures; where TIFF (the only other in-person festival near the scale of Venice) decided to take the somewhat risqué choice of allowing audience members to take off their masks when they entered cinema screens– which sparked outrage online and lead to a huge surge in COVID numbers in the city– Venice’s strict mask policy lead to no COVID cases linked to the festival.

Realistically it will take some time for film festivals to once again be even-keeled: Cannes has fallen outside of the “sweet spot” of travel confidence and Berlin has had to move most of its industry events online. The virtual-hybrid model is due to a severe downturn in physical presence from buyers and sellers alike– the additional cost of a seven day isolation period is proving to be too high an asking price for a strong industry turnout. Venice once again has become the prime festival to attend, from both a business and audience perspective.

As we look forward to film festivals beginning the journey back to partial-normalcy, one thing that strikes me is what we risk losing in being too eager to go back to the way things were. The increased accessibility from new (and more equitable) ticketing practices along with a hybrid model that allowed both virtual and in-person sales meant that the there was much more opportunity for smaller distributors to attend. Festivals that moved entirely and half online meant that they were no longer bound by geography; for once people from all over Ireland could attended the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival as opposed to the few who lived in and around Dublin– and the same is true for the Stockholm Film Festival, Karlovy Vary and IFFR (International Film Festival Rotterdam). Cinema, at its heart, is collaborative. The 2020-2021 Film Festivals just proved how much can be overcome by a dedication to remove the boarders from festivals and open their spaces online and geographically to a new way of celebrating cinema. Long may it last!

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