Did you know that the Chinese word for “lockdown” is a combination of two characters that mean, individually, “disrupt” and “rethink”? Probably not, because I just made that up. If it sounded just vaguely plausible for a second, though, that’s because we’re currently experiencing a massive disruption to our daily lives that in turn has inspired a great deal of serious rethinking. All across the country, if not the globe, people who’ve spent the last five months working from home are wondering why they ever really needed to be in an office every day. Those who’ve started shopping online may find that the habit sticks even when (if?) it’s once again safe to roam aisles without a mask and hand sanitizer. As someone who’s spent much of his life in movie theaters, I’m particularly interested in speculation about the future of film distribution. Even if the chains recover—and I dearly hope that happens—it seems likely that we may continue to see major films arrive on streaming platforms almost immediately, even if they weren’t financed by Netflix or Hulu. That shift was already in progress, but the lockdown has almost certainly accelerated it by forcing a trial run to which various executives are paying very close attention.
There’s another cinematic disruption happening right now, though, that I haven’t seen discussed as something that might stick around post-COVID-19. My own first indication that something truly seismic was happening—five days before the NBA temporarily suspended its season and Tom Hanks announced that he’d tested positive—was the cancellation of South By Southwest, the annual film and music festival in Austin, on March 6. At the time, Cannes was two months away and still insisting that it would go forward as planned; this year’s edition ultimately had to be scrapped, however, with the fest merely announcing a list of films that would have its seal of approval as they show up elsewhere. Where, though? The big fall festivals are sorta kinda taking place, but in a scaled-down, semi-virtual way. This is the first September in 20 years that I haven’t flown to Toronto, though as a critic I can theoretically still watch the Toronto International Film Festival’s truncated 50-film lineup from here in California.
And so can you, if you live in Canada: In addition to holding socially distanced screenings on-site, TIFF is hosting digital screenings that are open to anyone in the country. Vancouver’s a good 2,000 miles from Toronto, but if you live there, you can “attend” TIFF this year. This should become a regular thing. A new film-festival paradigm. Hybridize those suckers.
I’m talking primarily about the destination festivals: TIFF, Cannes, Berlin, Venice, Sundance, etc. There are a zillion others, and the vast majority of them—including many in major cities—are fundamentally local events, designed to bring some of the year’s significant movies to residents of Zurich or London or New York. (The New York Film Festival gets plenty of attention, by virtue of hosting a few glitzy world premieres, but most of its lineup every year is culled from Berlin, Cannes, Locarno, and Venice.) It wouldn’t necessarily hurt such fests to have a digital component, but there probably aren’t that many Southern Californians who fervently wish they could attend the Chicago International Film Festival. By contrast, I know a lot of people who’ve never been to Cannes—which non-professionals can’t really attend at all; with a few very minor exceptions, you either have to be a journalist or work in the movie biz—and find it deeply frustrating that they have to wait anywhere from four months to a couple of years for the films that premiere there to finally reach them (sometimes by way of one of the aforementioned local fests). Opening up those events, even in a limited way, to movie buffs who can’t afford airfare and hotel rooms on top of premium ticket prices (or can’t currently attend anyway, in Cannes’ case) would make cinephilia feel more egalitarian. Right now, you need to be in the right career, fairly well-off, or extremely patient.
Why haven’t festivals done this already? For one thing, it’s probably a giant pain in the ass—they’re only doing it now because the alternative is scrapping their 2020 edition altogether. But that’s why this is such a golden opportunity. Among other things, it’ll potentially provide data regarding what I imagine is the biggest concern: whether digital screenings would cannibalize in-person box office, both at the festival itself and when films receive a subsequent commercial release. My guess is that any such effect could be made negligible, because the “analog” version has always been negligible. Parasite premiered at Cannes last year and went on to play at festivals in (deep breath) Sydney, Karlovy Vary, Munich, Odessa, Jerusalem, Locarno, Sarajevo, Telluride, Toronto, Athens, Calgary, San Sebastian, Aspen, Austin, Charlotte, Busan, Reykjavík, New York, Mill Valley, Woodstock, Philadelphia, San Diego—that’s more than enough to make the point, and I actually skipped quite a few. It still did very well in the multiplexes, and while there’s no way of knowing whether digital festival screenings would have a wildly different impact, the pool of people excited enough about cinema to attend festivals, in any capacity, will always be dwarfed by the general moviegoing public (itself a fairly small group!). For all intents and purposes, they can be ignored.
Except by the festivals, of course, which should cater to them. Just as musicians now often give away their work in order to build an audience that will then pay to see them play live, festivals should understand that the young film fanatic who watches a few highly anticipated premieres online may later decide that they want to experience the real thing. (In this hypothetical case, they’re not even giving anything away—merely making it accessible from a distance.) Once you’ve had that pleasure, you’re not generally inclined to abandon it just for convenience’s sake. My friend and colleague Joshua Rothkopf recently wrote a piece for The New York Times that in some respects is the polar opposite of this one, making a passionate case for the irreplaceable joys of seeing movies on the big screen with hundreds of equally gung-ho cinephiles. Having hung out with Josh at numerous fests over the years—we shared a Park City condo just this past January, in fact, right before everything went to hell—I know exactly what he means. People who truly love cinema are the lifeblood of the festival economy, and they wouldn’t rather sit at home watching the new Takashi Miike on their laptops. They’ll avail themselves of that option mostly when being there isn’t financially or logistically possible. Hell, I often watch festival films on screeners provided to me by publicists and then see those same films a second time when they open theatrically, because I can tell that their full power can’t possibly have come across on my TV or computer screen. The shift toward home viewing may well be unstoppable, but if anyone is gonna resist until the bitter end, it’s the festival crowd.
Digital screenings might also prove to be a boon for festival coverage, which is often prohibitively (or at least semi-ruinously) expensive. Nobody wants to be left out of the current conversation, so most sites and publications shell out a small fortune to send at least one critic to the major fests each year. (Also relevant: The critics in question really want to go, and have been known to at least partially self-fund. For more on this subject, please consult my own bank account.) But getting readers excited about a bunch of movies they can’t currently see, and in many cases won’t be able to see for months or even years, has never exactly been a cash cow. It’s much more fun to read rave reviews out of Berlin about the hilarious new black comedy from an exciting first-time Ukrainian director if you can immediately plunk down $15 or $20 and see what all the fuss is about. Festival reports become more compelling; increased traffic drives more such reports, in turn driving higher attendance.
Would that positive feedback loop actually happen? I don’t know. Perhaps not. It’s entirely possible that I’ve overlooked some fatal drawback to the digital-fest model. Still, now seems like the perfect time to at least consider the possibility. If problems arise, they can be tweaked. Maybe festivals could impose some sort of local digital blackout, just to make sure that locals who’d usually show up in person won’t decide to watch everything at home instead. (In other words, what TIFF is doing this year, but in reverse—online screenings would be accessible everywhere except in the greater Toronto area.) Maybe only a subset of the lineup would be digitally available, based upon which distributors and sales agents feel that drumming up advance word would be beneficial. Maybe there’d be some sort of cap or lottery restricting the number of people who can watch from afar, or one-time viewing windows that would achieve a similar result simply by eliminating all the folks who don’t happen to be free between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. local time. (A handful of fests have already experimented with both of those last two ideas.) Anything’s possible, really, as this is largely uncharted territory. However things play out, it’ll be a surprise if the major festivals don’t eventually adapt to the streaming era in one way or another. I’ll always prefer seeing movies on the big screen (and very much hope to be back in Toronto a year from now), but it’d be nice to have an alternative means of taking part when that’s not possible. Even after this nightmare is over.