In these trying times, our editor-in-chief Serena and contributors Zoe and Bernard weigh the pros and cons of attending virtual film festivals.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, a plethora of film festivals – from TIFF to NYFF to the upcoming AFI Fest and more – have had to adjust their formatting, with many opting to conduct screenings digitally (with occasional drive-in viewings). Below, Serena, Zoe, and Bernard break down how attending virtual film festivals compares and contrasts with the “usual” film festival experience.
VIRTUAL FILM FESTIVALS: REDEFINING THE “FESTIVAL EXPERIENCE”
Serena: What a weird month September has been! For the first time in at least ten years, I didn’t physically attend the Venice Film Festival. At the same time, we’ve all been able to cover several festivals online, and it’s been a very different experience, one that I feel kind of redefined the whole idea of a “film festival.” Physical film festivals are glamorous events with red carpets, casts in attendance, fans trying to grab selfies and autographs with their favorite celebrities, and people constantly interacting with strangers and friends to talk about the films they’ve seen. Virtual film festivals are a completely different experience. I’m so happy we were able to actually watch new, excellent quality films, but I kind of miss the “vibe” of the physical festival. What has the virtual film festival experience been like for you, and what did you miss the most if compared to a physical film festival experience?
Zoe: Honestly, I’ve been incredibly impressed with how each festival has adapted to these unforgiving circumstances! I’ve never attended a major film festival like Telluride or TIFF or NYFF before – though I did intend to make trek to Toronto this year, pre-COVID – so the closest I’ve come to this “experience” was attending the Omaha Film Festival a few years back here in Nebraska, but that certainly can’t compare to the size and scale of these other fests.
Nonetheless, while I have missed the audience atmosphere when watching certain films (especially when you reach a “beat” that you know would have elicited an emotional reaction from the crowd), I definitely think that the whole screening process has been quite easy to navigate, and I’ve never had any qualms with my viewings thus far. I can’t imagine how much of a headache this whole situation has been for them, so I’m delighted to see how well they’ve handled everything.
Serena: Yes, everyone handled it very well, and I’m so glad we still managed to actually “attend” some festivals, in some capacity, and watch some of these highly anticipated films! At the same time, I know that I would have loved to watch a film like One Night in Miami or Summer of 85 on the big screen, as I can imagine the kind of impact specific scenes would have had, which would have really benefitted from the collective audience experience.
Zoe: Absolutely. And I do definitely feel that I lose a bit of that cinematic “grandeur” on my laptop screen – for instance, I’ve seen Nomadland twice now (once at TIFF, once at NYFF), and, while I was completely enamored with the environments Chloé Zhao captures both times, I can’t help but wonder how much more magnificent they would’ve been on a big screen. I’m thankful I got to see the film at all, but I know a screener doesn’t do its visual splendor any justice.
I also know I sorely missed responding to Bill Murray’s wisecracks in On the Rocks with a real crowd; I had a grand time laughing to myself in my room, but I imagine the reactions would’ve been far more rapturous if I was in an actual theatrical screening.
FROM GLAMOROUS PREMIERES TO DIGITAL SCREENINGS: PROS & CONS
Serena: Another difference I noticed is how you go from having to dress up for the red carpet (at Venice, you actually walk on the red carpet to enter the screening) and showing up ages in advance to be able to attend a big premiere to watching the film in your pajamas on a smaller screen and hoping your internet connection doesn’t stop working!
At the same time, I appreciated being able to re-watch certain scenes on my screeners: for instance, both Venice’s “Sala Web” and TIFF’s digital screenings were available for several hours, so I was able to jot down some quotes and go back and re-watch my favorite scenes. I feel like I memorized so much more of these films than I would have at a film festival, where you watch five films per day, on the big screen, and at the end of it, it just becomes one massive movie in your head! This way, I got to see less films, but I definitely remember them better.
Zoe: I totally agree on how beneficial it was to be able to revisit certain scenes, both for review-related reasons and for personal enjoyment! I found myself lingering on lines that truly tugged at my heartstrings in Nomadland and rewinding On the Rocks to re-experience Bill Murray’s bitter barbs once again. Certainly, this is one of the greatest advantages of a digital film fest.
Bernard: So, I have a slightly different perspective… I’ve regularly attended NYFF and Tribeca in years past. They’re oft a highlight of my year. And while I think the festivals have done as good a job adapting under the circumstances as possible, it’s just not close to the same thing. Even casting to my large TV, it’s just not the same to have logins, rambunctious two-year-olds, and crying newborns as part of the festival experience. I watched Nomadland last night, and it definitely suffered from the not infrequent interruptions from my son. The movie is beautiful, and it’s just sort of a bummer to see that muted by 1080p, streaming derps, and (admittedly necessary) watermarks.
Serena: Yes, the watermarks definitely make the whole experience feel very “un-festival” like!
Bernard: I think the theatrical experience is so sacred for me, especially in the festival context, that it genuinely makes me sad to have to experience some remarkable films this way.
On the Rocks is a perfect example – Murray’s acidity would’ve slayed with a live Manhattan audience. My wife and I laughing in our apartment is not the same thing. Though I will say I’d rather watch it now than see it delayed to late 2021!
THE AUDIENCE EXPERIENCE: “MINI-AUDIENCES” AND MIDNIGHT SCREENINGS
Zoe: Bernard, I too have had my own “mini audience” for certain movies – most notably, last night’s screening of Nomadland for NYFF! It may not be the same as experiencing it with a flock of other film fans, but it was still such a joy to be able to share a film I adore so much with mother, who would usually not be able to catch any of these awards contenders until the very end of the year. I liked letting her in on our “little world” and giving her the chance to see something before most audiences as well. It was so exciting to see her reactions!
Bernard: My mom came over to watch Nomadland too! She seemed quite happy to watch Frances with a 2.5-week-old on her lap for two hours. For me, it was nice to share my world with the person most responsible for my love of film.
Serena: It really does make a difference whether you’re watching a film on your own, with a limited audience, or with a bigger audience as a collective experience. Especially so, when the film in question is a highly anticipated release, and even more so if the director, cast, and crew are in attendance.
I remember watching a film called Bait 3D at the Venice Film Festival a few years ago. It was a midnight screening, and the film was described in the program as a horror film, Sharknado-style. It’s set in a Baywatch-esque town. One day, a hurricane arrives and floods the whole town. The film is set inside a flooded supermarket, where the hurricane “delivered” one shark per floor, and, on one floor, a thief is also trying to stage a robbery.
I think everyone in the film expected us to take it seriously, but the entire audience was laughing from beginning to end: even serious moments were taken with general hilarity, and it was an amazing experience! At some point, the screening stopped working, everything went blank, and then it restarted from half an hour earlier, which made us laugh even more! At the end, the directors were laughing with us, and they even started dancing during the end credits!
Bernard: I’m right with you on the fun of midnight movies at the festivals. I’ll forever remember seeing The Orphanage at its 12:01 AM debut at the New York Film Festival a little over a decade ago. The audience was so into the scares – and the nervous laughter after each big jump moment was like this collective exhale. I miss that. And as the calendar slowly approaches Halloween, you should definitely all seek out The Orphanage!
Serena: That is the kind of experience I miss most from actual film festivals: you don’t know how the audience is going to react, and it can be wonderful and surprising and remind you all over again why it is that you love cinema.
Zoe: For sure, nothing will be able to replace the spontaneity of a true-blue theatrical screening, where things aren’t as smooth as pressing play on your laptop and simply embarking on a solitary viewing experience.
PHYSICAL FILM FESTIVALS: Q&As AND INTERACTIONS
Bernard: I saw a film I really didn’t care for at Tribeca last year, but hearing the director speak so passionately about the film after the screening really mollified a lot of my ill feelings towards the movie. I do wonder if hearing from the people behind, say, Pieces of a Woman, would soften some of my criticisms of the film.
Serena: That’s a very good point! I, too, find that hearing from the people behind a certain project helps me understand it so much better, and it also affects my whole experience of watching that movie. I miss live Q&As and the general experience of watching a film with the people involved in a movie. In fact, when I attend film festivals, I often buy tickets even I have press accreditation, just so I can skip press screenings and watch the actual premiere instead.
For instance, watching Love, Antosha, a heart-wrenching documentary about the great Anton Yelchin, with his parents and friends, is the Sundance 2019 moment I’ll always cherish: it was so emotional and sad, and hearing from his parents afterwards was an experience I’ll never forget. The screening also seemed to serve as a celebration of his life, which he absolutely deserved.
I also have such wonderful memories of really great Q&As at film festivals: in 2018, after the screening of Almost Fashionable at the Edinburgh Film Festival, Travis’s singer Fran Healy, who directed the film, stayed for a Q&A for over an hour, and he later chatted with us outside the screening. The film hasn’t even come out yet, in most countries, yet those fifty people at the screening have it impressed in their brains.
Bernard: I appreciated after that The Orphanage screening – it’s after 2 AM at this point – the director, a then unknown J.A. Bayona hung around and went out of his way to thank each person for coming to see the film. It was such a cool “hands on” moment to get to see the genuine excitement in this director who had just seen his baby met with a warm reception. And he seemed like a genuinely great guy in the few minutes I spoke with him.
In some ways, it’s almost more fun to go to the lesser known movies just for the interactions. It can be strangely fascinating to watch a disgruntled moviegoer criticize a filmmaker to his or her face – and I’m forever impressed by the grace most filmmakers show when dealing with such a confrontation. I remember seeing a particularly aggressive viewer confront Dan Krauss about the depiction – or lack thereof – of the total impact of the military industrial complex in the film, and I thought he handled it with so much more class and decency than the questioner deserved.
Serena: I also miss being able to show directors, cast and crew how much we enjoyed a film: it’s part of what I love about going to festivals. At the Venice Film Festival premiere of Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond, in 2017 – a film that was supposed to be about Milos Forman’s Man On The Moon, but that was really about Jim Carrey baring his soul with us – everyone was so moved after the screening that the standing ovation lasted nearly 10 minutes, and Carrey was visibly moved too. Leaving the cinema, we all had an urge to give something back to him for how much of himself he had just shared with us, and I gave him a hug that, to me, is worth more than a thousand selfies and autographs.
PAST AND UPCOMING FESTIVAL SCREENINGS: FILMS WE RECOMMEND
Bernard: I’m curious – what movies have you seen that you want to put on our readers’ radars?
For me, it’s Mangrove. I’ll write about it with the other Small Axe films at the end of NYFF. But damn, it hit hard for me. Perhaps it’s my legal background – the film deals with the trial that arises out of the harassment of a black London restaurant – but I just found it to be a perfect mixture of confident direction and commanding performances. All three leads are stellar, and it has the best, most accurate cross examination scenes ever put to film. I literally spent an hour after the movie texting with all my law school/professional friends recommending it to everyone. It took My Cousin Vinny’s accurate cross examination throne!
I’d share one more recommendation inspired by my son: Wolfwalkers. He’s 2.5 years old and 90 straight minutes of conventional animation is often a struggle to keep his attention. Wolfwalkers grabbed hold of him. He was every bit as enraptured by the film’s gorgeous animation, beautiful music, and heartfelt storytelling as I was.
Zoe: Aside from Nomadland and On the Rocks – both of which I’ve reviewed and absolutely adored – I would have to give a hearty recommendation to Florian Zeller’s The Father, which easily features one of the most astounding and audacious performances by an actor of all-time from Sir Anthony Hopkins. I admittedly wasn’t very excited upon reading the synopsis out of Sundance (where it received raves), and I figured it would be stereotypically stuffy Oscar bait, but I couldn’t have been mor wrong. It’s an empathetic and emotional tour de force, and it takes you into the diseased mind of one with dementia like no other film I’ve ever seen. Utterly devastating work.
Bernard: Well, that sure sounds a lot like my review of The Father as well,Zoe! Great minds…
Serena: Mine would be Summer of 85, I think. I love François Ozon as a director, and I’m a fan of the book it was adapted from (Dance on My Grave). The film premiered at TIFF, and it has been getting mixed reviews. I thought it was very faithful to the book, and it also presents so many trademarks of Ozon’s! It was pretty much perfect to me! I think the way it was marketed made people expect a love story, and that possibly affected the way it was received, as the film is something else entirely.
Bernard: Your passion for Summer of 85 has put it on my radar big time, Serena.
Zoe: Agreed on Summer of 85! I’m always a sucker for summer-set LGBTQ+ romances (hello, Call Me by Your Name?), and both of the leads seem to offer such lovely performances. The trailers themselves are just so tantalizing. I’ll be catching it actually at NewFest in mid-October (an LGBTQ+-centric film festival), which honestly, is another advantage of this digital film fest season. I may have missed Summer of 85 at TIFF, but there have been multiple other opportunities to catch a screening without traveling, which would’ve been impossible before!
Serena: True! There are so many festivals happening everywhere. It’s a shame that most of them will be screening the same films, but it’s also a good thing, as film festivals seem to have decided to work together instead of competing with one another.
Bernard: Does anyone have any upcoming festival films they’re particularly excited about? I’m over the moon to see Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari at the Hamptons Film Festival. I love Steven Yeun and the glow that has surrounded the movie since its Sundance premiere is highly encouraging.
Serena: I have a feeling Minari will be so good! I’m looking forward to seeing pretty much anything the London Film Festival! I’m very excited about Supernova, as the first reviews from San Sebastian have been excellent!
Zoe: Save me a space on the Minari hype train as well – I’ve been stoked to see that one ever since Sundance, and I hope I can nab some tickets for the Hamptons screening as well! Aside from that, I’m really aiming to catch Ammonite sometime soon after missing out at TIFF, but so many film festivals seem to only be offering “in-person” viewings for that film, unfortunately.
VIRTUAL FILM FESTIVALS: AUDIENCE RECEPTION, DRIVE-INS & DISTRIBUTION METHODS
Serena: I imagine that this year’s festival films must have been seen by so many more people. At film festivals, there are no more than one or two screenings per film: this means that very few people actually get to see them. With films being available digitally, so many more people must have been able to watch them, even people who don’t usually attend festivals. Surely, this must have had an impact on how audiences that are used to watching “big studio releases” must have received independent, festival films.
Bernard: Serena, you raise an interesting point here. It certainly feels like things like Wolfwalkers that might float beneath the radar are suddenly surprisingly well known and that an awful lot of people have seen Nomadland from all across the critical and film nerd spectrum.
It’s a difficult, complicated issue because festivals are important to grow buzz, but these films also don’t want to use up their commercial potential before they even see a real release. Does something like The Father achieve enough of a footprint later this year without the ability to platform in New York and Los Angeles as it once would have and with so many potential viewers already having seen it.
Zoe: I’ve thought a lot about this as well! I think it’s a double-edged sword for sure – so many more people have access to these films than they would’ve before, but one does have to wonder if they may “peak” too early in their awards campaign as a result of this early exposure. Regardless, this seems more like an issue for the publicity team to focus on while we sit back and eagerly consume as much content as possible, hah!
Serena: True! Though I’m still sad that Ammonite and Soul will not be screened digitally! I was so excited about them! What are your thoughts on film festivals collectively excluding those two films from their digital catalogue?
Zoe: I think the lack of access is pretty disappointing, especially for press (though some outlets will undoubtedly receive digital screeners regardless). I think a festival’s distribution method (physical vs. digital) should be all or nothing right now. Frankly, the back and forth can quickly become confusing (as can the difference between titles that are “timelocked” vs. those that aren’t), and it all just seems so unnecessary.
Serena: Yes, I agree! Why should Soul and Ammonite be screened exclusively in cinemas when Nomadland has been consistently available online at all these other festivals? It seems to imply that Soul and Ammonite are somewhat “better” or “more deserving”, and I believe that all films should get equal treatment at festivals.
Zoe: Exactly. I believe it unfairly places film in different “tiers” of importance/prestige, which is disheartening. In these times, I think everyone should be embracing similar distribution models to promote a sense of equality between all premieres.
Serena: Definitely. Especially since another traditional role that film festivals have held is that of being a “marketplace.” While some of films that premiere at festivals are already scheduled to be released on certain platforms (think The Laundromat, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival last year and was later released on Netflix), other films go to find distribution. In my opinion, all of these films should enjoy equal access and treatment.
Are there any films you watched at a film festival that haven’t been released yet? I guess another advantage of having digital releases is that, for the most part, almost all of the projects we’ll get to see will actually find distribution!
Bernard: I saw a splendid little movie at Tribeca last year called Dreamland. It was sort of a mature take on a boys’ serial adventure western starring a splendid Margot Robbie. I found it to be a great joy, and my audience responded very kindly. Despite ample star power (Garrett Hedlund, Travis Fimmel, Kerry Condon), it appears to have simply disappeared. I agree that sort of scenario seems less likely between broader festival access and the desperation for content at the streamers.
Serena: I agree, Bernard: I guess, on one hand, all films shown will actually be released at some point. On the other hand, a significantly lower number of films have been shown at these festivals, so many independent films won’t have the chance to be showcased anywhere this year.
Bernard: Circling back to the “in-person” screenings, what do you all think of drive-ins at the festivals? I might see Ammonite that way, and it seems… way less than ideal!
Serena: I have to admit, I’ve never seen a film at a drive-in… ever! I have no idea of what that experience will be like! On one hand, it could be nostalgic in all the right ways, with not only the drive-in experience but the “audience experience” at a cinema – whatever form it may take. On the other hand, I can imagine It would still make it hard for viewers to enjoy it in the same way that I enjoyed Tenet at the cinema.
Zoe: I’m of mixed opinion about this too. I absolutely adore drive-ins and the nostalgic experience they provide – I’ve been able to see classics like Jurassic Park and Back to the Future at drive-in screenings at the past, and it feels like a truly brilliant blast to the past. However, I’m not sure I would want to see a film for the first time at a drive-in. It’s can get quite crowded at times, and there may be a lot of commotion, which can affect your ability to hear everything that’s going on. In addition, though outdoor screens have improved over the years, I don’t think anything can perfectly replicate the immersion that a theatrical environment can provide. And, like Bernard had pointed out, I also don’t think films like Ammonite are really suited for the “drive-in” vibe. These settings should be reserved for big, bombastic blockbusters, not raw and reserved period pieces, as I don’t believe we’d be able to properly appreciate the latter.
Bernard: So, I’ve seen one movie at the drive-in in my life: Angry Birds 2. Angry Birds 2 is – you’ll be shocked to learn – not a very good movie. I didn’t mind the distraction of the occasional driving car or the annoyance of different vehicles’ lighting or the bad sound system. A contemplative internal romantic drama like Ammonite? I’m worried. But I guess these are our new realities in 2020.
Zoe: Agreed, Bernard. I completely understand their reasoning behind these drive-in screenings for sure, but this is one component of a “virtual” film festival that I’ll miss the least.