One of my first indications that the COVID-19 pandemic was getting serious outside of China came in February 2020, when my colleague’s forthcoming trip to Greece for the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival was cancelled. We naively wondered if the virus might have any impact on the Cannes Film Festival that spring. A month later the UK went into its first lockdown, and by then festivals were the last thing on anyone’s mind. In a year shaped by global upheaval, international travel restrictions, delayed releases, and theater closures, every festival has had to adapt, or else cancel their programs altogether. With limits on in-person screenings, the notion of long lines and glitzy premieres disappeared. Instead, programmers and organizers around the world had to recalibrate, faced with stiff competition for audience attention from the crowded streaming landscape and limited by available technology. How can a film festival stay relevant — and attract attendees — when the entire industry is in turmoil? 

Many have risen to the challenge. In April 2020, CPH:DOX and Visions du Réel were the first festivals to present virtual-only editions. Montreal’s Fantasia Film Festival followed suit that summer. Some of the industry’s biggest festivals, which are used to welcoming tens of thousands of guests and high-profile titles from major filmmakers, opted to present online editions as well as a small number of in-person screenings for local residents. Coordinating this dual format while retaining a sense of each festival’s personality and identity was daunting (as was ensuring value for audiences in a year when cinema has been crucial but also a luxury for many). “There were some challenges to presenting taking an event of TIFF’s size to this hybrid format,” says Robyn Citizen, Senior Manager of Festival Programming at the Toronto International Film Festival. “We’re known as the world’s largest public film festival, and we consistently strive to set a standard for excellence in film programming, so when we understood this was going to be a more focused selection, we just want to make sure that we could maintain a quality of film selection as well as a quality of presentation — showing them in the way the film team and stakeholders wanted, as well as the audience.” 

Sundance Film Festival marquee at the Egyptian Theater in Park City (image courtesy Sundance Institute)

It was a similar situation for the New York Film Festival, which typically takes place a month or so after Toronto. As programming assistant Madeline Whittle explains: “Programmatically, the greatest challenge was existential: What would we want a virtual NYFF to be and do? We had to grapple with these philosophical questions collectively, all while navigating the whole disrupted ecosystem of festival premieres and release schedules — determining which films would be made available to us by studios and distributors who were uncomfortable with a nationwide virtual premiere and holding out for in-person festivals to resume. Ultimately, though, I don’t think anyone in the selection committee felt that our lineup was compromised as a result of these constraints, because so many distributors were willing to take this leap along with us.”

Even in condensed formats (TIFF reduced their program from 245 features in 2019 to around 60 in 2020, while NYFF’s program shrunk more slightly, from 75 features the previous year to 60 for their pandemic edition), these festivals did indeed attract high-profile talent. Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland premiered at the Venice Film Festival’s heavily reduced in-person edition, followed by North American screenings at TIFF and NYFF. TIFF premiered new work from Francis Lee and Spike Lee, while NYFF welcomed the first three films in Steve McQueen’s highly anticipated anthology Small Axe. In January of this year, the Sundance Film Festival put together a program that felt closer to its indie roots than anything they’d done in years, bringing work by Theo Anthony, Shaka King, and Sion Sono with it. Filmmaker introductions and post-screening Q&As conducted via Zoom became commonplace as programmers tried to bring as much community spirit as they could to the often-isolated streaming world.

All three festivals reported unprecedented levels of attendance. Over its seven-day 2021 edition, Sundance reached an audience 2.7 times larger than its average 11-day physical festival in Utah, with over 250,000 views of its features and shorts. NYFF reported nearly 40,000 rentals across the US in addition to the 8,300 guests at COVID-safe screenings across New York — an increase of 9.15% over 2019. TIFF confirmed over 118,000 ticket sales (105,000 online and 13,000 from drive-ins, open-air cinemas, and limited indoor screenings). This may seem low compared to their 307,362 attendees in 2019, but one drive-in or home-viewing ticket would allow more than one person to watch a film, meaning actual “attendance” could easily be at least twice that figure. 

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It’s important to factor in price, as the cost of attending a film festival can ordinarily be prohibitive. This applies particularly to Sundance, given to the festival’s location in an upmarket mountain resort town. With the barrier of geography removed and satellite in-person screenings established in 20 cities across the United States, more people than ever could access the festival. Sundance Director of Programming Kim Yutani cites these satellite partners as one of the 2021 edition’s greatest assets: “It was a great reminder that, even in times of social isolation and cultural crisis, there’s a strong and vocal group of people who are centering and prioritizing independent art and stories as a way to convene people (safely, of course) and drive dialogue.”

Whittle confirms that NYFF noticed a similar shift: “From a programming perspective, we were really excited to have an opportunity to think of NYFF as a festival with national reach for the first time, and one that would be more accessible than ever before. Much of the positive feedback we received came from viewers in other parts of the country who were attending the festival for the first time, freed of the burden of travel costs.” At TIFF, Citizen experienced firsthand the difference accessibility made to attendees: “My mother-in-law was staying with us due to the pandemic, and she has mobility issues, and she was super excited because this is the first time in 10 years she’s been able to attend TIFF, since she no longer [has to] stand in the rush lines to try to get tickets to sold-out screenings.” Additionally, online streaming platforms allowed for closed captioning and audio description to be a standard feature of the screenings — something often not seen as a priority at festivals.

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But while virtual festivals offer unprecedented accessibility and have been a heartening reminder that filmmaking is still alive and well, it’s still difficult to replicate the sense of community that comes from attending these events in person. There’s the anticipatory buzz while waiting for the house lights to dim in a crowded theater, or catching up with friends from far-flung corners of the world over a quick coffee. I found myself really missing these things, particularly since I conducted all my festival viewing alone, save for a few reaction conversations via Whatsapp. 

With vaccines in production and tentative hopes that there will be a return to physical film festivals before the end of 2021, the way forward is unclear. It feels like going virtual has encouraged festivals to recenter the audience rather than celebrities, and reduced programs have meant less competition for audience attention. My favorite discovery of the virtual festivals I’ve attended so far was Ninja Thyberg’s Pleasure at Sundance 2021. It’s a smart, unflinching look at the Los Angeles porn industry, and I might not have found it if the festival had taken place in its usual form, where I often find myself scrambling to see everything I want to in a limited amount of time. Similarly, as a UK resident, I couldn’t have attended TIFF, NYFF, or Sundance if it hadn’t been for my press pass, as all three festivals were geolocked to North America (in TIFF’s case, Canada). This paradigm does reduce options for those who live in countries without expansive festival culture, and can limit conversation around titles solely to North American viewers. But then again, perhaps it’s no more exclusatory than holding a festival on a Utah mountain or a French beach.

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Could the way forward be an expansion of the hybrid format, with festivals continuing to offer online showings even as they are primarily held in real life? “While of course we’re all eager to return to an in-person festival in 2021, the FLC Virtual Cinema isn’t going away,” says Whittle. “We’re already thinking about how we can incorporate the platform and the virtual space in our programming even after theaters reopen. As an organization, we see the collective theatrical viewing experience as central to our mission, but more broadly we’re relishing the prospect of exploring how a year-round commitment to virtual programming could complement, enhance, and expand the reach of our local, in-person programming.” Citizen is also hopeful that online programming can continue when theaters are safe again: “I think this is going to become much more normal. There’s also been a lot more inter-festival collaboration this year, which has been really heartening — sharing best practices between teams at other festivals, what works and what doesn’t. I hope that this continues going forward, and I’m excited to see what other festivals do with the format.”

The film industry is still feeling its way through the pandemic, with the way ahead uncertain for just about every element of the medium. Though nothing can replicate the collective moviegoing experience — least of all tinny laptop speakers and dim displays — it’s impressive to see how festivals have met the challenges presented by the pandemic. Through this, festivals might be able to offer audiences a way to connect with films beyond the press coverage, democratizing events that have long typified the more exclusive side of the film world.

Hannah Strong is the Associate Editor at Little White Lies magazine and a freelance journalist writing about film and popular culture.