The future of hybrid film festivals is in the balance. A few high profile festivals, including Sundance and CPH:DOX, have committed to maintaining their online programs, but many, including Locarno and Toronto, have already returned to physical screenings only. Cannes and Venice never went online at all; in the words of Cannes’ director Thierry Frémaux, “We could have had a virtual festival, and we didn’t, because it would have trivialized the event.”
The purist argument that online screenings devalue physical film festivals has been often repeated over the last 18 months, mostly by people who organize and attend them. Yet at the same time, a quiet revolution has taken place: Online festival screenings have attracted large and enthusiastic new audiences for independent and artist-led film. The hybrid edition of Sundance 2021 reached an audience 2.7 times larger than the 2020 edition in Utah, with over 600,000 audience views. At the other end of the commercial scale, Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival, a festival of experimental film based in the borders of Scotland, last year reached an online audience of whom 50% were first-time attendees, up from 3% in 2019. And this isn’t just a question of numbers. Hybrid festivals have also achieved multiple accessibility wins. On demand films mean on demand captioning, on demand relaxed screenings, flexible viewing for carers, and new viewing opportunities for vulnerable, housebound, and geographically distant audiences.
In a recent article in Hyperallergic, Grace Han questions the accessibility of hybrid film festivals, arguing that “the ‘film festival’ as a whole, after all, depends upon the atmosphere” and that to miss in-person events is to have an incomplete experience of a festival. Yes, of course, for film professionals, the “mélange”of the physical festival can create many opportunities. And yes, of course, festivals need to put more resources into reducing the often-prohibitive cost barriers faced by economically disadvantaged participants. However, creating an atmosphere for the benefit of filmmakers and critics is only a part of a festival’s function. Festivals also service distributors, sponsors, tourism agencies, and audiences. And for many of the aforementioned audience groups, the choice is not between “in person” and online, it’s between online and nothing. Before artistic directors choose nothing on their behalf, they need to think carefully about their festivals’ social goals.
Han also suggests that the availability of online festivals may disincentivize people from attending physical festivals. The view that people regard online as a substitute for physical engagement with art sounds plausible enough. However, most recent evidence suggests that in fact the oppositeis the case. For example, my own current UK Arts and Humanities Research Council project on digital access draws from 18 months of audience surveys carried out by 454 arts organisations,which together suggest that people who have a positive engagement with art online are more likely to engage with it in person.
So, if film festivals are genuinely interested in widening access to film, the lesson is clear: Don’t abandon hybrid festivals, but improve them and harness their potential to attract new and more diverse audiences.
Unfortunately, currently, hybrid festivals do have an accessibility problem. It comes not from their hybridity but from the way many of them have replicated online the exclusions of physical festivals — for example, through geoblocking, capped “seating” numbers, complex ticketing systems, and narrow viewing windows. In this, Sundance 2021 was a prime offender, with a ticketing and viewing system so byzantine that Indiewire published a 1500-word article just to guide people through it. One can only imagine how many more people would engage with hybrid festivals if they provided a simpler user experience. But that’s precisely the point of these barriers to engagement: most major film festivals don’t want significantly larger audiences than they’ve had in the past, since they are scared that producers and distributors won’t let them screen their films if they’re too widely available. Therefore, they create digital barriers until their online audience numbers are close enough to those of their physical editions not to compromise the traditional film distribution model: limited festival screenings aimed at generating a media buzz ahead of a phased release, segmented by country and platform.
For films with commercial potential, this distribution model isn’t necessarily a problem — they’ll typically be widely available in cinemas and online later. But for many independent and artist-led films, film festivals are not paths towards global distribution but destinations in themselves. Often, if you don’t see an undistributed film at a festival, you’ll never see it. If they don’t help get artists’ films out into the world, festivals are letting down both the artists and their potential audiences.
The irony here is that most film festivals have made their films available online to industry delegates for the best part of the last decade, through closed platforms including Cinando and Festivalscope. Even when Cannes cancelled, the industry-focused Marché du Film went online. Pandemic or no, the business of distribution needs to continue.
However, in the face of an industry that values festivals in direct proportion to how exclusive they are, it’s difficult to see how even the most progressive festivals can maintain meaningful public programs online while also reducing digital barriers to engagement. But unless they do, the danger is that the most exciting independent and artist-led films will remain available only to the minority who can attend physical festivals and cinematheques, and it will be Netflix for everyone else.