Many major international film festivals opted for the hybrid version this year to salvage editions and support the global entertainment industry
Film festivals have also announced their desire to adapt without waiting for the uncertainty to be over.
At festivals across the world where his films have premiered, Sanal Kumar Sasidharan has always waited for the moment when the screenings ended to gauge the reaction of the audience. “Different audiences react differently,” says the Malayalam director known for such acclaimed movies as Sexy Durga and Chola. “It is a learning experience,” adds Sasidharan, who won the Rotterdam festival’s top award for Sexy Durga in 2017.
This year, too, Sasidharan would have been measuring audience reaction at the Busan international film festival in South Korea, the influential Asian festival that premiered his new feature film, A’hr, in October. Instead, he was at his home in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, waiting to interact with the audience online. “A moderator relayed questions from members of the audience to me at the end of the screening,” explains Sasidharan.
The Covid-19 global pandemic has kept filmmakers away from festivals, as hybrid versions have become the norm across the world. Travel and social distancing restrictions ensured that major international film festivals across the world switched to physical and online screenings, even drive-in theatres and open-air cinemas.
At least two major festivals, Sundance and Berlin, scraped through, as they happened at the beginning of the year before countries went into lockdowns. The Cannes film festival, scheduled for May, decided to cancel its 2020 edition while announcing a curtailed official selection to help films arriving in screens early next year to take advantage of the Cannes selection tag.
The first major festival to go online was the Annecy International Animated Film Festival, the world’s biggest event for animated movies, in France. The Annecy festival, which feted India as the Guest Country in its 2008 edition, took place online from June 15 to 30. Marche du Film, Cannes festival’s film market, the biggest in the world, followed suit, allowing sales agents to meet online in a curtailed edition postponed from May to June 22-26.
The 45th Toronto international film festival, the biggest in North America and the barometer of the Oscar awards, drastically cut the number of films to about 50 from over 400 to organise a hybrid edition during September 10-19. The festival reduced the number of venues for physical screenings and created a digital platform to host digital screenings, talks and virtual red carpets. It also saluted the city’s frontline workers with a special digital screening of the Idris Elba-starrer Concrete Cowboy for 500 of them.
Temperature checks, hand sanitisers and QR check-ins marked the 25th Busan international film festival held during October 21-30. While filmmakers from outside Korea didn’t participate, the festival went for “onsite-only” screenings with 25% capacity, online masterclasses and press conferences.
At least two major festivals, Venice and Tokyo, retained the physical editions this year. The Venice festival (September 2-12) welcomed filmmakers from abroad, including Chaitanya Tamhane, whose new feature film The Disciple became the first Indian film to compete for the Golden Lion in nearly two decades. The 33rd Tokyo international film festival, held during October 31-November 9, opted for a physical edition albeit without the participation of foreign guests.
It wasn’t an easy year for film festivals. “It was very hard to come up with the festival this year,” says Fatma Hassan Alremaihi, festival director of the Ajyal Film Festival, one of the biggest festivals for children’s films in the world, in Doha, Qatar. “It was essential that the festival happen,” adds Alremaihi, chief executive officer of the Doha Film Institute, which organises the Ajyal festival held this year during November 18-23.
“Being online has opened the doors to so many possibilities. We learned so many things. We learned that we can be more open to the world,” says Alremaihi, who believes film festivals in the future will continue some features of the hybrid editions this year when normalcy returns. For example, drive-in theatres should become a regular feature.
Film festivals have also announced their desire to adapt without waiting for the uncertainty to be over. The International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) in the Netherlands will celebrate its 50th edition next year in a reimagined format (an expanded multi-part hybrid structure) spanning February to June. “IFFR, like other major festivals, is built on the principle of large groups of people gathering together to watch as a collective, which is simply not possible given the current restrictions,” says IFFR festival director Vanja Kaludjercic.
“These limitations made us rethink in what form we can best serve the filmmaking community, our collaborative partners and audiences under these circumstances,” adds Kaludjercic, who took over from long serving festival director Bero Beyer this year. The hybrid model will serve films and premieres with audiences only in the Netherlands, while the film market and co-production lab will be solely online.