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RIP the virtual film festival?
Autumn 2021 is seeing a multi-sector snap-back to IRL-only. Nowhere is this more apparent than with film festivals.
Back to business-almost-as-normal at Cannes 2021.
I’ve been meaning to publish something about virtual film festivals for over a year now, but never quite got the chance to do so. A few months ago, I spent some time writing the first draft of a blog entry on the subject, but almost as soon as I’d written it, I realised that it was obsolescent: events were overtaking me. The virtual film festivals that I was meticulously describing, those bizarre new digital ecosystems with their byzantine ticketing systems and four-hour viewing windows, were becoming less common. Over the last couple of months, they’ve almost entirely disappeared. Venice, TIFF, Locarno, New York – all the big festivals of the summer and early autumn, as well as most smaller ones, have been IRL only. The BFI London Film Festival, which starts today, is unusual in that it does have online screenings, and elegantly integrates these into its pre-existing ‘BFI Player’ platform. Yet still only about 15% of feature films physically screening at the festival are available online too. And that’s probably as good as it’s going to get from now on. The virtual film festival is effectively dead.
In an article published on Hyperallergic a couple of weeks ago, I wrote about why we still need hybrid (live and digital) film festivals, and why many people’s understandable enthusiasm for returning to cinemas shouldn’t obscure the benefits that emerged from film festivals’ experiments with going online. The article is a first attempt to grapple with this revolution in film distribution that didn’t happen: much more needs to be said. More especially needs to be said about why this revolution started and then stalled. My quick tally of the films showing at London Film Festival this month suggests that those screening online skew strongly towards low-budget and no-budget; any film with distribution or with potentially significant money-earning potential will almost certainly not be online. Bluntly put, it seems that film distributors have closed ranks against online and hybrid screenings. The virtual film festival is not just dead, it’s been killed-off.
Why this has happened is a much deeper question, one that cuts to the heart of the anachronistic way in which most films are currently distributed. More follows. But for now, you can read the Hyperallergic article here.