As public events are now forced to move online, film festivals – be it overtly grand or smaller in scale – were faced with an existential crisis.
How can they replicate that level of glitz, glamour and grandeur, digitally? That all too familiar scene of red carpets with flashing cameras snapping away at celebrities and the mad rush from one screening to another. Not to mention industry insiders gathering en masse.
Is it even possible to create the same buzz? Especially with the reduced number of physical screenings, if allowed at all.
Beyond all odds, film festivals survived. The New York Film Festival, Toronto International Film Festival and Sundance Film Festival, all reported an increased level of attendance after having largely moved online.
Just consider the seven-day 2021 edition of Sundance. An event that Actress Eva Longoria likened to a ‘360 hub to her creative soul’, reached an audience of 2.7 times larger than its average 11-day physical festival, with over 250,000 views of its features and shorts.
Last year’s NY Film Festival reported nearly 40,000 rentals across the US. This is in addition to the 8,300 guests at Covid-safe screenings across the city – an increase of 9.15% over 2019. Toronto’s in 2020 confirmed over 118,000 ticket sales (105,000 online and 13,000 from drive-ins, open-air cinemas and limited indoor screenings).
Doubts remain, however. While cities are slowly reopening and daily life begins to trundle towards normalcy, film festivals are still questioning their future. Has our world changed so much that film festivals no longer look the same?
Photo by: Tribeca Film Festival
Film festivals have long been trying to reinvent themselves. One apparent change is the addition of immersive elements to lineups, which can include non-film activities like sound-related installations.
Consider the Tribeca Film Festival held recently in June. It used virtual reality technology to further attract attendees – where sonic elements were the draw.
Breonna’s Garden for example, offered an augmented-reality experience linked to immersive audio that was created in collaboration with Ju'Niyah Palmer to honour her late sister, Breonna Taylor.
Of course, you could say that the Tribeca Film Festival’s strong suit has always been its incredibly immersive programming. But this year saw it amp up the aspect even more.
For Connect, visitors used headphones to follow a guided walking tour of Lower Manhattan. While on their phones, they were prompted to explore real and imagined stories of the surrounding areas.
Another, WarpSound Music Experience, took the form of an interactive live music party channelled through audiences’ phones. The lineup included virtual artistes like a “lo-fi loving cyborg” and “half-iguana DJ”.
That said, there is already one event that celebrates sound in the film industry.
Founded in 2016 and held in Bournemouth, the Short Sounds Film Festival (SSFF) celebrates the craft and artistry behind cinematic soundscapes.
While it is not as well-known as the bigger film festivals, it still celebrates the industry. Each year’s programme lineup includes awards, talks and film screenings.
“Cinematic sound has the power to hold us in stasis. For a short while, the incessant background noise of life fades to black as we are suspended outside of time and space, transfixed,” reads the website’s statement.
“It is an integral part of the stories which enchant so many, yet is too often goes unrecognised and undervalued. SSFF gives the sounds of cinema their time in the limelight.”
This goes to show that films (and storytelling) can be more than just a cinematic experience. Other elements – not just sound – can also complement the experience.
Even before Covid-19, organisers were already thinking of branching out and paying tribute to various creative works. Lockdowns only helped accelerate the change.
The Tribeca Film Festival (yes, it remains to be the most innovative of the lot) added its first-ever game awards this year. The reason? Gaming has become a part of mainstream culture – as much as films or art are.
You would think that the Venice Film Festival is something traditional and unchanging. But it has actually embraced virtual reality – all the way back in 2016 to be exact.
Photo by: Venice Film Festival
Venice VR, the official virtual reality competition section of the festival, was fully moved online last year. Rebranded with the “Expanded” name tag, it then highlighted a wider assortment of interactive content.
Watching films is now more than just sitting in a cinema.
Venice VR even fully “fleshed out” the festival experience for those at home. There is a VRChat world designed to look like the famous city providing a gondola ride to a red carpet location where content could be viewed.
While online film festivals may lack the pomp and ceremony, they can still work to draw in crowds. That is if they are willing to look beyond just films and focus on storytelling – art, video games or more.
Cover Credit: Nathan Engel/Pexels
Writer | Jake Thanh
Jake Thanh does not see himself as cultured – because he is not a yogurt. He instead prefers being viewed as a person in touch with the world, and all the wonderful experiences that come with living life to the fullest.