Essays, Festivals

Online Film Festivals: A Pandemic Alternative for a Safer Moviegoing Experience

As the film community watched Cannes move its dates multiple times, other festivals scrambled to find a better alternative to continue. Cases were rising everywhere and no one could see the situation get any better in time for the Fall festival circuit. Venice then announced that it will continue with a limited number of films. TIFF followed suit, while Tribeca cancelled for the year. The industry came up with an alternative to keep the wheels going: the online film festival. 

When I got accredited for the first time last year, I didn’t know how to attend TIFF as a member of the press. But even people accredited yearly didn’t know what to expect either, since the whole system is new: we were all going in blind. The organizers did their best to inform us how to use the new platform by sending us multiple emails; some people did run into problems, like how to access their accounts, but it was all resolved in the end.

TIFF 2020

TIFF decided, like every other festival, to do a hybrid of online screenings and in-person screenings with social distancing in place (drive-ins, movie theatres, outdoor screenings) for the public. A lot of writers from all over the world had the chance to cover the festival in the comforts of their own home without the stress of travel like from the past years. Even new press members, who usually cannot attend due to financial restraints, got to experience TIFF with its online platform being available everywhere (except for some films that are geo-locked within North America), and free.

The number of films screened went down dramatically, with only 50 films shown compared to 2019 which had more than 300 films. The hype was not as big as well since the world is going through a crisis, and the Oscar buzz was not as buzzy like it used to. One thing that got me was the atmosphere when I attended a screening in TIFF’s main building, the Lightbox. Typically, the place would be bustling with people from all over the world united through the love of film, but when I attended some in-person screenings, the building felt dead. There were only a dozen or so people, and only fifty people were allowed in their three big theatres. The whole experience felt lonely compared to the lively scenes of the past years. But alas, the change was called for the safety of everyone.

Sundance 2021

After ten days of watching films online and in-person, I decided to apply for Sundance 2021. Since it decided to go online as well, I knew I had the chance to attend and watch the films slated for this prestigious festival in the States. Pre-COVID, I would not have imagined attending Sundance due to the costs of travelling south of the border while attending school, but I now have the chance to see the best independent filmmaking has to offer. And TIFF gave me the feel of what it would be like for Sundance. 

Online film festivals gave so many writers of different backgrounds a chance to see films and talk about them when they typically couldn’t. Film festivals have always been inaccessible to film writers and critics of marginalized identities, especially since film criticism has always been dominated by cis white men: they’re still in charge of film criticism in major outlets and they often have the financial and social freedom to attend festivals regardles of the cost. In an age where going online is the only solution to keep the industry alive and moviegoing safe, it gave writers like me, a Filipino woman who identifies as part of the LGBT community, a chance to see films and write about them from my point of view.

There are some problems to be addressed with festivals’ online platforms, like security risks with going digital, “limited seating” in online screenings,and  internet stability for other users. Nevertheless, online screenings have been incredibly helpful to a lot of people. 

Watching films in a theater is a different feeling than watching on your laptop, and in-person film festivals offer a unique experience with the atmosphere of being with other movie lovers. I cannot wait to be back to that type of normalcy again. But the system that film festivals have created online has such a huge advantage to those who are usually not able to attend in-person screenings, especially in big prestigious festivals. Attending these can jumpstart the careers of film writers who normally do not have the luxury to attend such events in person. In the future, I hope that they will keep this system up to keep film accessible to more people. 

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