Film festivals face a choice: Go virtual or go dark

Michael Lumpkin had just returned from Sundance in February when a disease called the “novel coronavirus” started taking hold in America’s public consciousness. Lumpkin, who runs AFI Docs, was doing what he usually does to prepare for his highly regarded early summer festival: watching films, making plans to attend or send staff to key events around the globe, booking theaters and restaurants for parties, and inviting filmmakers to bring their new works to Washington, D.C.

Lumpkin was concerned about the burgeoning coronavirus pandemic, he recalls, but he also remembers thinking, “This will be over by June, right?”

Reality quickly set in. By March, Lumpkin was making contingency plans that briefly included a scaled-down festival with fewer theaters. But then, when it became clear that no one would be ready to jostle together in long lines or attend crowded parties – two beloved staples of the film festival experience – he realized that an in-person festival was out of the question. This year, Lumpkin decided, AFI Docs would go entirely virtual.

On Wednesday, AFI Docs will get underway with “Boys State,” which scored a much talked-about joint acquisition by AppleTV+ and A24 at Sundance. As in past years, the festival will run for five days, and tickets and passes are available on the festival’s website, albeit at lower prices (individual screenings are $8 and a festival pass costs $50; those prices were $15 and $150 last year). A single admission allows viewers 24-hour access to that film, with a prerecorded question-and-answer session attached; special screenings, such as opening and closing night, will take place at an appointed time with live q-and-a’s conducted on Zoom. Fifty-nine films will play at AFI Docs this year, around 75 to 80 percent of its usual lineup; most screenings will be limited to around 500 people.

When Lumpkin was inviting filmmakers to play AFI Docs, he told them, “This is no different than showing your movie in a theater at a festival, except we’re not in a room together,” he recalls. “It’s the same number of people, it will in many ways function and act the same way a festival always does.”

Some festivals have tinkered with going online already: South by Southwest and Tribeca, both of which were forced to cancel amid the pandemic, made some of their films available on Amazon and YouTube, respectively. But those experiments didn’t capture the exclusivity and excitement of the festival experience, according to Thom Powers, who programs documentaries at the Toronto International Film Festival and serves as artistic director at Doc NYC.

“In general, they were films being made available free on giant public platforms,” says Powers, as opposed to “replicating what a film festival does best, which is create buzz for a film by showing it to a limited audience of tastemakers.”

Powers, who plans to make Doc NYC a virtual festival in November, credits CPH:DOX, a documentary festival in Copenhagen, for “breaking the ice” when it went online in March. In an article he wrote for the film website Indiewire, Powers noted that the festival wound up selling 66,000 tickets to its virtual screenings, a larger audience than it had enjoyed as a live event. Since then, the Cleveland International Film Festival, the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, Hot Docs and Full Frame have gone online; a virtual edition of the Maryland Film Festival in Baltimore got underway on Friday.

What these festivals, including AFI Docs, might lose in the spontaneity and fun of a live event, Powers, insists, will be made up for in broader reach and access. “There will be a festival, not only for people in the Washington, D.C., area, who may have hesitated to get a sitter, pay for parking downtown and go through the hassles of seeing a movie in person,” he says, “but people all over the country who will be able to see those films.” (One unanswered question in the movie world is what will happen with the big fall festivals that customarily get awards season rolling. Although Venice and Telluride have announced they will forge ahead with live events this year, Toronto and New York have yet to announce plans.)

Still, even the advantages of going virtual carry a bittersweet note of loss: Lumpkin, who also oversees AFI Fest in Los Angeles in the fall, observes that people no longer have to queue up in a rush line in the hopes of squeezing into a sold-out screening. Then again, the conversations and note-comparing that ensue are time-honored festival rituals.

Dori Begley, a longtime acquisitions executive who is executive vice president of Magnolia Pictures, recalls “countless times (when) I’ve come out of a screening with a pretty definitive release plan in mind. … And then later that night, one of my colleagues or a publicist or a sales agent or an acquaintance at the bar is speaking eloquently about how they thought of the film, and it opens up a whole new avenue to expand the plan that I hadn’t thought of.”

That kind of immediate feedback, as well as experiencing firsthand how a movie plays to an audience, won’t be as forthcoming this year, Begley admits. “We’re not going to be able to create this perfect simulacra of running around getting drinks with friends and having conversations in line.” But, she adds, watching films with hundreds of others, with filmmakers in virtual attendance and an ensuing discussion among viewers online, “is better than consuming something in a vacuum.”

For filmmakers, two issues are paramount when deciding to participate in a virtual festival: security and their distribution plans. Although nonfiction films aren’t as vulnerable to piracy as, say, the new Christopher Nolan movie, it is still top-of-mind for filmmakers and distributors.

Sales agent Josh Braun, co-president of Submarine Entertainment, says he had been reflexively declining invitations to send films he represents to online festivals, out of concern over “that small possibility that someone records the film on their phone and puts that up on YouTube and we’re screwed forever.” But he recently made an exception after “listening to the filmmakers and their backers, who were really missing the opportunity to have their films seen by audiences and get reactions.”

Although he’s still hesitant, he says, “we agreed to play a few films with AFI Docs and a few with Full Frame, as long as they’re limited to a very small number of people, and that everyone is signed up, verified and registered.” He adds that both festivals are “geofiltered,” meaning only viewers within a specific area can access the links. (AFI Docs screenings, for example, are limited to audiences within the United States.)

One of Braun’s films is “9to5: The Story of a Movement,” which was supposed to premiere at South by Southwest in March. Braun and the film’s directors, Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar, decided not to participate in the festival’s collaboration with Amazon, mostly out of concerns for security but also because they didn’t want to scupper the chances that someone might buy the film (normally, making a film available online would be a dealbreaker for distributors).

They agreed to play AFI Docs, Reichert says, because of the festival’s longtime commitment to issue-oriented films, but also because “they had the right kind of safeguards in place” and agreed to limit their audience to 350 people.

Although Reichert and Bognar came around after their initial skepticism, Lumpkin says plenty of filmmakers have chosen to hold out for an old-fashioned premiere in a theater with a live audience.

“There are films that said no and I get it,” he says. “We understand. The good thing about us is that we have AFI Fest in October, and maybe things will be different by then. Just in the last week, two films that declined our invitation weeks ago have asked us about AFI Fest.” (As of now, Lumpkin isn’t sure if AFI Fest will be live, virtual or some combination of the two.)

Reichert admits that she will miss the community-building aspect of AFI Docs, where in the past she would typically meet friends and colleagues and mentor emerging artists. “I don’t know how you have virtual hangouts with the filmmakers,” she says. “It’s going to be different, but people like Michael and his team are doing a real service.”

For Lumpkin’s part, as he was programming AFI Docs during the pandemic and finalizing the lineup amid mass protests against racism and injustice, he was struck by how uncannily the films chime with current events. “9to5,” for example, addresses sexual harassment and economic inequality. “The Fight” chronicles the American Civil Liberties Union battling Trump-era rollbacks in civil rights protections. “Women in Blue” profiles the first woman to serve as chief of the Minneapolis Police Department, which she attempted to change during her tenure.

“So many of these films relate to what’s going on in the world,” Lumpkin says. “There are the films that give you hope, the films that educate you and the films that show you how we have, in the past, come together to figure these big problems out.” For that reason alone, he notes, “canceling was never, ever in the cards.”

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