Film Festivals Thrive During the Pandemic

By Gilbert Galvan  | 

This year has been challenging for the film and entertainment industry, but it’s not all doom and gloom. While many theaters and production houses have been forced to temporarily shutter, film festivals are enjoying an unexpected surge in popularity. It’s true some prestigious events were cancelled or postponed, including South by Southwest (SXSW), Telluride and Cannes, due to safety concerns following global Covid-19 spikes. Yet many more are evolving with the changing times to ensure the show goes on. Here’s how.

Changing with the Times
The Film Festival Alliance estimates that of its 250 members, only 10 percent chose to cancel their 2020 party plans. The rest adapted, in some cases opting for a fully virtual model. The GuadaLAjara Film Festival, held in Los Angeles from December 17-19, used this as a dual opportunity to rebrand itself while testing an entirely digital lineup of movies by Latino filmmakers. Others preferred a hybrid format that mixed outdoor activities with drive-in or limited in-person screenings, like Canada’s Whistler Film Festival and the Slamdance Film Festival, which is set for the last two weeks of February.

Renewed Interest and Increased Reach
Many virtual and hybrid festivals that took place in the summer or fall reported increased attendance, as compared to last year. The 58th Annual New York Film Festival, for example, enjoyed a nine percent participation spike, with over 70,000 people engaging in virtual movie viewings plus talks with filmmakers and actors. Drive-in movies were also a hit, as roughly 8,300 guests attended 33 different screenings held at various locations around New York. Some smaller gatherings gained national or international notoriety, like the deadCenter Film Festival held in Oklahoma City in June. Their participation picked up 5 percent over last year’s 35,000 guests, but even more significant were the locations of those visitors. “We reached 24 countries and 42 states,” said Alyx Picard Davis, executive director. “I want to say we’ve had about half of that reach in the past.” Content featured over 100 hours of new programming, like online discussions with filmmakers. The Ojai Film Festival typically takes place in Southern California, but this year’s 21st annual event benefitted from its entirely virtual format by forging connections with international filmmakers who typically wouldn’t have the means to travel to this small city in Ventura County. Another example is New Jersey’s Teaneck International Film Festival that saw a significant increase in attendance this year. “Going virtual enabled us to expand our reach throughout the nation and beyond,” said Executive Director, Jeremy Lentz. “We were not limited by the number of seats in an auditorium and saw approximately a 35-40% increase in attendance.” At Extreme Reach, we are especially proud of our Head of Industry Engagement, Flo Mitchell-Brown, whose moving film, Generation Lockdown, won both the Audience Award and the Juried Award for Best Short Film of the festival.

New Normal
While many art-house theaters remain shuttered, a wide swath of patrons can now scratch their indie movie itch by hopping online for a film festival screening. What’s more, this format allows for a previously unseen degree of spontaneity. When actors and filmmakers needn’t be rushed onto a stage or scrambled out of a screening room, magical moments of prolonged interaction may occur. Such was the case at the New York Film Festival, when a scheduled 15-minute live-streamed panel between director Pedro Almodovar and actress Tilda Swinton stretched to an impassioned conversation lasting over one hour. Like other necessities born from this period of creative destruction, digital film festivals aren’t expected to disappear once normalcy resumes. In the new world order, this “democratization of access” could prove an invaluable opportunity to connect with audiences in a revolutionary way.

Gilbert Galvan, Director of Residuals at Extreme Reach, is also a filmmaker. His award-winning documentary, Our Quinceanera, has just been released on Amazon video. Inspired by Gilbert’s father, a high school principal in a small Texas town, the film tells the story of the annual Quinceanera he hosts for students that can’t afford their own.

Gilbert Galvan
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