Can virtual Film Festivals ever compare to the real thing? Thanks to TIFF and ICFF, we see that it’s possible, but first, we need to take a look at what makes a Film Festival come to life.
There is something about the collective energy that physically impacts you when you watch a show in the theatre. I see this all the time when I rehearse with actors on stage. The actors never really know if they’ve got a hit, a miss, or a comedic moment until there is an audience. And I don’t mean an audience of 5, it’s got to feel like the theatre is more than half full. That’s the only time you get the audience taking part in the performance and engaging with the show through their own physical feedback.
Audiences will laugh out loud when they are in a crowded room, giving the actors the feedback they need to know their joke landed. The actors often realize that the scene they were working on lands in a completely different way than they intended. They frequently only find this out based on the audience’s response on opening night, not during months or rehearsals.
I’ve seen it so many times it seems obvious, but when the audience doesn’t have the protection of the crowd, the anonymity of feeling free to cackle in the dark, they will inevitably stay silent. It’s jarring to see some of the funniest scenes produce zero response from an audience. This happens because though the viewers might think a moment was hilarious, the chance of them laughing out loud, alone, during a show, is slim to none. When the audience is meagre, their engagement interferes with the show, almost interrupting the narrative. Audience reactions start to stick out and distract you. But when the audience is full, this same engagement adds to the show, It just feels right.
This is the one major drawback of hosting a film festival, or any festival, virtually. I think as creators we tend to forget that the audience plays a significant role in the success and delivery of our shows. I also think that from the audience’s perspective having to consume art virtually also lacks the emotional investment that a crowded audience provides. The collective feeling of pain or sorrow. The sense of elation, relief or joy from the crowd. The collective laugh at a gag, or groan at a gag gone too far. We as audience members live for that experience as much, if not more than the art itself. Scary, but it might just be true.
The Industry Audience
There is no better occasion to watch this dynamic play out than with a visual international film festival. TIFF is a huge talking point this year, as one of the biggest events in Toronto that didn’t back down from the pandemic and cancel. They tried to embrace the situation we all find ourselves in. By taking the festival online, to the drive-in and to a reduced audience in theatre, TIFF has created a festival that caters fully to the film buff.
It embraces the person who watches films to critique, to learn, to strategize business, and because they just love the genre. These sorts of audiences can appreciate a film without needing anyone else’s feedback. It’s a different way of watching. It’s more studied, and less about the glitzy, festival experience. It’s also less about the collective emotional response. This sort of audience is more concerned with the noticing, paying attention to director’s choices, the writing, all the creative elements of the film, and, of course, the bottom line. If I had to reduce it to one word, I’d call this sort of audience the industry audience.
According to information from TIFF themselves, my observation isn’t so far off. Since the first job the TIFF team took on when the pandemic hit was to figure out, “What does TIFF mean to the international industry at large?”, this according to Geoff Macnaughton, senior director of industry and theatrical for the festival. “We really challenged ourselves to look inward to understand what it is that they’re looking for when they come to our festival every year and to go back to our basis. What we hear from professionals is that the number one reason they come to TIFF is to screen content. That is far and away the reason that they attend.”
Bam, there is is. They made a festival that caters to the industry, critic, film buff audience. That was their core and that is their target. I can see that TIFF has gone back to their roots for this one, and respect the choice they’ve made to focus on the industry and development of film. Don’t get me wrong, the business of film is a crucial element to any festival. I’d argue it isn’t the x-factor that makes a Festival magical and world renowned.
Living the Festival
I was reading an article an Variety by Peter Debruge on this exact subject. The article opens with a sentence that sums up the experience perfectly, “Leave it to a global pandemic to reveal how much the film industry takes its top festivals for granted.” Debruge argues that the festival experience is crucial to the film ecosystem and goes into great detail about how many films were born and the industry fires fuelled through strategic festival appearances and business deals. If you’re interested in the industry side of film festivals, definitely check it out. Another quote stuck out to me, also according to Macnaughton, “When someone comes to Cannes or Toronto, they’re living the festival 24/7…When you are digital, we are competing in a way with people’s lives.”
This is so key. It’s one thing to stay home and watch a show live streamed to your device, it’s another thing to experience a Festival 24/7. The Festival itself, the immersion in the genre, the non-stop talk to friends, colleagues and event-goers about what’s happening. Try to replicate the off-the-cuff moments that happen in a line up. Maybe through chat we can still catch the recommendations from strangers that lead to unexpected movie gems being discovered.
How can you duplicate running from venue to venue to catch your next show? Figuring out how to schedule eating and sleeping while running into friends between watching films and attending events? I miss the whispers of behind the scenes gossip. I miss glimpsing stars, non-stop media coverage, and the industry players who relax and overshare over one too many cocktails. These are the moments when deals are made, careers are made, movie magic is made. Without a Festival that allows you to leave your day to day life and become part of the glitzy, movie world for a week, what are we left with?
A Community Experience
Toronto recently held the annual Italian Contemporary Film Festival. This is the example of a festival that went the complete opposite direction as TIFF. Instead of making the Industry the focus, they put the focus on the community audience experience. ICFF is not the industry player that TIFF is, but it is significant in its size and reach. Their 2020 version felt like a pause in their annual industry and gala-fuelled festival. It came across like a special, pop-up style event curated to serve the public. They set up shop at the Lavazza Drive-In, with locations across the GTA, and featured films from different countries every night. It was a curated experience for the community, more than for the industry.
I heard feedback from people who felt a lack of inclusivity for people without vehicles to attend. Like I said, It was drive-in only. This oversight could have been the result of having to organize things so early into the pandemic. At the time, this seemed like the best and only option. The municipality was slow to agree to a drive-in festival, as it seemed risky even with Covid-restrictions in place. We were living week to week then, so I can understand not having an option for people without a vehicle. Then again, it also speaks to the fact that many other people wanted to attend but unfortunately, couldn’t. That is so telling.
I would still put my money on them. If they continue to host the Festivals in this way, and who knows what the future holds, they will come up with a solution to include even more of the community. They hit the bullseye creating an experience for the public, and putting the industry needs on hold until further notice. It’s a choice I think served them well and will only benefit them in the end. But can a Film Festival survive on the community alone? What is a Film Festival without the Film Insustry?
There must be a way for virtual Festivals to compare to the real deal, we just haven’t stumbled upon it yet. TIFF, and the ICFF deserve kudos for creating such innovative and adaptive Festival experiences in such a short time. Maybe I’m being optimistic because I dearly miss being in a crowded theatre, and am looking for any way to recreate that magic, at home. Debruge believes that virtual Festivals are no substitute for the real deal and I agree. Yet, in my gut I know there is a way to create the same sort of energy, even while we stay apart.