Virtual Circuit of Festivals: Filmmakers reflect on the months of COVID (2023)

Virtual Circuit of Festivals: Filmmakers reflect on the months of COVID (1)

After completing the second of four questions and answers at the True/False film festival in March, David Osit, who directed the documentary Mayonnaiser, discovered that the 2020 South by Southwest Film Festival had been cancelled.

"At the time, [other filmmakers and I] were joking that we were at the last [personal] film festival in the world," says Osit.
"So True/False literally turned out to be the last film festival to go on schedule in North America. It was remarkable."

by ositMayonnaiser, who follows Musa Hadid, the Christian mayor of the Palestinian city of Ramallah, is looking for a distributor. So after True/False, Osit decidedmayorto the Copenhagen International Virtual Documentary Film Festival (CPH:DOX), where it won the NEXT:WAVE award. Any fears Osit had about attending his first virtual festival were allayed by the festival's commitment to use proprietary streaming technology to prevent piracy. CPH:DOX also added geo-blocking and audience capping. "They were at least replicating the experience the movie would have in terms of audience at a real film festival," says Osit.

The film was later broadcast at the Hot Docs Canada International Documentary Festival, which is also geo-blocked with audience limits. Steps were also taken to prevent piracy, but Osit admits that virtual festivals may not be in the plans formayorif the film did not have a face-to-face premiere.

"I have this very happy memory of a packed room with 1,700 people givingmayorstanding ovation and realizing for the first time that the film works," says Osit. I can imagine. But I didn't have that option anymore because I had my world premiere. At least at a film festival, and that makes a great difference., even for me personally, thinking that the life of the film festival began, 'for the film.' I can't pretend that it hasn't changed at this point just because the world has changed.

Jeff Daniels (no relation to actor) didn't get a chance to see his movietelevision eventpremieres in front of a live audience at the Tribeca Film Festival. A file document examining the production of a 1983 ABC television film about nuclear proliferation,television eventHe was offered a spot on the Tribeca Extranet, the festival's online resource center for industry professionals, but with a sales agent (Submarine) already available, Daniels declined.

"The hope is now that we could try to create a debut that really does justice to the way in which the film should be experienced", says Daniels. "Festivals are so important for connecting filmmakers and their work with audiences. Now I'm trying to figure out a way for my film to be experienced appropriately for a film that was really made with a cinematic experience in mind. Having an event screening such astelevision eventshould have in Tribeca, which includes the press and the industry, is a great way to learn about certain parts of the movie that really resonate with audiences. So as a filmmaker, that's what you really want: this ability to show events when a movie like mine is in the discovery phase. I need online festival programmers to tell me how they're going to do this."

Michael Lumpkin, director of AFI Docs and AFI Fest, created event showcases at the virtual AFI Docs 2020 held last month. five movies—boys status,Jimmy Carter Rock & Roll Presidente,The struggle,rebuilding paradisemiportraits and dreams—composed the special presentation section of the AFI Doc; distribution of the five films was guaranteed before their festival screenings. Each film was screened at a set time on a different day and was followed by a live Q&A with the filmmakers. “These films will be screened by appointment,” explains Lumpkin, in an interview prior to the festival.

Osit is skeptical of online Q&As that help uncover movies likemayor.

"The excitement of the crowd and the standing ovation is really special and all the social media posts [about a film at a festival] usually come from a great Q&A after a screening. Now we just can't have that at an online festival. I mean, what would an Instagram post be from someone who liked it?mayorat an online film festival? How many times can my pre-production photos be reposted on social media with good results?"

Daniels hopes to find out the answer to that question in the fall. That's when he would like to seetelevision eventopens at a festival Since the movie is evergreen, it can wait. "I'm in a very lucky position because of the issue," says Daniels. “It feels like my movie was just as relevant three years ago as it is now and will be three years from now or hopefully decades to come, so it gives me faith that I can hang in there patiently for a while. when I find the right festival to work with me, either online or in theaters."

Virtual Circuit of Festivals: Filmmakers reflect on the months of COVID (2)

Veteran medical director Judith Helfand decided not to wait. Whattelevision event, por Helfandlove and stuffis an evergreen book that explores the grief during Helfand's journey of losing his mother shortly before the filmmaker became a mother at age 50. "I was a little hesitant about releasing the movie virtually," says Helfand. "My team was asking, 'Should we? Shouldn't we?' So we decided, 'Okay. This can't hurt. It can only help.' , for me, I felt that this was the right time.

love and stuffmade its world premiere on Hot Docs on May 28 to a geo-blocked audience, who also got to watch a pre-recorded Q&A with Helfand and the programmers. Because it was a virtual premiere, Helfand was sitting in her New York City apartment during the film's premiere instead of in Canada.

Like the Osit and Daniels papers, the Helfandlove and stuffIt is a film that is in the discovery phase. To build excitement ahead of the premiere, Hefland wrote two opinion pieces forThe New York Times newspaper mithe daily beast. Also,The New York Times newspaperrepublished it in 2014opinion doctoriteration oflove and stuff.

"I'm trying to build an audience now in every possible way," Helfand explains. "We have to do all this work in our homes, on our kitchen tables, in our home offices and use this virtual space in really radical and vibrant ways."

For its part, Osit has the good reviews and press coverage that it describedmayoras a dark humor documentary based on the Middle East. “I've leaned more towards that [description] when talking about the film, because I think when you have a film festival program online, the feeling of excitement and discovery is maybe missing,” says Osit. "I imagine the choices of which movies to watch are based much more on whether the synopsis of the movie sounds interesting than being at a film festival in person and not knowing what it's about, but going anyway because there's a space." empty in the middle 11 and 14:00 So I feel like it's more up to me and my team to try to put an anglemayorit makes it stand out a little more if possible.”

With no critics to rely on, Daniels hopes virtual festivals will help distinguishtelevision eventand other groundbreaking films seeking distribution. .

“Everybody looks forward to the chance to walk the red carpet, but I think the most important thing is the chance to meet up-and-coming filmmakers when you go to festivals in person,” Daniels continues. "You make new connections. You may have possibilities to collaborate on future projects. You also meet established filmmakers who can help guide you on some of your upcoming projects. I hope festivals that move to an online platform can continue in that capacity and provide you with networking opportunities for filmmakers, especially independent filmmakers."

Osit hopes that film festivals like AFI Docs will do their part when things return to "normal" and the masses are able to pack theaters again. "Any festivals that may physically exist for the next year and a half to two years should reschedule their [selected 2020] films. It's because of the films and the audience. It's because of the understanding that these festivals exist to showcase new art that is being doing every year. Right now, there's really no other infrastructure to do."

Sidebar: A conversation with Submarine Entertainment's Josh Braun

The Braun brothers, Dan and Josh, are the co-founders and co-chairmen ofunderwater entertainment, the New York-based sales, production and distribution company that soldamerican factory,the edge of democracymihoney landto Neon after its premiere at Sundance in 2019. Released in 1998, Submarine has become the best-selling nonfiction film. The company is currently working on deals for the winner of the South by Southwest documentelephant in the room, and recently landed a contract for what would be Tribeca's opening night movie,Jimmy Carter: Presidente del Rock & Roll; CNN Films acquired the rights to broadcast the film in North America. Also, Submarine is looking for homes for orphans from festivals likeenemies of the state,sitting,You are memitelevision event.

Documentary filmspoke with Josh Braun about how the pandemic has impacted documentary sales, the festival circuit and distribution.

DOCUMENTARY: What was Submarine's approach to the blockade?

JOSH BRAUN:We embarked on a process to try to control an uncontrollable and unknowable scenario as much as possible. So our process was just trying to keep things as normal as possible in terms of communication with buyers; movie screenings for buyers; and trying to find out what people want and need. From our point of view, the more we embrace trying to normalize the process, the more normal the process seems.

D: How is the documentary sales space now?

JB:It's really not that different from normal times, just in terms of we have movies for sale and there are buyers looking for movies. So when we went into lockdown, and South by Southwest and Tribeca were cancelled, we took that set of movies that were available and we reached out to all the buyers and more or less understood that we were going to start showing them all the movies. . We started with the South by Southwest movies and then moved on to the Tribeca movies. We largely show most of these movies to most of these buyers, and we have two or three deals closed that haven't been announced. We have three or four offers. So it looks a bit like it would during a normal year. The difference could be that in a normal year we would have gone to Cannes and many of the buyers would say, "Don't talk to me about anything until we get back from Cannes."

D: Streamers like Netflix, Apple TV+, and HBO Max are buying more than ever because there's no ongoing production, which could leave them without as much new fictional content in 2021.

JB:As far as platforms and TV channels, many of these places like Apple, Hulu, Netflix, HBO Max and Amazon already have documents that were being released or completed [when COVID hit]. My guess, or my hope, is that maybe in a month or two, if production stays as tight as it is now, I can more realistically see some of these outlets trying to fill their schedule. It's not exactly like a gold rush, but there's definitely interest. I think there may be a bigger increase than now.

D: Are documentaries making a lot of money now?

JB:When there is competition and the competition is between big companies with a lot of money, the deals can be bigger. And that's just a virtue of the competitive nature of something that a lot of people want and we're in a position to get the best deal. What we are not seeing is a sale. I don't think anyone thinks they can get away without spending anything to get something valuable. So I feel like it's normal or it could be a little better than normal for the right movie.

D: Do current films sell more than perennial ones?

JB:There is beginning to be a lot of interest intelevision event. It's an unexpected movie, that's one of the things we love about it. If you're the right age, do you remember whenThe next day(1983) came out and you remember how it affected you the first time you saw it. So for people of a certain generation, they are definitely nostalgic. And to people who weren't there, they say, "I can't believe this." It's like an incredible discovery. So something more perennial is for the most part -- I wouldn't put the driving force behind sales in that bucket as much as it's the right fit for the way [a dealer] is programming.

D: Are you advising filmmakers on what to do in terms of festivals right now?

JB:From Submarine's point of view, part of the reason to do a festival is to start gaining visibility. We're trying to be as flexible as possible, but the way we look at it is if distributors tell us, "If your film appears in a very large online festival or is widely available, then you'll be less likely to buy it." so we just have to be cautious on behalf of filmmakers. But let's be real, all filmmakers want their movies to be seen and so do we, so it's a fine line.

D: Geoblocking is important when you're trying to decide whether to do a festival, right?

JB:Of course.

D: What about keeping the films until there are festivals again?

JB:We went to each filmmaker [with a document] and said, "Do you want to do [the online festival circuit]? Because if you think maybe we should [put the film] on the back burner and wait until the festivals are over. back, we would totally respect that." We try to give our filmmakers all the factors that we know about, and many of them are just unknown. Something liketelevision event, which was supposed to open in Tribeca, the filmmaker debated what to do. We decided to move forward now on this film. If we don't find the right deal now, we can wait, and if we find the right deal now, we'll go full steam ahead.

D: Do you think many movies will die or disappear because of the online situation?

JB:I mean, I hope not under our command. But I think it's a difficult environment if you don't have a manager and you want to release your film and no one advises you. You can take the wrong step, and then it's a question mark if it can hurt you later. But it's a very harsh Darwinian environment out there. It is the survival of the fittest. On the brighter side, the really good movies tend to come out, and that's just the reality of the market. But in this environment, where they're not getting the same level of exposure at festivals where something could be a breakthrough; It's obviously more difficult and I feel bad.

D: Are you making more movies?

JB:The market is, tentatively, I mean, healthy on some level. Just in the sense that when we start selling the South by Southwest and Tribeca movies... And now that we start to get some movement, we'll be less hesitant to sign something. We would never hesitate to sign something great that we love.

D: What is happening with the theatrical markets? Are you talking to them?

JB:I think they're interested in buying movies, but they're more likely to wait until theaters return. But we had an unannounced theatrical deal, and there's just a clause in the deal that says, "If we mutually decide to release the movie in a certain amount of time and theaters aren't open yet, then we can go straight to VOD."

D: Have you talked to any filmmakers in post-production right now about waiting to submit to Sundance when theaters might be open again?

JB:We signed a movie recently that we've seen and loved and we thought it would do well at Sundance and we'd have a decent shot at making it. So in a sense, definitely send it to Toronto and send it to other festivals, but then you have to weigh up to see if you have any invites in Toronto, you might want to get the bird in your hand. But I think just waiting for Sundance is never a good strategy because the odds are categorically against you.

D: Will it be even more difficult this year to enter Sundance 2021?

JB:I think it's going to be as difficult as ever.

D: Have you been approached by any filmmakers trying to do COVID-related projects?

JB:The funny thing is, when I talk to a lot of buyers, like pre-buyers or builders like HBO, Netflix, Hulu, etc., I think they joke, "We're looking at projects, but please don't bring us anything else." COVID-19. "I think there's been a ton of [COVID-related] proposals. We're not involved in any, but if something really cool came along, we'd probably take it if we felt it could stand on its own and maybe not just as a COVID-19 document. .

Addie Morfoot has covered the entertainment industry for 15 years. Her work appeared inVariety,A New York Times magazine,Crain's business in New York,wall street newspaper, aLos Angeles Times,Documentary filmmiad week.

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