All-access Pass? Film Festivals Go Viral

Aaron Pedersen as Jay Swan in the 2013 film Mystery Road.

In recent months, we’ve seen an uptick in the use of the word ‘unprecedented’ (see: the opening lines of emails, contextualising hooks in press releases, etc.), and it really has been apposite for capturing the situation faced by the global festival circuit. Indeed, when the City of Austin cancelled SXSW in March – a pre-emptive measure to stave off the spread of COVID-19, which would be declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization a week later – it was the first time in the event’s thirty-four-year existence that it wouldn’t run. This blow to the arts scene followed the postponement of the Hong Kong International Film Festival in mid February; soon after SXSW, several other big events were called off in earnest or under the guise of indefinite deferral: London’s LGBTQIA+ film celebration, BFI Flare; the New York film festival Tribeca; Denmark’s documentary showcase CPH:DOX; our very own Sydney Film Festival (SFF), also a first in its sixty-seven-year history.

But it didn’t take long for the world’s festivals to mobilise in response to their dire context. In the same breath as its cancellation announcement, CPH:DOX unveiled plans to offer some of its slate through virtual channels. Tribeca initiated ‘A Short Film a Day Keeps Anxiety Away’, a series delivered via its website. Both the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, despite having safely taken place in September and November, respectively, made their past programming available online. A conglomerate of festivals – including Sundance, TIFF, SFF, and those at Berlin, Tokyo and Venice – even partnered with YouTube to present the free digital showcase ‘We Are One’.

Cannes, ever the conservative stalwart, proclaimed in April that it would not, under any circumstances, buckle to the actions of its confrères. As festival director Thierry Frémaux sneered, ‘Films by Wes Anderson or Paul Verhoeven on a computer? […] Why would we want to show them […] on a digital device?’ By May, however, it had publicised the program of its industry component, Marché du Film, which would be delivered entirely online, and, later that month, scrapped the physical edition of the 2020 festival altogether (with its film slate to be dispersed among other festivals and screening opportunities).

On local shores (not that shores have much meaning these days, it seems, with geographic boundaries made redundant by web-based hyper-connectivity!), Tasmania’s Breath of Fresh Air Film Festival was the first to migrate to the online space, doing so in late April. Within a few weeks, SFF, the Human Rights Arts & Film Festival and the Melbourne International Film Festival – which, full disclosure, I now work for – had revealed their own schemes for online infiltration. 

I’ve only recounted highlights here, because to give a Book of Genesis–style account of streamed-festival timelines and lineages would be not only excessive for our purposes but also, really, very boring. And more is likely to follow, depending on what unfolds post-May (when I’m writing). Suffice it to say a lot has happened, and each digital evolution has its own scope, schtick and justification for existing. 

Common wisdom tells us that making something available online is inherently good. In the realm of film, this allows viewers to procure the content they want whenever they please, usually for cheaper (as overhead costs don’t cause prices to balloon) or for free (courtesy of infrastructural mechanisms like advertising revenue). Assuming optimal construction of the platform itself, there’s increased synergy between the online festival catalogue/guide and the online viewing box, too, not to mention the ability to pause, rewind, fast-forward and – if ‘tokens’ are offered rather than strict one-off ‘tickets’ – even rewatch films. Depending on geoblocking and licensing parameters, it anticipates a significantly expanded reach as well, with audiences no longer constrained by physical travel to and from theatres. 

It’s also perhaps a relatively unspoken truth that, in many contemporary societies, for whom the world exists just as much online as it does in physical form, internet access – much like food or mobility – has become a basic human need. And, like all necessities, it is tied to imbalances in access, accumulation and use. While Australia may be ranked fourth globally in the 2020 Inclusive Internet Index (which measures overall availability, affordability, relevance and readiness), only 88 per cent of our population has an active internet connection, as determined in 2018 by Statista. That’s around 2.6 million Australians disconnected from the web – a figure that, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, is skewed towards migrants, the elderly and the unemployed. The 2017 Measuring Australia’s Digital Divide report additionally identifies people with disabilities, Indigenous communities, low-income households and regional populations – groups that are largely already disadvantaged – as being left behind in the online stakes, and cites disparities in internet literacy as a significant area of concern.

(I’ll resist the urge to broach inter-country metrics beyond the damning discovery that Australia is ranked sixty-fourth in the Ookla Speedtest Global Index, which assesses internet speeds in 174 ­countries. Yikes!)

Making festival fare available to stream is, of course, a commendable move towards sustaining the screen ecology both here and abroad. In terms of the production pipeline, it keeps the sector alive by enabling filmmakers and crew to continue creating work. From an exhibition standpoint, it ensures that audience engagement isn’t interrupted, and provides comfort and inspiration during what has undeniably been a difficult time. In among all that, though, it’s important that we pay attention to the differing circumstances of our viewing communities. Audiences don’t form part of a homogeneous monolith, and festivals can’t simply offer virtual facsimiles of their events and expect a large-scale take-up. As critic Lauren Carroll Harris tweeted early on in this streaming foray, ‘The rush to […] just “put the work up online” makes no sense […] Digital arts and digital programming is its own unique context.’ Lest we’re faced with a ‘deluge of very mediocre, un-thought-through art presented digitally’, as she put it – and possibly inaccessible work, too, I might add – it’s vital that festivals think deeply about the hows, whys and what-ifs of their digital offerings.

Social distancing and lockdowns have certainly challenged our assumptions about cinema-going and cinema-viewing, and their repercussions post–COVID-19 remain to be seen. Will streaming become an ongoing alternative, or remain ancillary to physical theatres? How can we guarantee that the internet’s promise of egalitarian spectatorship is actually realised? More fundamentally, once we’ve returned to the ‘real’ world, how can we ensure that obstacles to access (prices, schedules, sensory input, architectural issues) are addressed so as to facilitate equitable film patronage?