The Added Value of Virtual Access for Festivals and Art Houses
By Nick Bruno
Innovations in digital delivery kept the art house and festival models nimble during the pandemic. Why would we discard these tools for increased access now?
I work for small streaming company that, like many digital providers, altered their business model in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The public emergency that saw art houses, film festivals, and, really, any events-based organization out there to grind to a halt pushed our business to diversify. Initially starting as a streaming channel that championed independently produced films, we began offering a lifeline to hard-hit film nonprofits that, despite shuttered venues and decimated budgets, needed a way to bring audiences together once more.
In short, we began re-envisioning our platform as a virtual venue for the hosting of film festivals and curated channels of content. Now, nearly two years down the line, this shift in what we deliver to clients and viewers is the primary service we offer. We’re not alone in this market and several other companies also began servicing this need early in the pandemic.
I’d be lying if I said that this necessary evolution of the festival model has not come about without its share of potholes and hiccups. Those fests that didn’t skip the 2020 cycle found themselves learning on their feet, trying to reproduce what they do in a virtual environment that lacked both the visceral immediacy and direct connection to their audiences that their traditional in-person events deliver. Anyone who has held a family holiday gathering or birthday party on Zoom these past couple of years can probably relate to the sense of deflation that comes with the shift to everything suddenly being relegated to online-only experiences.
But as time wore on, great strides have been made as leaders within the premiere festival ecosystem launched virtual festivals that gained recognition for evoking the feel of an actual event versus merely resembling a collection of films online.
The 2021 editions of the Sundance Film Festival, SXSW, and Tribeca Festival all made discernible impacts with their in-home offerings and implementation of supplemental festival pastimes such as film intros, Q&As, and virtual gathering spaces for parties and mixers. Smaller festivals such as Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, Fantasia International Film Festival, Japan Cuts, Nightstream (a collaborative effort of several U.S.-based genre film fests), and Silicon Valley Jewish Film Festival all delivered solid online presentations that mirrored many of the aspects of what they would have doubtlessly incorporated into an in-person edition of their events.
Such glowing examples of a successful translation of the festival experience to online iterations with the same mission should have paved the way for even the doubters to finally come around to hybrid or fully virtual substitutes for the traditional model. But as we all celebrated the dawning of 2022, and another wave of the pandemic disrupted the festival business once again, it became clear that not everyone is fully on board with virtual.
When Sundance, Slamdance, and Rotterdam cancelled their in-person 2022 fests, they were still able to pivot to fully virtual editions, thanks to having built a hybrid solution into their initial planning. While the 2022 Berlinale soldiered on with live gatherings, the European Film Market moved exclusively online for industry participants from around the globe. Notably, Palm Springs International Film Festival did not have an online contingency plan in place, so their in-person cancellation sadly forced them to go dark for the second year in a row.
The amount of work that goes into building a festival lineup alone is a massive undertaking and the severe disappointment of having to undo that work in these times is a tragedy that I’ve experienced firsthand. What has become clear is that concurrent planning for hybrid access future proofs your efforts. It also provides access points that were unfathomable up until very recently.
With issues of accessibility being an evergreen topic of discussion within the art house sphere, the advent of hybrid and virtual models moves the conversation beyond the theoretical and into the realm of the fully possible. Virtual venue solutions provide a means for the disability community and the immunocompromised to enjoy festival content they might otherwise be less prone to access. Geographic distances vanish for the audience member living one-hundred or several thousand miles from your festival hub. If you can imagine an audience, it’s now conceivable to reach it and support in ways that you previously were unable.
The festival and art house circuit has been hit harder during the pandemic than most corners of the entertainment business. We’ve all learned a lot in a very concentrated period of time, and as the industry undergoes yet another moment of evolutionary change it’s time to consider what strategies are worthy of retaining for the long term. Adopting tech-based solutions to reach beyond a given festival’s previous borders is an adaptation that has kept struggling art organizations both visible and in motion during these troubled times, and I’d argue that it’s one that still presents value as we move ever closer toward the post-pandemic era.