Dramatic changes are currently underway in the sense and purpose, as indeed the roles, that festivals assume. And my impression is that almost all the parameters long regarded as self-evident are being newly defined right now. Parameters that for many years have ensured stability in terms of how a festival is expected to function and work. And this process, which has been ongoing for quite a while, has now become visible, with the onset of the pandemic having an accelerating impact on it.
Critical change factors here include the ever-increasing numbers of festivals, the powerful growth in the number of films seeking exploitation and sales, as well as the disruption caused by digital online activities parallel to the weakening in the cultural practice of physically going to the cinemas. Likewise, media policy changes are playing a role here, as indeed are film-funding policy changes in the tertiary cultural sector. And the impacts on the film industry, as well as on the circulation of films and the film culture overall, are still not completely foreseeable.
How are film festivals reacting to these new challenges? Well, persisting with old mind-sets will only lead to illusionary self-perceptions. One obvious reaction would initially be to organise exchanges about viable concepts for the future, and then seek out opportunities for cooperation. And in fact, over the last two years new forms of cooperation have been ascertained increasingly.
(Classic) Forms of Cooperation
In the past, cooperative endeavours between festivals were formed especially for lavish retrospectives, which made sense not only in terms of the resources and costs. By taking over such programmes, films normally unavailable or the oeuvre of critical filmmakers, furnished with a well-founded context, become accessible to wider audiences, and that even at differing locations. In this way, festivals have always made an important contribution to the mediation of culture.
Yet faced with the paradigm shift being triggered off by digitalisation, it is presumable that in the future only major festivals will be able to afford the ‘luxury’ of showing extensive retrospectives on their silver screens. Once the film heritage has been ‘completely digitalised’ and the reproduction of digital copies of films on monitors and computer screens is, at the same time, accepted as being equivalent or of equal value in film studies and teaching, as well as by the audiences and within cinephile circles , then the purpose and significance of this cultural contribution as such will become devalued. And that not because the distribution and visibility of critical film-historical and artistic works is adequately substituted by their being screened on YouTube and co. (which is not true), but rather because the authentic forms of representation are no longer being valued and cultivated sufficiently.
Current Competition Films in Exchanges and on Tours
The classic forms of cooperation consisted of having programme exchanges only with films relevant to film history, or in other words, with old films. But this is no longer the case today. Exchanges with new films are now becoming the rule. These programmes, adorned with labels such as “Best of” or “Showcase”, are being passed on from one event to the next or sent off on tours. It often occurs that the programmes are not even properly curated, consisting of eclectic recommendations by the respective festival directors.
Some examples of this from the short film sector:
- The Anifilm Festival in Liberec (Czech Republic) claims to have twenty-four “partner festivals” ranging from Annecy to the Stuttgart International Festival of Animated Film (ITFS), through to the Ottawa Animation Festival – without however explaining what these partnerships consist of.
- The Courtisane Festival in Gent (Belgium) is cooperating in 2021 with the Film Fest Gent event and this October is screening almost only author programmes, many of which can also be seen elsewhere and have just been announced there (e.g., Kevin Jerome Everson, Laida Lertxundi, Sky Hopinka).
- From July to October, the Stuttgart International Festival of Animated Film (ITFS) is screening six programmes in the Pop-up House of Switzerland in cooperation with Fantoche Baden (Switzerland) and has named about thirty other festivals as partners – including Annecy (Switzerland), Animafest Zagreb (Croatia), London Animation Film Festival and Filmfest Dresden. Here too, no description is provided of what the cooperation consists of.
- Vienna Shorts screened films at Short Waves in Poznan (Poland) on the subject of solidarity, as well as an international and Austrian programme at the Ljubljana Short Film Festival (Slovenia) in August.
- The Short Film Festival of Switzerland (in Winterthur) has named the Zurich Film Festival, in addition to a cooperation with the “Focus Switzerland” special section at Filmfest Dresden.
And one extreme example: There is an event in Berlin called “Festiwelt”, at which only films from other festivals are screened. With films from more than 20 Berlin film festivals running there every hour in the ACUDkino cinema.
Lip Service and Minimal Impacts
Declarations of solidarity are well received by the general public, and the naming of cooperative ventures and partners has now become de rigueur in every funding application. Yet for that, what happens in reality is often very modest indeed. Many of the cooperations announced are worded in an oddly vague manner, with some of those mentioned above not even to be found at the partner festivals.
Likewise, major international fiction film festivals have become active here. In May 2020, the announcement by the director of Cannes, Thierry Frémaux, of their intention to cooperate with other festivals, including Toronto, San Sebastian, New York and Venice – in order not to block the cinema marketing and exploitation of films not being screened in May – was widely reported. For this purpose, 56 films from the originally planned programme were chosen personally by the festival director, so as to launch them – embellished with the label “Cannes 2020” – at other festivals. Yet by the end of the year, only a few of the titles had been taken over, and even fewer had gained cinema distribution and marketing.
During the peak of the pandemic in 2020, an announcement by the festivals in Toronto, New York, Telluride and Venice also hit the headlines of the global industry trade journals and magazines. “Major Fall Film Festivals Commit to Cooperate, Not Compete, Amid Pandemic”, was how The Hollywood Reporter headlined this. The statement released by the four festivals, which do not have much in common as such other than sharing the same festival time period (six weeks in the autumn), was tightly worded in a weirdly vague manner. Among others, a common platform was named, of which nothing was mentioned subsequently, however. But at least they were able to agree in 2020 to present “Nomadland” from Zhao at all four festivals. Then in 2021, agreement was reached by just three of the festivals regarding the (expected) blockbusters “Dune” from Denis Villeneuve and “The Power of the Dog” from Jane Campion. All films that have actually had their theatrical releases now in October as well.
Festival Circuit – An Outdated Model?
It looks like the festivals will, like in the past, again be falling over each other in 2022 for the premieres of potential blockbuster movies. But are there enough titles at all that fit into this classic model of using a prominent festival premiere as a guarantee for their subsequent cinematic exploitation? And would this represent an opportunity for the return of independent artistic productions?
Up to now, the ‘festival circuit’, or ‘festival run’ as it is termed in the movie parlance, was a firm parameter in the potential career of a film. Without festivals, there was no distribution agreement, no publicity and no cinema release. In such a festival scene with a clear hierarchy, festivals compete with each other for the most important films, as well as for premieres, for time frames, for industry professionals, for stars, for press coverage, and so much more. But the emergence and success of global video-on-demand providers is causing sustained, long-term damage to this model.
Furthermore, due to their commercial strengths, the VoD providers are also ensuring that the time windows for the cinema exploitation of films are becoming ever shorter or disappearing completely. In this way, a further parameter has changed that is fundamental to how festivals function and work as defined to date.
Now it is possible to argue here that this was never true for the short film sector, as the marketing and exploitation cycle is non-existent here. But short film festivals do copy the models adopted by the ‘majors’, through to their rules and regulations. And, to the extent that short films especially almost only ever get to grace the silver screens at festivals, they are even more important in this sector.
Cooperations Due to Financial and Funding Regulation Pressures
In countries that provide festival funding from state resources, such as Canada in North America and the European Union Member States especially, amended regulations are forcing festivals to undertake cooperative ventures and networking should they wish to receive funding. In the latest Creative Europe subprogramme for festivals, significant funding has been allocated to the new “Action 2” for the professionalisation of European festival networks. As there was no public debate about this nor any transparent presentation as to why the policies were amended, may I permit myself a cynically simple response: Faced with a glut of festivals and the high number of applications expected, less time and effort is expended managing a shared application from five festivals than for five individually submitted ones.
Perhaps the sole sensible area of cooperation where the EU network funding can really help festivals consists of support in the development of new technical structures in the online sector, where they are required due to the pandemic, and above and beyond this as well, presumably. This is the route being taken by the four festivals: Go Short – International Short Film Festival Nijmegen (Netherlands), International Short Film Festival Oberhausen (DE), Vienna Shorts (Austria) and Short Waves Festival (Poland). However, cooperative efforts to achieve such online representation, which is ultimately based on specific techniques, presuppose that all the festivals involved use the same platforms (which in this case are Filmchief and Vimeo). This represents one handicap in the ‘freedom to choose partners’. And when it comes to the successful cooperation with the “This is short” platform, the question does remain of how much sense this makes when the cooperation only leads to an additional ‘shopfront’ and all those involved continue to maintain their own portals with their own CI, and that in addition to their own physical festivals. Moreover: As a label, “short film” or “shorts” is far too weak as a common brand so as to offer an advantage or benefit to those involved.
Of course, cooperative efforts between festivals are fundamentally not a bad thing. But it is necessary and wise to clarify in advance which positive sense and purpose they are intended to fulfil. Lavish, complex retrospectives or well-researched thematic programmes of rarely screened films are certainly suitable for this. Yet as long as competition sections belong to the exclusive core of a festival, their competition films do not constitute programme content that can be exchanged or shared. Doing so would not only undermine the specific identity of the festival in question, but also lead to less diversity and variety. Already now it is becoming evident that despite the ever-increasing number of productions, the same short films are circulating more and more frequently from one festival to the next. Now this cannot be verified with figures, as comparable research has not been undertaken here to date. But my annual award-winner analyses  do provide some indications: It is only a small group of films that accumulate most of the awards and prizes worldwide. And I fear that content-based cooperations would accentuate this tendency even more. Cooperative efforts in the programming area inevitable lead to a reduction in the ‘broadcasting slots’. Unless of course they are extended limitlessly online…
Ultimately, the type of festival is what counts. At an event such as the Images Festival Toronto for instance, it is part of their profile that film programmes and discussion rounds from other festivals or organisations are ‘co-presented’ as guest programmes. The classic competition programme has a subordinate role here and actually just provides an occasion to have international filmmakers present at the event. Which is of course perfectly fine!
The vast majority of the events that call themselves festivals today and only want to use this term to showboat themselves or glitter in the spotlight – including red-carpet rollouts – have completely abandoned any claims to being a classic festival. And pure audience festivals that only serve local and regional cinema audiences are not at risk of having a lack of attention or an identity loss because they repeat the programmes of other event organisers. In fact, they are more likely to compete with the cinemas, but that is a different issue as such.
Festival-Branding and Franchising
With classic festival models becoming less important as marketing and exploitation drivers for film productions due to the changing parameters, film festivals are modifying their service-provider role and becoming more active players in the movie industry itself. In addition to screening films, many festivals have long been involved in areas such as production and distribution by now. In this way, the festivals’ raison d’être is shifting from being providers of ‘film circuits’ to becoming the most comprehensive possible and consolidated ‘closed circuits’ of their own activities. This assertion and spreading of their own brands into all the areas they additionally ‘conquer’ will ultimately become more important than cooperations between and among festivals, and more important than the support of the film and cinema culture beyond their own circles.
At least in other cultural sectors and areas, geographic expansions have long become the norm and aim for achieving market dominance. In the music industry, for instance, the concert sector is dominated by international promoters that have turned festivals such as Lollapalooza into a brand. The issuing of all-year-round festival passes, their own internet TV channels and other ancillary businesses are all part of this. On the art market, the ever-growing global expansion of corporate-managed  art fairs with their concentration and frequency, which result in an unaffordable marathon of dates for galleries. Similar developments apply for the franchising of art museums (‘The Guggenheim Principle’).
In extreme cases, these developments lead to the opposite of cooperation. In the film sector, however, it seems that to date franchises have only worked with thematic or genre festivals. Examples of these include fantasy film festivals and festivals dedicated to nature and environmental topics. Networks arise here, to which festivals with their own programmes belong, and so-called travelling festivals as well, with those involved screening the same films everywhere. Examples of such nature and environmental festival networks include: the Green Documentary Film Festival – EcoCup (20 cities in Russia and in the CIS states), Filmfestival Ökofilmtour, Nature Without Border International Film Festival, BANFF Mountain-Film-Festival World-Tour, Green Screen Naturfilmfestival + Tour or International Ocean Film Tour.
Slowly but surely, the idea of franchises  is even being considered by the classic film festivals. For filmmakers, such models are – provided screening fees are being paid – far more beneficial than hoping for a good festival run at some major international festival. By now, and this is also part of the current changes, most of the films running at film festivals no longer achieve regular-traditional exploitation (in the cinemas or on TV) anymore. And this is one experience that is not new to the makers of short films.
Further articles on related topics (only in German):
 Please see “Down with Cinephilia? Long Live Cinephilia? And Other Videosyncratic Pleasures”, Marijke de Valck and Malte Hagener, 2019 Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam
 In the sports sector, franchises such as e.g., the “Arnold Sports Festivals” , are spreading across the globe. This one also includes hands-on, participative activities such as “Pump and Run” or “Art at the Arnold”. Owner: Arnold Schwarzenegger
 Such as the Art Basel/Miami/Hong Kong/Singapore that belong to the MCH Group
 Hilmar Hoffmann (Ed.): Das Guggenheim-Prinzip (The Guggenheim Principle), DuMont 2002
 Green Screen Naturfilmfestival + Tour
 »As the documentary film genre has been increasingly asserting itself, Labović’s vision of the future “pilot” franchise project also encompasses the establishment of a special documentary film edition of the Festival that would be organised before the main Festival in Portorož«, zitiert aus: The 24th Festival of Slovenian Film returns to Portorož – Bojan Labović is the new director, URl: https://www.film-center.si/en/news/8023/the-24th-festival-of-slovenian-film-returns-to-portoroz-bojan-labovic-is-the-new-director/