Waiting for the wave – film festivals between shutdown and hope

Distribution of the number of announced festival dates over the year 2020 (as per 31/3/20, database: own festival calendar).
Increased columns=new dates (the colour refers to the originally planned month), grey= postponed to autumn without fixed dates (as a forecast evenly distributed over 4 months)


Since mid-March at the latest, cultural life, insofar as it is based on human encounters, has been at a standstill. Organizers of film festivals that were planned for the near future, felt the ground pulled out from under their feet overnight. Many organizers of festivals that should have taken place shortly after the outbreak of the pandemic worked in vain for up to a year.



The cinema shutdowns ordered overnight have left festivals that took place in mid-March with no alternatives. The Festival international de films de femmes in Créteil had to close on the opening day. The Regard Festival in Saguenay, Canada, and Tricky Women in Vienna were hit on the second and third day respectively. The Regensburg Short Film Week had to stop midway and closed with a virtual awards ceremony.



A few days later, a number of festivals – in an admirable way – quickly set up provisional online offerings. For example the International Women’s Film Festival in Cologne, CPH:Dox in Copenhagen or the film festivals in Aspen and Ann Arbor.



The festivals that succeed later can react with more deliberation. But for them, too, there is very little leeway. Ultimately, only two options remain: Cancel or postpone. Because for a festival to do without the presence of people and offer programmes online is not a real alternative. What is still possible depends very much on the remaining planning period, the size of the festival and the location. Three scenarios are conceivable …




Scenario 1: Shutdown



A hard closure remains the only option for festivals at hotspots such as the Hong Kong Independent Short Film & Video Awards (ifva) and festivals that wanted to start shortly after the announcement of assembly bans, such as the Festival international de films de femmes in Créteil.


In these cases the organizers had no choice and had to react with cancellations without alternative.




Scenario 2: cancellation without substitution



Even festivals that fall within a period for which the authorities have already specified minimum periods for the ban on assembly have little room for manoeuvre. Some festivals have immediately referred to the next festival in 2021 with their cancellation note. If one also includes those festivals that offer online services, but cannot actually take place in real life, then this group includes 50 festivals so far.



The reasons for a cancellation without substitution are related to the size of the festivals. Small and regional festivals, which either do not have a large international participation (travel restrictions) and/or do not depend on a large staff and helpers, have a greater scope of action and a different time horizon.



Larger festivals have the problem that they are already affected by bans and necessary protective measures in the preparatory phase, i.e. they are left without urgently needed, present staff. This applies not only to staff who may be employed all year round, but especially to short-term employees (such as technicians), interns or volunteers who first have to be instructed in their work. It is neither possible to be trained online, nor can tasks in areas such as logistics or copy handling be carried out from a home office.



These festivals that have already cancelled include the Short Film Festival Oberhausen and the Stuttgart Festival of Animated Film (May) and the Short Film Festival Hamburg (June).




Scenario 3: Postponement to a later festival date



Postponing the screening to a later date is the friendliest solution, at least from the filmmakers’ perspective, because then they can show their films in the cinema directly in front of an audience and they benefit from the personal social networking that is the foundation of the cultural practice festival/cinema.



For the organizers, postponement instead of cancellation has the advantage of remaining present and, if necessary, amortizing certain preliminary services, such as viewing and selection processes or contractually agreed services, for example for curators or speakers. However, the further a festival date is postponed, the higher the proportion of costs for services to be performed twice.



Large festivals, however, must reckon with potentially unacceptable consequences if the date is postponed. This begins with tasks that have to be performed again, continues with the loss of visitors due to other scheduling and travel plans by guests and professional audiences, and ends with the loss of project funds for time- and location-related projects.




Status of postponements (as at 31/3/20)



The vast majority of the festivals in our calendar have already decided to postpone. About 50 festivals have already announced that they will take place later than originally planned. Others will certainly follow – cumulatively until the authorities announce an end to the states of emergency.



The postponements now extend into the month of November. Among the major short film festivals, Curtas Vila do Conde (P) was the most pessimistic. The festival has been postponed from mid-July to early October. The most optimistic were the Rencontres du Moyen Métrage in Brive (Paris), which switched from early April to early June.




Landslide and jams in the festival calendar



About half of all festivals that wanted to take place in May and June have announced a postponement, but not yet a new date. The postponements known so far are concentrated on September/October. In these months, which under normal circumstances are traditionally among the strongest festivals of the year anyway, there will be extreme densification (see diagram above). Filmmakers and professionals will find themselves in scheduling difficulties and everyone will have to reckon with fewer visitors.


Actually, mutual arrangements would make sense, but this is probably illusory, since the organisations that could coordinate centrally are too weak or still too new, or have no established working structures (for example the International Short Film Conference or the German AG Filmfestival).




Recommendations for clarification for festival planning in the crisis



– realistic estimates of the minimum necessary preparation time for each phase of the festival production

– when, how quickly and to what extent will personnel or helpers be available later

– early communication and arrangements with funders, sponsors, authorities

– Coordination of new festival dates with external factors (season, holidays, competing events, freedom to travel)




Uncertainties – what one should expect …



It is currently not possible to predict when the situation will improve and when the restrictions will be lifted. The safest strategy would be to set new dates only on the day on which it is officially announced that cinemas may reopen.


For the period after the ‘exit’, one should be prepared to meet security requirements (hygiene rules, distance rules in meeting rooms and other protective measures, as we can currently observe).


Unfortunately, the possible occurrence of further waves of infection is not calculable. Difficult to predict, but quite probable, is a slump in film production, which will have an impact on next year’s festival programme.





Statement of the AG Filmfestival: News – AG Filmfestival

Further information: www.german-films.de/corona-updates/index.html



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