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A year ago, when the Banff World Media Festival went all-virtual because of COVID-19, organizers figured the event, nestled high in the Canadian Rockies, would be back to normal by 2021.
They thought wrong.
A year later, the province of Alberta — home to Banff — is still awash in uncertainty thanks to inconsistent lockdown protocols and a vaccine drive that lags behind the U.S., leading the festival to go virtual again this month.
Other international festivals also are grappling with the effects of COVID more than a year later.
The Cannes Film Festival — the biggest in the world — is struggling to pull off its planned in-person event, with travel restrictions and COVID protocols seemingly changing by the day. In Canada, however, the situation is unique in that, after initial success at containing the virus, the country of late has suffered from a less-than-ideal vaccine rollout as well as backlash to both lockdowns and vaccinations.
Banff executive director Jenn Kuzmyk says that while the prospect of European fests moving forward as in-person or hybrid events bodes well for the global events business, safety concerns led Banff organizers to err on the side of caution. “It’s so exciting to see parts of the rest of the world starting to open up,” she says. “But there are vast parts of the world still in crisis.”
Doug Schweitzer, Alberta’s minister of jobs, economy and innovation, predicts a triumphant post-COVID physical return for Banff in 2022. “Vaccines are working. We’ll be able to reopen,” he says.
While that might be true, the uncertainty up north has forced several other Canadian festivals to cancel on-site industry gatherings this year.
Mitch Davis, director of the Fantasia Film Festival (Aug. 5-25) in Montreal says his genre film festival will forgo in-person industry events again in 2021. “Until the majority of Canadians have been fully vaccinated, organizing three weeks of huge indoor gatherings would be reckless and irresponsible,” he says.
Lockdown limbo also has led organizers of the Toronto Film Festival to weigh whether their September event will be virtual or in-person, and Laine Slater, spokesman for the Vancouver Film Festival (Sept. 30-Oct. 10), says the West Coast event will host international guests only “if the health restrictions allow.”
Meanwhile, the show in Banff will go on. To remain an incubator for new TV series — the fest is devoted primarily to the small screen — Banff will offer virtual access to multiple showrunners and directors, including Matt Shakman (WandaVision), Steve Blackman (The Umbrella Academy) and Alena Smith (Dickinson). To help ensure that these virtual talks are fully functional, organizers built a bespoke digital platform called BANFFXchange, which promises virtual pavilions with multiple meeting spaces as well as private videoconferencing rooms for delegates, and tools for both messaging and scheduling.
“What we created is definitely unique for the global landscape of events,” explains Kuzmyk. “It’s comprehensive [and] it’s user-friendly.”
Other new initiatives include a virtual communal delegate lounge that has been designed to be as interactive as possible. “There’s [virtual] tables where you can pull out a chair and see who’s there and message them,” Kuzmyk says.
Even without in-person attendance, the fest will not lack in star power. In addition to industry talks with the likes of Netflix’s Ted Sarandos and Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige, the Banff Rockie Awards on June 15 will honor SNL‘s Kenan Thompson, Danielle Brooks (Robin Roberts Presents: Mahalia), Kim’s Convenience star Simu Liu and Ava DuVernay’s distribution outfit, Array.
And because Banff is a global event, nothing is being left to chance as organizers iron out myriad logistical challenges.
Says Kuzmyk, “Whatever we can do to facilitate people getting together and meeting across time zones, and across the internet, we’re doing that.”
This story first appeared in the June 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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