Fall Film Festivals Reinvent Themselves Amid Pandemic

Outdoor Drive-In Movie Theater
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Venice, Toronto and New York try collaboration this awards season: "We all need each other right now."

Typically at the end of summer, organizers of fall film festivals are completing their yearlong to-do lists. Shuffling the schedules of anticipated world premieres, arranging travel for A-list directors, planning the glittering parties that serve as quasi proms for the film world. But at the end of this summer, says New York Film Festival director Eugene Hernandez, “We’re becoming very familiar with big parking lots around the city.”

That’s because instead of packing 1,000 black-tie-clad film fans inside Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall this fall, the NYFF will be sending them to New York’s outer boroughs to catch the latest buzzed-about new films from their cars at various pop-up drive-ins around the city.

Like every other facet of life during the pandemic, fall film festival season is wildly different this year, from its venues to its very raison d’être. The four key festivals — Venice, Telluride, Toronto and New York — that typically serve as launchpads for fall films and for awards season have reinvented themselves out of necessity.

With the eligibility period for Academy Awards consideration extended beyond the standard Dec. 31 deadline to Feb. 28, 2021, and with movie theaters in the key markets of New York City and Los Angeles still closed, many distributors and filmmakers that normally rely on fall festivals to kickstart their marketing and sales campaigns are skipping the usual dates on the calendar. And with festivals planning a mixture of virtual, outdoor and socially distanced events to adapt to the COVID-19 era, the ultimate festival coup — a rapturously received, sold-out screening that launches a film like Parasite, Green Book or Moonlight on its way to the best picture Oscar — is an actual impossibility.

“COVID has affected the whole mission of a festival,” says Bob Berney, former Amazon Studios head of theatrical distribution and marketing, who released the faith-based movie Fatima in theaters and on demand Aug. 28 via his Picturehouse label. “You don’t have the audience and critical feedback. Do you even need fests to sell now? Everybody’s just calling up streamers and saying, ‘Do you want to buy it?’”

Acquisition titles hitting TIFF this year include the Mark Wahlberg vehicle Good Joe Bell, the Idris Elba drama Concrete Cowboy, and MLK/ FBI, a documentary about the FBI’s surveillance of Martin Luther King Jr. “No one knows what to expect of the [sales] market at TIFF,” says one agency source. “I don’t think we’ll see huge numbers, but people need content right now.”

Normally fierce competitors for premieres, the four fests cooperated this year and booked some of the same films. For distributors bold enough to wade into the uncertain marketplace, the hope is that a coordinated festival bow will help a film stand out through the long season ahead. Festival stalwart Searchlight is premiering its Chloé Zhao-directed Frances McDormand drama Nomadland at all four festivals, even though the film isn’t due in theaters until December (Telluride, which canceled its Colorado Labor Day event this year, is hosting a drive-in screening of Nomadland in Los Angeles on Sept. 11).

“We all need each other right now,” says Searchlight president Nancy Utley. “Nomadland is a smaller film than a lot of the ones being discussed, and we don’t want it to get lost. With the festivals banding together, our film has more of a chance of being noticed and seen.”

Filmmakers are largely deferring their usual dreams of gazing out at a theater of people watching their movie and instead planning to make do with online screenings and Zoom Q&As. “I’m getting more and more comfortable with doing things virtually,” says MLK/FBI director Sam Pollard. “Let’s see how we can get people to watch it. And create a real social media outlet, so people know that this show really exists.” Still, says Pollard, “I’d love to see it with some kind of audience, someplace.”

One potentially positive byproduct of the virtual screenings may be greater inclusivity, as events normally accessible only to people with connections and cash for travel become open to broader groups. “This isn’t all bad if it introduces the festival to new audiences,” says Hernandez. “What would have been a big screening for 1,000 of all the right people becomes something different.”

Participant Media CEO David Linde, who normally travels to all four festivals each year, will be spending this festival season watching from home, even as his Spike Lee-directed David Byrne concert film, American Utopia, opens TIFF on Sept. 10. “We don’t know exactly what’s going to happen on opening night,” says Linde. “They’re finding different ways to push out the movie, but it’s important to support the festival.” For people like Linde, who often spend much of a festival in meetings and at panels and parties, there will be some benefit to a pandemic-style virtual fest. He adds, “I’ll probably get a chance to see more movies.”

This story first appeared in the Sept. 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.