Half-Full Screenings, Red Carpet Masks, Zoom Q&As: Welcome to the COVID-Era Film Fest

Atmosphere (Palazzo del Cinema) during the 76th Venice Film Festival - 2- August 2019- Getty-H 2020
Daniele Venturelli/WireImage

Normally glittery, awards-driven affairs, the pandemic forces fall's premier cinematic events to weigh survival against safety: "Who the hell is gonna want to go to Italy in September?"

A world premiere to a mostly empty theater of locals. A post-screening Q&A conducted via Zoom. A red carpet with masks as the must-have accessory.

Normally the fall film festival season is a starry, sold-out, globe-trotting affair that sets a course for the Oscars. But this year, Hollywood is preparing for a smaller, socially distanced series of events that will function more to prove that the wounded film industry is still standing during the pandemic than to anoint awards contenders.

Of the four marquee festivals typically used to launch fall films — Venice, Telluride, Toronto and New York — all say they intend to exist in some form this year, and each is exploring different avenues and conferring with each other on safety protocols. Rivals who typically compete to snare the best films are instead now swapping ideas and commiserating about their unprecedented challenges.

“How can we stage this in a way that’s safe, but at the same time grow something new?” says New York Film Festival director Eugene Hernandez, who is working toward a Sept. 25 opening night. “It may be quieter in some ways — New York is enduring a crisis right now — but constraints often inspire creativity, and New Yorkers are resilient. Sure, there may be fewer throngs of press and people at some screenings. It may be more intimate, but we will find new ways to continue to support the art. We will adapt.”

Festival directors are examining issues like how to space screenings in order to allow time for deep cleaning in between films, how to include filmmakers and talent who may not wish to travel, and how to strike the right tone in the COVID-19 era. Venice artistic director Alberto Barbera, who is eyeing a Sept. 2 start for his festival, has pledged to work with rival festival Cannes in a “sign of solidarity toward the cinema world.” The Telluride Film Festival, which was scheduled to open Sept. 4, is in the process of retaining permits to add an additional day, in order to screen their films more often in emptier theaters. And Toronto, which is set to open Sept. 10 and attracts studios with the enthusiasm of its audiences, is planning a festival that will be at least partly if not mostly digital.

A major question is how many industry figures will actually attend these scaled-down events. Sales agents and filmmakers who typically sprint from Venice to Toronto in a narrow, early September window will now likely have to self-quarantine for an extended period if they travel. “If there’s an important business reason for us to be at a festival, I will go to support that film,” says FilmNation Entertainment CEO Glen Basner, whose company helped finance and produce 2020 films like the Tom Hanks starrer Greyhound for Sony and the Carey Mulligan vehicle Promising Young Woman, which Focus Features acquired at Sundance. “If I have to self-quarantine when I get back, then I’ll do that.”

Another industry source is more skeptical. “Who the hell is gonna want to go to Italy in September? Is talent gonna demand private jets cause they don’t want to fly commercial?”

Studios and streamers that would normally be spending time this spring screening close-to-finished movies for festival directors are instead taking a wait-and-see attitude.

“We’re all rooting for this to happen and to go back to whatever the new normal is,” says one studio source. “But you start planning for the fall and an hour later the CDC makes it feel like that’s not going to be a viable option.”

Hollywood’s shut-down has impacted work on high-profile projects that would have been festival fare, like Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley for Fox Searchlight and David Fincher’s Mank for Netflix, making them unlikely to be finished in time for a Telluride or Venice bow, even if the festivals proceed.

Meanwhile some films that had been headed toward twice-canceled Cannes are in limbo as that festival attempts to lay out yet a third plan, possibly via its collaboration with Venice or a modest event in October during what is traditionally festival director Thierry Fremaux’s event celebrating cinema history, the Lumière Film Festival in Lyon.

For those with finished films, the decision to attend a festival this year involves new variables. “These festivals serve a curatorial function, and that curatorial function isn’t going to change,” says longtime industry publicist Cynthia Swartz. “But it'll be a harder decision if you have a film that you think will be a big audience pleaser and obviously festivals won’t be able to fully deliver that experience, either due to social distancing in the theater itself or because there are fewer press and industry people there to witness that excitement.”

Studios are also waiting to see what new Oscar qualifying rules the Academy will set at its board of governors meeting April 28. Given the organization’s blessing that doing so would not affect awards eligibility, some distributors may opt to premiere their films on-demand now, with the understanding that the studios will support a theatrical release when theaters reopen. “Right now there’s a captive audience at home,” says a studio source. “So do you take a look at another way of getting the films out there?”

The festivals themselves, meanwhile, provide crucial revenue for the nonprofit arts organizations that throw them, and canceling entirely would mean financial ruin, especially for the American festivals, which don’t have government backing. Multiple studio sources say they will continue to provide sponsorship to festivals, even if they don’t send films this year. In other words, they would rather commit to just writing a check than to sending talent and staff to a potentially unsafe event.

For filmmakers seeking distribution, wading into the fall’s uncertain marketplace while others wait out the pandemic could be a way to stand out. "Who’s going to be buying?” asks one industry source. “What’s the climate going to be like? At some point the streamers will have a lag in production and will need stuff. Some films might get an advantage by being the ones who decide to go this year."

Even a downsized festival will be its own kind of triumph, says Basner. “I’ll just be so pleased to be in a screening room in a beautiful cinema watching a movie again, I’ll be more inclined to buy.”