Tribeca, Toronto Festival Heads Discuss Going Digital Amid Pandemic Impact

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Jane Rosenthal

"It's up to audiences to have more choices," Tribeca festival co-founder Jane Rosenthal said of producing the We Are One: A Global Film Festival on YouTube that kicks off Friday.

With the Cannes and Tribeca film festivals canceled or postponed by the novel coronavirus pandemic, and Venice and Toronto set to embrace digital technologies to revive their September editions, global film festival directors talked about the future of physical cinema showcases in a post-COVID-19 world on Thursday.

The consensus was that while in-person film festivals that grew up around red carpets and big cinema screens will eventually return in strength, they will also need to embrace digital technologies to keep pace with online alternatives. And that includes about 21 festivals, led by Cannes, Toronto, Berlin, Venice and Locarno, having come together in the past month to launch the inaugural We Are One: A Global Film Festival. 

The 10-day digital-only event kicks off Friday on YouTube and was spearheaded by Tribeca Enterprises and the Google platform. "You can watch a film online and watch it in the theater and have two very distinct experiences. It's up to audiences now to have more choices," Tribeca Enterprises and Tribeca Film Festival's co-founder and CEO Jane Rosenthal told a panel during a session that was webcast on Thursday.

Rosenthal added that the idea to hatch the We Are One festival during a devastating public health crisis had the same long-term recovery goal as the Tribeca film festival, launched by herself and Robert De Niro in 2002 to bring film audiences back to lower Manhattan after the Sept. 11, 2001, World Trade Center attacks.

"Obviously, with this pandemic, we can't physically gather, so I started thinking about how else to bring the world together, to bring festivals together in a way that's never been done before," she recounted, while also playing up the healing process possible as stay-at-home filmmakers and filmgoers gather online.

"It's almost like a mental health crisis. We all need something new to look forward to and we all need to create new memories and all of us, no matter where we are in the world, are feeling that same sense of wanting something new," Rosenthal added.

De Niro applauded YouTube for helping bring the global film community together during a time of unprecedented crisis. "I could see no other way of doing it and who knows where we'll go in the future with things like this," he told the panel.

The actor added the roots of the We Are One festival were different from his Tribeca festival originally rising like a phoenix from the ashes of the 2001 terror attacks in that the current pandemic has longer and more impactful consequences for New York City and the U.S. "Obviously, we're in it [the pandemic] for we don't know how long and however we come out of it, it'll be in stops and starts and spurts and here and there until there are definite cures or a vaccine. It's a whole different thing. It's like a science fiction movie," he told the panel.

De Niro also took the opportunity to reignite his feud with President Donald Trump when he argued emerging from the novel coronavirus crisis would be easier "if we had the right team in the White House. That's even more distressing."

Others on the panel also talked about an international film festival world quickly transitioning online amid the global pandemic lockdown. Toronto Film Festival executive director and co-head Joana Vicente said her September event is headed online, while retaining a physical presence in the city where possible, to stage a 2020 edition heavily impacted by the COVID-19 crisis.

"We're developing, as everyone else, a digital platform for the festival, and at the same time we're still planning to have some physical festival — it's definitely going to look different," Vicente told the panel.

Mumbai Film Festival artistic director Smriti Kiran underlined how setting new dates or virtual platforms for festivals was difficult when each had long-standing local partners like filmmakers and sponsors. But Kiran insisted physical festivals had to open up to what she called "digital arms" in the future to stay relevant to evolving film audiences.

"It's no longer fashionable to say you're technologically challenged," she told the panel.

The inaugural We Are One event will run exclusively on YouTube from May 29 through June 7 at YouTube.com/WeAreOne.

On every film page, there will be a donate button allowing viewers to contribute to organizations, including the WHO, UNICEF and Doctors Without Borders, as each helps on the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis. YouTube chief business officer Robert Kyncl told the panel staging a digital festival along with Tribeca during a global pandemic required that it become a free event for film lovers, and not look to monetize the 10-day run via advertising or subscription revenues. 

"Right now we can't think in commercial terms. It's just not the right time for it. It would be very complicated and the reason this happened is because we set all that aside," Kyncl said.