The big stream: The rise of virtual film festivals
James R | On 14, Mar 2021
With cinemas across the UK and Ireland looking to open once more in a couple of months, the film industry is readying for some kind of return to normality. But the entertainment landscape around the world has changed dramatically in the past 12 months, from a growing number of Premium VOD releases to the shortening of some theatrical windows in the US.
One of the most significant transformations has been the rise of virtual film festivals in place of physical festivals, usually a key drumbeat that shape the annual cinema calendar. Even as film fans, distributors and exhibitors all look forward to returning to the magic of communal, in-person screenings, online festivals – in some form – are likely here to stay.
This past week, for example, saw the end of the 2021 Glasgow Film Festival, which surpassed expectations to draw in 37,733 viewers across its 11 days.
“We had no clear idea what to expect”
“Putting together an online festival was completely unknown territory, so setting our audience targets we had no clear idea what to expect,” says Allison Gardner, CEO of Glasgow Film and Glasgow Film Festival Co-director. “We hoped to reach 20,000 viewers with our online platform, so to have reached over 37,000 before the end of the festival is fantastic. The support from our audiences for the festival has been fantastic and we’re over the moon with how engaged they continue to be with our films.”
At the start of 2021, Sundance Film Festival also found success by going digital, drawing a combined total of more than 600,000 audience views in its 11-day event – 2.7 times the audience its usual in-person version would reach.
It’s a big step from the situation a year ago, as festivals have reacted to the coronavirus outbreak. Cannes didn’t take place at all last May, instead announcing a selection of what would have played if it did. Later that month, 21 international festivals teamed up for one big digital event. Titled We Are One, it aimed to be a major game-changer for cinema but mostly comprised co-curated highlights from past festivals, all of which streamed for free on YouTube. (Mot notably out of the line-up, TV show Losing Alice went on to be picked up by Apple TV+.)
“It was sad but liberating at the same time”
There are number of obstacles involved in taking a festival online, such as replicating the sense of community and shared experience fostered through conversations between audience members after a screening. But getting the films in the first place has also proved a challenge. A year ago, distributors and studios were naturally reluctant to put their films online on a national (or international) scale before sales for particular territories had been secured or other festival appearances booked let alone release dates and distribution strategies worked out. Geo-locking films and limited time windows have helped to meet concerns about piracy and territorial exclusivity, but equally key has been shift in appetite and understanding among both audiences and industry players.
Last summer, Arrow Video FrightFest, one of the biggest horror festivals in the UK, took the decision to go online for its August Bank Holiday weekender.
“Although we’d talked about it, we waited until after Cannes before making up our minds,” Greg Day, a co-director of FrightFest, told us last year ahead of the event. “It was the beginning of June when we decided. It was sad, as we knew it meant we had to give up on the August event being physical, but liberating at the same time as it gave us a new challenge.”
“It did present a challenge and there were titles we couldn’t get,” he added, “but we worked around it as we’d had a tremendous amount of great films submitted to us via Film Freeway, some from quite established directors. We were able to put together a diverse and vibrant programme.”
Taking the opportunity to focus on spotlighting fresh new talent, which has long been a mantra for FrightFest and other film festivals, reinforced the event’s strengths and identity, with genre audiences turning out to stream 25 titles, including 7 world premieres and 16 UK premieres. FrightFest has since gone on to hold a second digital event last Halloween and a virtual version of its annual FrightFest strand at last month’s Glasgow Film Festival.
“We were very pleased with the reaction to the six FrightFest Glasgow titles, both from the fans and the critics,” says Day. “We sold out of bundle passes and all the films were very well attended.”
Some in-person festivals have still happened around the world, with the Venice Film Festival and Toronto International Film Festival both managing small-scale, local events with much smaller audiences. That enabled the premiere of Chloe Zao’s Nomadland in Venice and Francis Lee’s Ammonite in Toronto. The New York Film Festival also went ahead, premiering three episodes from Steve McQueen’s Small Axe.
“We’ve been so excited to see how our audiences have embraced this new model”
The latter two took a hybrid approach, with screenings also taking place online. The London Film Festival adopted the same model, and that combination of in-cinema and online presentation helped bring bigger fish into digital waters. While titles such as Ammonite, Small Axe, One Night in Miami and Nomadland played solely in cinemas, others such as Aleem Khan’s After Love (selected for Cannes 2020), Supernova starring Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci, Cartoon Saloon’s Wolfwalkers, David Byrne’s American Utopia, Mogul Mowgli starring Riz Ahmed and Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round all played digitally.
“We have all been forced to adapt to new ways of working incredibly quickly,” says Michael Blyth, Film Programmer for BFI London Film Festival and Senior Programmer at BFI Flare: London LGBTIQ+ Film Festival. “12 months ago, there was a lot of caution and uncertainty when it came to presenting films online in a way that best served filmmakers, companies and audiences. But as time has gone on, many of the initial hurdles have been overcome, and now there is much more confidence in the fact that online festivals work, making negotiations much easier.”
The LFF achieved an audience of more than 141,253 people for both physical and virtual screenings and XR programme attendances across its public, education and press and industry screenings. The entire events and talks programme was delivered digitally for the first time ever and achieved over 174,285 engagements.
While the exact breakdown of physical vs virtual screenings hasn’t been made public, the virtual aspect of the festival certainly helped bring wider audiences from across the UK to the event, with more than 40 per cent coming from outside of London, with Bristol, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Manchester seeing the biggest audiences.
Indeed, despite the lack of in-person socialising, virtual film festivals have one key benefit for viewers: the online availability of films means that people don’t have to meet the sometimes prohibitive costs of travelling to (and staying in) another city to attend a festival. With 54 virtual premieres and 17 in-cinema premieres at BFI Southbank and 12 partner cinemas across the country, the 2020 LFF proved that streaming could help amplify a festival rather than undermine it.
It’s no coincidence that Amplify! was the name of the online festival jointly put together by Cambridge, FilmBath, CINECITY and Cornwall Film Festivals last November, with premieres including Viggo Mortensen’s directorial debut Falling and Luxor starring Andrea Riseborough.
“We are definitely planning to embed an element of online activity into next year’s festival”
This year, Glasgow Film Festival boasted 10 world premieres in its line-up, including Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché, 3 European premieres and 49 UK premieres, including the high-profile awards contenders Minari and The Mauritanian.
This week, the BFI is about to enter the virtual fray once more with the 2021 BFI Flare London LGBTIQ+ Film Festival. This time last year, it pivoted to BFI Flare At Home less than a week before the festival took place.
“In just days, festival organisers created an offer to give festival ticket holders the opportunity to see on BFI Player a number of great LGBTIQ+ shorts and features from 20th to 29th March that were due to screen at BFI Flare,” explains Blyth.
A number of BFI Flare Filmmakers made themselves available and participated in live Q&A’s on YouTube, including Evan Purchell (Ask Any Buddy), Suzanne Guacci (T-11 Incomplete), Olivier Ducastel (Don’t Look Down), Xiang Zi & José Val Bal (A Dog Barking at the Moon), Phillip Pike (Our Dance of Revolution) and Daniel Karslake (For They Know Not What They Do).
“Over the past 12 months we’ve seen how digital fests have developed and improved”
By the end of the 2020 festival, viewing figures on BFI Player for BFI Flare at Home totalled 5,100 plays across the nine new Flare titles published on Player, rising to more than 7,500 including the views of the Five Films For Freedom (a collection of five free LGBTIQ+ short films). Across the festival period, 21,000 unique users interacted with the BFI’s Flare-branded pages, with 35,000 video plays from users across all Flare content on BFI Player.
The five most-watched films at BFI Flare At Home were And Then We Danced (1,200 views), Don’t Look Down (1,000), For They Know Not What They Do (600 views), Ask Any Buddy (600 views) and T-11 Incomplete (500 views), indicating a correlation between online audience Q&As and higher engagement with virtual screenings.
“Online festivals were a new thing for many, both audiences and industry alike, forcing us all to rethink how we exhibit and consume film,” says Blyth. “Over the past 12 months we’ve seen how digital fests have developed and improved dramatically over such a short space of time, and we’ve been so excited to see how our audiences have embraced this new model. One of the great things about hosting BFI Flare online is that it becomes available to wider audiences, giving UK filmgoers outside of London the chance to access the entire Flare programme for the first time ever.”
This year’s BFI Flare runs from 17th to 28th March and includes 26 features and 38 shorts from 23 countries, with closed captioning and audio description on English-language films. Two world premieres from the UK include Peeter Rebane’s feature debut Firebird (pictured below), a love story set at the height of the Cold War, and Harri Shanahan and Sian A Williams’ rousing documentary Rebel Dykes. Also among the line-up is Tove, a biopic of beloved Moomins creator Tove Jansson.
“We are excited to get back to cinemas, but there are a lot of positive aspects to virtual festivals”
As the film world readies for cinemas eventually reopening, festivals are already booking in their dates for this year’s cinema calendar. But now the virtual gates have been opened, digital streaming hasn’t been taken off the table.
Glasgow Film Festival will return from 2nd to 13th March 2022.
“We are definitely planning to embed an element of online activity into next year’s film festival,” says Gardner. “We’re still not sure where the world will be in 2022, but our online platform is something we have invested in to take forward beyond GFF21. It has run so successfully this year, and allowed us to reach a greater audience around the UK. We want to make sure those audiences who newly discovered us this year are still part of the Glasgow Film Festival family going forward.”
“Going forward, we have every intention of returning to the Cineworld in August but, given the popularity of our three online events, we can’t ignore the fact that a virtual component would be a strong consideration, particularly in the light of continuing reservations around travelling and social interaction,” says Day about this year’s FrightFest.
The London Film Festival, meanwhile, will run from 6th to 17th October.
“We are all excited to get back to cinemas, but there are a lot of positive aspects to virtual festivals, and it will be interesting to see the ways in which festivals maintain a digital component to their programming moving forward,” says Blyth.
In the meantime, BFI Flare will be looking to continue finding ways to improve the online festival experience this week. Blyth notes that building the sense of community that you get from an in-person festival is “something that we have talked about constantly” while preparing for the 2021 digital edition.
“While you can never replicate that feeling of all being together in the same space, we are committed to presenting filmmaker Q&As, discussions and other events as part of this year’s programme, making sure we keep that Flare feeling alive online,” he elaborates. “We are also making all the short films in this year’s programme available to watch for free, giving people the opportunity to see as many as they want, regardless of income, and share them with friends. I hope that there will be lots of DIY watch parties taking place over the course of the festival!”
Keep up with our coverage of online film festivals here.
Main photo: Gareth Cattermole / Getty Images for BFI