MCN Commentary & Analysis

Returning To The Church of Cinema: Part 1 – The Festivals

It’s April 23, 2020. New York seems to be over the COVID-19 hump. The, uh, president is encouraging “reopening” America while simultaneously hedging so that he won’t be blamed for encouraging this when people start dying in states that reopen too recklessly. The threat of a rekindling of the pandemic in America looms heavily over the fall and winter.

But for now, let’s discuss how we might get back to the movies.

First, we need to start being brutally honest with ourselves and each other.

Cannes is great. Venice is great. But outside of exciting a thin swath of film critics, writers, and industry types who go to Cannes every year, the loss of this festival does not affect the American cinema. Almost all of the festival films that are purchased for US distribution at Cannes go into the International category for Oscar and will not get a theatrical platform of any size in America until the following year. Most of the films that show in theaters and festivals in America in the fall of any given year go into the festival with a US distributor. There are exceptions. But not many.

Venice has even less impact on the US market, aside from as a marketing platform.

I love festivals. I love the communal experience of seeing movies, unencumbered by the predispositions that marketing and publicity create. I go out of my way not to know about the films I will see at any festival, aside from friendly recommendations and loglines in the festival guides.

There is an enormous rush of power in the moment when you are one of a very small group of people who have seen a movie play in a room and interested parties clamor for your insight (to embrace or toss aside). But this moment should not be the key to the future of any film. It has been. Especially at Cannes. But it should not be.

But that strikes at a key element of the festival universe: the marketing and publicity value to distributors. Festivals are often used as a launching pad as much as anything else. But the direct cause and effect — outside of New York City, where the Times and a couple other outlets with popular critics can key the success or failure of a small film — is negligible. Festivals are bait for press coverage. And that works for both sides (to the degree it works for either side). But marketing and successful publicity is still required for a small film to do over $1 million in theatrical or better on VOD. And for a wide-release movie, it’s all about marketing, no matter how well a film does at a festival.

So why are we anxious to get back to Telluride, Toronto and New York this September?

Because we love movies. Because of the rush of the new. Because losing the revenue from the festivals themselves for these organizations would be devastating financially.

But first… Do no harm.

My first major suggestion for the fall festivals hoping to have a footprint is to take the media out of the equation. At least, in person.

There is no major distributor without a secure streaming system of some kind. Take the entire media experience of these festivals to the web. Show the movies. Set up digital interviews. Set strict review embargo dates.

This is a huge opportunity for the distributors. They can expand the base of writers who see these films and to an increasing degree, control when they write about them. The good and the bad of a place like Telluride is that a few loud voices are going to define your film going into Toronto and even beyond. If you win those people over, you win. If you lose those people, you may never recover. Again, a power rush… but not one worth gambling on.

Toronto has a ton more film writers attending than Telluride. It is heavily a media festival for premieres. These festivals compete for premieres. That doesn’t have to change, either.

Distributors could set up the same system for media that it already has. If your film premieres at Telluride, only allow writers who have passes for the festival see and write about the film in that window. Then, widen the audience for Toronto and get that second wave.

The point is, the media element that launches award season can be controlled and, surprisingly, improved for the distribution side.

The next step is the festival itself. And here is the thing… this is the most fragile element of any notion of having a fall festival. Putting people in rooms together.

The weather in Telluride is late summer/early fall, with temperatures that swing between 45 and 85 degrees over a weekend… usually with rain. The altitude is high. People have trouble breathing as it is. I have no idea whether this is a problem with COVID-19, but I do know that people who issues breathing have a bigger problem with the virus. Where is that line?

Toronto tends to be warmer, rarely dipping below 60 at night or getting warmer than 85 during the festival.

Telluride is a festival mostly of visitors to the glorious mountain town. Toronto is a festival with the vast majority of tickets purchased by locals with a large contingent of people coming in from out of town as press or industry. But they are very different challenges.

Toronto seats somewhere between 25,000 and 35,000 people in theaters each day at the festival. Telluride has fewer than 3000 attendees in total. So I see very different plans for both festivals.

Here is the benefit for both of these festivals, as opposed to the shuttered SXSW and Cannes: Neither is a sales festival. There are some titles and that might have to change. But while the idea of a South By film looking for distribution accepting a position in the online film festival being co-sponsored by Amazon, the stakes are very different at Tell&Tiff.

Also, the idea of making festival films available openly to non-fest participants is a non-starter for either of these situations.

For Telluride, I would start with the assumption that 20% of the pass buyers are not showing up this year, no matter how much of an all-clear sign is given. It could easily be more. Young people come to the festival, but the majority of attendees are over 50.

Then I would take the four-day long festival and cut it into two three-day festivals. They already got approval for an extra day. But what is needed is to cut the thing in half and let people decide which identical half they want to attend… First come, first served.

Things need to be a bit more aggressive on the cleaning side. But the volunteers — another issue — are amazing at the festival. Cut the crowd in half and everything will feel safer. Movies already screen multiple times to allow everyone to see them over the weekend. Great. The biggest house is the Werner Herzog Theater with 650 seats. Now 325 seats.

Take your temperature. Wear your mask. If you have a serious cough, stay in your rental. If you are sneezing moistly, stay in your rental.

Reconsider the “Q” system, encouraging people to get their Q early and to come back to enter the theater in time-specific groups. We are all in this together.

How much would it cost to set up a wellness center to support responsible participation? Probably nothing. I can’t imagine that some insurer or healthcare company wouldn’t jump for the chance to reach high-end customers.

When I first started going to Telluride, there was a local cable channel that became the Telluride Channel for the weekend of the fest. It would offer additional programming relevant to the festival. There was also a cable channel for TIFF back when. If you want to do the events that they now do in the park, with four or five filmmakers and a moderator discussing the issues of the moment, great… do it however you choose, Zoom, Skype, whatever, and post it to the web so festivalgoers can get access live (maybe) and post to YouTube so the entire world can engage the conversations. Welcome to 2020.

Again, I would consider leaving the media out of the equation. Distributor preferences would have to be discussed with festivals. But another 100 – 150 people off the top, with a plan to give the entire group access to the films in play, could not hurt.

There are, of course, a hundred details I am not working through. Julie Huntsinger and Tom Luddy are very smart and have smart people with whom they can work this out. But this is the core of my suggestion… expand the dates, reduce the crowds, control the media. And sorry… lose the reusable water bottles.

But the thing about Telluride is that it is really about the cinema as church. No one is going to be upset because there are no tributes for a year. Or no celebrities. And of course, people can be brought to the theater via the internet… which has been done a number of times at Telluride just because someone could not make it to the mountain.

There is the possibility that a fresh outbreak could happen in the weeks before the festival and the whole thing would have to be stopped. But if that is not the case, there could be a Telluride that is not what we have been used to for so many years, but which remains faithful to the ideal. A win for all who love film.

But if that is the case, there could be a virtual version of the festival as simple and complex as putting the 30 films or so on a secure server that passholders would be able to access for three or four days, not unlike the way things are set-up with The Academy. Unlike The Academy, Telluride could force the issue in terms of platform. (Many Academy voters didn’t partake of the Academy streaming access because they didn’t have the Apple TV hardware or more specifically, the current generation of Apple TV. If you can pay all that money for a pass to Telluride, $150 for an Apple TV is not asking too much.) If the festival has to be cancelled on the mountain, have it on your TV. There would be many people making noise about this being impossible, but Telluride’s audience is less than a third as large as the Academy membership. It’s doable. Would everyone rather it be on a screen in the glory of Telluride? Hell, yes. But… COVID.

The Toronto International Film Festival is very different. At least 100,000 people going to see over 150 feature films.

The challenge, by comparison, is mammoth.

I would start by eliminating the press element without regard to what eventually plays in the physical theaters. Or coming from a different angle, setting up a complete TIFF Press Event online without press screenings or junkets of any kinds at the festival.

This would assure distributors that the publicity and marketing goals of the festival would still be achieved, no matter what happens in the real world of Toronto.

The next step is to deal with the Industry section. And there is a very good chance that this could just be cancelled. The whole point is to engage other people face-to-face. Festival as convention. If industry people need to see movies, they should be able to get access from the distributors.

But if you rethink the Press and eliminate the Industry, you’re down to locals and maybe the greatest festival for locals in the world. And that is a giant effort that is well beyond my pay grade. How scores of thousands of Toronto residents and the management of the festival feel about all of this is not something I can project upon reasonably.

But what I suggest, perhaps for both festivals, is to keep the public element intact. Media will be even more focused. Seeing more films would be possible. And all the complications of moving talent and titles around a city would be reduced.

It would be a massive piece of work for all the publicists at all the distributors. But they are killing themselves at these festivals already.

And coming out of these festivals, the product of these festivals that distributors use for a week, a month or the whole award season, would be intact. And the future for these films would still, most likely, be a roll of the dice… but not at the festivals. That, they could control and use as they always do.

And if these festivals end up shutting down in total? The distributors are brought up short and there is no clear opportunity to progress.

Finally, The New York Film Festival, which has traditionally been a festival of festivals, heavily invested in bringing Cannes debuts to America, but with premieres in recent years.

New York has the most interesting opportunity of the group because Cannes isn’t happening and New York can work with Cannes and Venice to bring a lot of that product that may be less commercial and less about award season to New York and America.

I am less comfortable about New York gathering to watch movies in the cathedral than in either of the two other cities. Who knows? But they have another advantage in that they can wait to see where Tell&TIFF settle and decide whether to act in a similar or dissimilar way.

There is also a significant variable in that these are, generally, arthouse films… and that means a different kind of distribution. There could be a radical version of NYFF in which the festival takes place in sync with a VOD availability for the films being played – or not being played – in New York.

If there is a single theme in my thinking, it is to make radical choices. We are in a moment, of being shut in while having a level of technology that was not been available before now, in which it is not only possible to change the experience of these events significantly for this one year, but is, in fact, necessary.

The least successful answer in all cases is for nature to take an ugly course and to leave no footprint for these festivals and the films that intend to use them to the fullest. You can’t ostrich your way out of it. You can’t bravado your way out of it.

If these festivals take difficult action to manage one area of this likely problem, they will be on their way to having building blocks for the rest of their events.

And what does this mean to The Academy Awards? It positions the films in a similar, if not improved way to the norm. And the details of qualifications should be adjusted as needed… not immediately… but in the light of time. The Academy should not be the first to act. That is the cart before the horse.

Let’s keep that cart safe and clean. And next year, hopefully, we will have a vaccine and we will all be so excited to go back to the wonderful traditions of all of these festivals.

41 Responses to “Returning To The Church of Cinema: Part 1 – The Festivals”

  1. Is Wells Well? says:

    There will not be a vaccine before 2024. But other than that you seem to be a prescient genius! So unappreciated in your own era

  2. Bradley Laing says:

    —I cooked up an odd thought: a representative of the film festival greets you at the airport with N95 mask to wear, and then give you a paper number. They drive you to one of the cities multiple theaters, and seat you with the maximum of 50 others. Then, after that showing is done, they disenfect the theater room, and bring in another 50 others for the second showing.

    How many films could the out of towners see? With 20 prints for 20 theater rooms, specific films could get a full showing in one week.

    Of course, finding money to pay for the 20 different movie theaters in the same week would be expensive, but some would put up they money?

  3. amblinman says:

    Um…there aren’t going to be any festivals this fall. Your columns lately seem to rely on wishcasting vs educated observation. Your opening paragraph is Trumpian in how badly it wants to play down the fact that we are thisclose to 60,000 dead, as though this is now in our rearview.

    I’d love to read an insightful piece on how the industry could make it through this but every few weeks you recycle another iteration of “Let’s pretend covid went away starting now!”

    Too bad.

  4. Amblinman says:

    Here, take this piece:

    “Things need to be a bit more aggressive on the cleaning side. But the volunteers — another issue — are amazing at the festival.”

    So your plan involves leaving the disinfecting of a public gathering space to people who aren’t paid to do this, have no experience in effective haz mat cleaning (not the same as tossing away popcorn, Dave), and gee I dunno you may have a tough time getting folks to disinfect deadly pandemic cooties for FREE right now anyway. (Isn’t it awesome, by the way, that we automatically assume a VOLUNTEER is the answer here.) Have the screening rooms in question been retrofitted with a new HVAC system?

    I dunno. I just don’t think folks are as willing to literally sacrifice themselves on the Altar Of the Church of Cinema as you do.

  5. Bob Burns says:

    Then, maybe, the publicists might start buying FYI ads again? No film ads on any of the film webs sites now. It is clear to anyone with eyes to see that the publicists do not give a rats ass for us, or the film sites that have been so loyal to them.

    I am an architect, who 3 months ago had more work than ever, and was doing the best work of my career. There is no work now. My career is not worth endangering one life, and neither is the lifestyle of Hollywood publicists…. or the obsessive needs of film fandom.

    It is remarkable that the film studios and their publicists are less savvy than the NFL. Where are the online ads from Marvel telling us to stay safe, that they will return when it is safe?

    All of these schemes should state the risk-reward. How many deaths are worth an NBA playoff season? How many deaths are acceptable for a film opening? How bloodthirsty is the mouse?

  6. Stella's Boy says:

    Notice that theater chains have said they have no plans to reopen anytime soon in the states where they would be allowed to do so. I think that Jonathan Last piece linked to here is pretty sensible and accurate. DP seemed to relish being a contrarian view for weeks but those earlier pieces look more and more foolish as time goes by.

  7. Dr Wally Rises says:

    What did others here think of Extraction? Sometimes, and definitely right now, a boilerplate time-passing actioner like this hits the spot. Hemsworth is still more convincing when he’s a comic doofus (Ghostbusters, or even Vacation) than as a taciturn brute, and it’s strange to see David Harbour in such an uninteresting part at this point in his career, which makes me think that perhaps contractual house-cleaning was perhaps key to his involvement. In other words, the Ed Norton Italian Job maneuver.

    My biggest problem was that we’ve now reached the point where the huge extended action sequence done in a single digitally-augmented ‘take’ is starting to get old. Now the trope is no longer fresh we’ve started looking for the seams and blends between the bits of business in the frame. It’s like how in the early 90’s you had Renny Harlin and Jan De Bont trying desperately to be John McTiernan. Or how ten years ago everyone was doing the Zack Snyder slo-no and rapid speed-up /crash zoom flourish.

    But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t ultimately get a kick from it.

  8. Stella's Boy says:

    That’s a fair summation of Extraction. I don’t think it’s particularly good but it’s a decent enough way to pass the time. I agree with you about Hemsworth too. I like him a lot but found him very bland and sleepy in this.

  9. Amblinman says:

    I gave up on Extraction 20 minutes or so in. I’d already seen Man On Fire. Both versions.

  10. leahnz says:

    ‘extraction’ was quite boring after the eleventy-ith extended bang-bang-stab-stab-bang-stab sequence with the kid’s same slack-jawed stricken reaction shot (no offense to the kid he was fine). learn to tell a compelling story ffs, plot-light action can be engaging, see: crawl etc. [full disclosure: i may have nodded off briefly, couldn’t tell, so maybe there was more plot than i realise]
    to the stubborn fuckers insistent that thor is going be a serious action drama star of our generation: credit for being even more pig-headed than the ‘make miles teller happen’ brigade with C hemsworth, but STOP TRYING TO MAKE FETCH HAPPEN bean-counters, these gormless pale male dishwater blonde types – see also the lead guy in the ‘predator’ regroup, and that other lead guy in the ‘robocop’ remake – all the screen presence, charisma and pathos of a paper clip! think outside the mediocre fear square and quit inflicting us with these bland bores, pretty please, it’s actually inexplicable.

  11. Stella's Boy says:

    I concur leah re: the bland blonde action hero.

    Bad Education is fantastic. If anything I’d say it’s too short as I knew nothing about this story (which was nice going in) and feel like 100 or so minutes sans credits wasn’t enough to do it justice. Cast is amazing. As good as Jackman is, I came away most impressed by and intrigued with Allison Janney and Geraldine Viswanathan in terms of performance/character. I wanted more of them. Fascinating story told incredibly well. Very sad in the end. Definitely worth making time for.

  12. SideshowBill says:

    Know what was good? Butt Boy. Stone-faced, surreal, dry as a desert and therefore becomes strangely compelling, tense and even moving. It’s influences are all over its face but man I went with it. Not much in terms of gross stuff. You just accept the premise, as the detective does. Don’t sleep on this wacky little thing.

  13. Stella's Boy says:

    I read a couple reviews of Butt Boy. Certainly got my attention and piqued my interest. Kind of want to see how they pull off that premise.

  14. Ray Pride says:

    Hemsworth seems to have the same luck as Steve Guttenberg had in his hey! day: executives who see an idealized version of themselves boost up the performer who lacks all charisma.

  15. leahnz says:

    steve guttenberg wasn’t on my bingo card, this is very specific ray i think there’s more to this story you should spill

    (this seems likely – and says a great deal about said executives – but do the bean-counters see an idealised version of themselves in non-marvel bomb after bomb after bomb too cuz they’re that fantasy identified with a swoll lummox who actually puts few bums on seats in non-god of thunder mode? this is curious and seems counter-intuitive to the very essence of bean-counterism. how many chances does someone get to shit the bed before they have to sleep in the tent out on the lawn)

  16. Christian says:

    Good article in today’s WSJ on the new “Trolls” movie.

    This is the first mention I can remember – and apologies if this is widely reported on this site and elsewhere; my memory is bad – about the revenue breakdown for these streams: “For studios, the prospect is especially alluring because they retain about 80% of the digital rental or purchase fee—compared with about 50% of box-office sales.”

    Does anyone know if that 80% stays steady throughout the film’s digital availability? Does the percentage shift the longer the movie is out, the way it did/does for theatrical releases? In all the stories I’ve read about these digital releases, the reports are about the general unavailability of data or the questionable, unconfirmable numbers when reported by the releasing companies.

  17. Amblinman says:

    The funniest attempt to make Hemsworth a Serious Action Guy is Blackhat. Chris Hemsworth is an elite…hacker. Also, knows karate. And weapons.

  18. Stella's Boy says:

    I’ve been curious about that too, Christian. I was hoping that studios would report VOD numbers once they started dropping first-run movies in March. There are some really interesting quotes in that story. Universal claims it’s been a success and in the future they will release new movies on both formats. That indicates things will change pretty dramatically and in ways DP said weren’t going to happen. It’s not surprising that many people have responded well to watching new movies at home or that Trolls has (allegedly) made as much as it has.

  19. Stella's Boy says:

    I love Michael Mann but have never been able to bring myself to watch Blackhat, mostly because of Hemsworth.

  20. Christian says:

    Yeah, I’m not entirely clear on what to expect of the Virtual Screening Rooms – how long various films might play in those rooms. With bookings of prints at each theater, you knew by Tuesday of each week if the movie would be holding over through the following weekend. (Not all theaters posted this; you had to dig a bit into their websites or into online ticketing services.) What about streams? Also, if I get a three-day rental and the film leaves the screening room on, say, day 2 of that rental, do I lose the final day? I doubt it. But I’d like to be reassured.

    I’ve just looked up “Satantango” at FilmLinc and see that the length of availability *is* specified on that site. The film is booked through May 7. Because it’s 439 minutes and I get it for three days, would I have it through 5/10 if I rented it on 5/7? I love the idea of committing to that film – an unseen Tarr, whose work I’ve deeply appreciated. Plus, I’ve read the book! But even with a lot of time on my hands here at home, the entire family is with me. It’s hard to find the concentration for a 439-minute run time, even if I spread it across three days.

    Oh, and does anyone know if the smaller distributors are reporting grosses for movies like “The Whistlers,” which I mentioned in another thread? I doubt it, but I’ve always been more interested in arthouse grosses than mainstream-release grosses. I suppose there’s even less of a chance that we’ll get streaming numbers for those titles, but I’m heartened that “The Whistlers” continues to play in my local-theater streaming rooms. And the 4K “Mephisto” restoration remains on the Kino Lorber platform. I doubt I’ll watch it, but I’ve thought about doing so. Kino warns that downloading the needed software/app may take a while the first time you do it. I’m easily scared off, so I’ve been concentrating on other things. But I should probably get that platform ready for future releases, even if I don’t spring for “Mephisto.”

  21. Bradley Laing says:

    —Is there an assumption that when a few movie theaters re-open it is only the start of (my guess) the fifth week that a benchmark will be set for a return of movie going audiences?

    —Which would then set a good guess for the other theaters opening in other states?

    (Note question marks>)

  22. Ray Pride says:

    The “virtual screenings” keyed to local cinemas seem to indicate dates and be Friday-Thursday runs in many cases.

  23. Ray Pride says:

    In the last 80s Guttenberg was often cited as an actor who would be cast by executives who found him to be a likable version of themselves. There may have been a cutting SPY piece?

  24. Stella's Boy says:

    Now that Texas and Georgia and some other states have given the all clear, have any theaters actually opened? All I’ve come across is chains like AMC and Alamo Drafthouse and others saying no thanks we’re not opening even though we can.

  25. Ray Pride says:

    So many fiscal complications: the all-clear means evictions, bankruptcies, denial of unemployment…

  26. Christian says:

    Ray: Thanks. I suspect it’s Friday-Thursday as well, but what I meant, in case it wasn’t clear, was, “Is the stream ending this coming Thursday?” You could usually figure out by Tuesday of each week if you needed to high-tail it to a theater by Thursday night to catch a film before it left town, or at least left your theater of choice. With streams, I can’t tell when one is ending before the coming Friday. See here for an example: What am I missing? I can see that a new stream opens this Friday. But when do the current streams end? This isn’t a huge issue I’m just puzzled. Sorry if I’m missing something obvious.

  27. Ray Pride says:

    The venues I’ve looked at, Chicago, Film Forum, have end-dates indicated. Would be a fine standard practice!

  28. Bradley Laing says:

    “Here is the AMPAS press release announcing the changes:
    On a date to be determined by the Academy, and when theaters reopen in accordance with federal, state and local specified guidelines and criteria, this rules exemption will no longer apply. All films released thereafter will be expected to comply with the standard Academy theatrical qualifying requirements.”

  29. Stella's Boy says:

    AMC is not a fan of that WSJ story or Universal right now.

  30. Bob Burns says:

    I have a son who is a college student in Portugal. He is sick with COVID symptoms. Each day we are try to figure out if it is worse to go to the hospital or ride it out at home. If I come on strong about this, I can only say that no family should go through this horror because a film maker is impatient to premier their film.

    I have been involved with testing and the CDC since the late 80’s, and was on the grant writing team for a wonderfully sophisticated and effective case finding and testing grant with the CDC. I have strong feelings about testing and contract tracing. There is no alternative to widespread testing and contact tracing to recreating a safe environment… so I am frustrated that people continue to negotiate away safe responses to this… horror.

    That said…. only a minority of people here in Alabama wear masks, and observance of social distancing is seen as optional, so the decisions of Hollywood should be put into the context of whole regions of the country that will not bothered to fight the fight.

    The NBA is discussing finishing its season at Disney World in Orlando. To create a bubble for the entire circus, and possibly family members at the hotels and closed parks. TIFF could do something similar at Wonderland north of town.

  31. Stella's Boy says:

    Sorry about your son Bob. Must be so scary. Hope he fully recovers soon. Best wishes.

  32. leahnz says:

    same here, bob, recovery vibes for your boy.

    ‘blackhat’ is a bummer, it had potential

  33. Mostly Lurking says:

    “AMC is not a fan of that WSJ story or Universal right now.”

    You ain’t kidding.

  34. Stella's Boy says:

    Apparently the anger is just for show and a negotiating tactic. I mean how could AMC not ever play a Universal movie again? I get why NATO and theater chains are vociferously insisting that Trolls is a blip and one-time occurrence but they must know that times are a changing.

  35. Bradley Laing says:

    Question for Stella’s Boy: could a bunch of banks force AMC to play Universal movies by refusing a loan?

  36. Dr Wally Rises says:

    What would be interesting to see is if Universal can call their bluff by dropping, say, Fast 9, digitally on its original release date, which IIRC was supposed to be in three weeks.

  37. Stella's Boy says:

    You tell me. I do not know. AMC is in some serious financial trouble right? Could they afford to not play any movies from a major studio? How much money would that cost them? A lot. I just think the business interests of certain organizations blinds them to industry realities. Or they aren’t blind they’re just trying to hold out as long as possible knowing full well what’s coming.

  38. Ray Pride says:

    Yeah, a quarter-billion dollar investment?

  39. Bob Burns says:

    Thanks for the vibes, and thoughts. Michel finally made contact with an MD today. No change. No hospital. He runs and goes to the gym almost every day, flosses twice a day. Seriously.

    He is a cool kid. Fluent, certified fluent, in Spanish, French and Portuguese. English. Studying European Law in Europe (in the local languages), where it is undergrad, with plans to go to law school post grad in the US.

  40. David Poland says:

    Just seeing this… how is he doing now, Bob?

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