It’s almost June 1. And frankly, the festivals (Venice/Telluride/Toronto… and New York) are running out of time. What are they going to be in only three months?
We all have the same desire. For the festivals to go on, safely, with people sitting in theaters, watching movies. But circumstances are circumstances. The situation is not stable. No one can assure any state, town or group of festivalgoers of ANYTHING that will happen in late August and early September. The most committed filmmaker to opening his movie on screens this summer, Christopher Nolan, who has Tenet, put out a trailer this week without a date on it, even though they are on the calendar in seven weeks. For festival operators to proceed as though they can predict their future this year is nothing less than playing inverted Russian roulette, with one empty barrel and the rest loaded and ready to kill the thing we all love, the festival.
The problem is more than just putting people together in movie theaters. It’s the talent. It’s the films themselves. It’s competition, even in stasis, between distributors. It’s technology, which exists to manage all this, but is far from foolproof and requires testing and time. And it’s the pressure on these not-for-profit organizations to avoid taking on giant blocks of new debt (whether they can carry them successfully if they do is another conversation).
What would be the signal that TIFF or Telluride could have a legitimate shot at running a close-to-normal festival in any way this year? It would take the successful opening and maintenance of at least 10,000 theatrical screens in the US and Canada from July 15 until the start of those festivals. That’s your over/under.
But the trick is, if they wait until August 1 to decide, they don’t get to make the decision at all. The festival ship will have already sailed.
So what to do? My thing is… not knowing what field one is battling on means that the best plan is to build towards the most stable foundation. And if the Best Case Scenario is what comes to pass, do your best to support that in the moment, but no apologies for staying alive.
But without a small miracle, is talent coming to the festival? No.
Will movies be ready for the festival? Some yes, some no… many unknown.
Will distributors commit fall titles of significance when they don’t know the commercial endgame? That is a huge challenge.
Will smaller indie distributors be willing to send a lot of content if they are suddenly the dominant force because the bigger players aren’t ready to play? Yes.
All of this points right to digital festivals.
If TIFF can get $15 a ticket for streaming movies and the cost of delivering the movie is about $4, they should make good money, while saving a significant amount on the physical festival. Telluride and its pass system is more complex financially. If the festival were digital-only, the offer of a 20% discount for next year’s festival for Year 2000 passholders would satisfy most who shell out for the festival. Telluride is a labor of love for most attendees and I don’t know what the nut already committed for the festival is… but the only way to cause passholders to demand money back is to be too rigid.
I have written about the massive challenges for both festivals. For Toronto, it’s size and an international base of filmmakers and non-local attendees. For Telluride, it’s the glorious location and feel of the fest, which is profoundly about community and being in the 8,750-foot mountain air at a time of year where the daytime sun can deliver 90 degrees, that night can drop to 40 degrees, and rain is pretty much guaranteed for some part of the long weekend.
In both situations, upbeat estimates figure that the festivals will operate at 50% of attendance. But hearing people talking about 20% and 30% attendance isn’t rare. And in neither case is this is situation of any regular attendee who no longer loves the soul of these festivals. And it would be a huge mistake for the leadership of either festival to push either potential attendees or distributors to pick sides. That’s stress talking, not serious consideration of how difficult this is for all.
If I were a betting person, I would bet that North America will reach herd status before there is a vaccine. But that is probably late fall 2020 at the earliest.
I wrote about taking the media out of the process, by including them electronically, a month ago. But a month later, none of these festivals have taken this kind of action. Everything is still private chatter. That is the normal way that festivals run… quietly… negotiated between interested parties… presented to the media and public quite late in the game. This year, this is a suicidal approach unless you get lucky (the one empty barrel).
There are significant advantages to working through this on the media group first. Obviously, it is a smaller group of people than your primary festival audience. Second, it is a motivated group, already dealing with content-sharing technology, and hungry for experience that can eventually lead to stories. Third, with due respect, the publicity machine has control of the group in a very real way. If there are story embargoes, they will hold. If there are exceptions, one or two voices can be contained. But the entertainment media works hand in glove with the industry., Access is everything.
Toronto could experiment with a pre-VOD/theatrical release in the next month. A studio like Universal could screen The King of Staten Island through TIFF. The festival could develop a neutral digital platform for streaming (a challenge to be discussed further), spend a couple of weeks navigating their media list and expanding it or narrowing it accordingly. TIFF could, in theory, show it to junket press when it was time and then have all-media screenings whenever Universal’s chosen time for that occurred. (It’s too late for this title now… but not for a film like Sony Classics’ The Climb, due mid-July or even something like Disney+’s Hamilton.)
Obviously, if a first experimental effort worked, they couldn’t just expand it to a thousand TIFF ticket buyers. There will be bumps in the process. Large and small. But you have to start somewhere to get the process working if there is any hope of being a successful streaming festival in a few months.
“But David… NYFF and others are already streaming movies for money, so why is this even challenging?”
This is the next big problem. The indie theaters and festivals that are presenting “virtual cinema” are promoting and thus, earning a piece of the action from companies that would otherwise be doing normal VOD business. Nothing wrong here. But a festival is a gathering of distributors. So what becomes the standard for festivals? Is there such thing as a neutral streaming site? If you set it up so every distributor allows the festival to sell a set number of virtual tickets to each film, is every distributor set up for this?
The major studios distribute by single unit rental nad sales digitally via Apple iTunes, AT&T’s Fandango, Amazon, and so on. But all these parent companies are in the content business. If you are Warner Bros. under these circumstances, would you allow your film to be exploited at a festival in any way digitally by anyone other than Fandango? What about Sony? What about Paramount?
Bell is the primary sponsor of TIFF. Another Canadian company, Rogers, is also involved. As best I can tell, neither Bell or Rogers is partially owned by AT&T. Could they be an answer? Maybe. Or maybe the delivery process is a quilt of all the different distributors and their preferred delivery systems.
Netflix has a press and industry set-up to allow private access to content on their platform. In theory, TIFF could sell tickets and give the details to Netflix and Netflix could set up access passwords for 750 people. But that wouldn’t be a cakewalk. For instance, the private access is connected to the account that started the service… but that may not be the person who is expecting access. And people have a hard time, often, with what seems like easy password access processes. So it is possible… but challenging.
Telluride is different. Many fewer films. Overall festival passes instead of ticket sales. In theory, every Telluride film would have to be available to each of the 4,000 participants over the four-day weekend. Sounds like a long rental. I would love to watch films multiple times, but Telluride tradition has been that no one can see anything more than once across the weekend. (They used to punch a hole in your pass for each film, by number. They may limit digitally now. Not sure.) That is a choice the festival could make. But with a 96-hour weekend and sixty hours of films, I would push to see every single title at Telluride, which is an opportunity you can’t physically manage at the live festival. Q&As and Honorees could easily be handled online. And to the degree that distributors want to create talent access, also easy.
(For clarity, I’m not including Venice in this because, honestly, it means almost nothing to the domestic landscape. I have no idea how that festival relates to European theatrical or even their digital universe. I would be thrilled to be educated on this, but I haven’t seen in-depth analysis of the impact of Venice on film distribution in the rest of the world. I would attribute that to the interest of writers and media that want to continue to inflate the significance of this festival as it has done for decades. My comment on the commercial value has ZERO meaning as regards the artistic value of the festival. I am not challenging that. That is a different discussion.)
Next issue… Piracy!
I don’t consider this a minor issue. In fact, it may be the death of the whole effort. I may have buried the lede.
Again, less of a problem for Telluride, as it is a smaller audience overall and in some ways, the group has been pre-qualified by their purchase of a pass that starts at $800. Push the crowd size to tens of thousands at TIFF, add high-profile titles, and you are looking at a potential piracy party. Do distributors want to deliver brand new, top-end product with visual impairment to stymie or prevent piracy? Even if they do and festivalgoers live with it as press often does, setting a camera up to shoot your TV is going to offer better quality than sneaking a camera into a movie theater, much less a festival theater where the audience is made up of film lovers who hate the idea of someone there stealing content.
A lesser but also significant problem is that a single ticketed screening of a movie could be seen by multiple people. One person could stream a screening on Zoom or the like, offering an inferior but watchable product to dozens of people without leaving an imprint to be followed later… just damage.
Of course, distributors have taken piracy into account for a long time. Perhaps they can see their way to feeling that it is not that much different from showing the film in a large festival theater.
And back to the start of this piece… time is the enemy of any of this happening. The massive endeavor of bringing together a big group of volunteers, operating as few as ten screens at Telluride or as many as forty a day at Toronto, selling tickets, moving people and talent, etc, etc, etc is no small feat. But these festivals have done that for years. They haven’t been dealing with the vagaries of delivering a digital film festival, to 4000 or 40,000.
And if we are still having the “will they or won’t they” conversation in another month, the likely answer will be “they won’t.” Either outcome, whether they commit to live festivals or try something digital, becomes a prohibitive long-shot when it comes to delivering the breadth and width of these fests.
2020 is a freakshow. I would suggest these festivals take the opportunity to build something they can rely on financially. And if there are live screenings, great. I will be the first in line. And I will be thrilled to be there in 2021 for sure, as I was in 2002, the year after so many of us walked TIFF in shock after that singular event.
The show must go on. In 2021 and onwards. Losing one year will not kill these festivals or our passion for cinema.