The pandemic has hit practically every industry on Earth with a vengeance. Entertainment was one of the most brutally hit industries, with leaving the house becoming a matter of national health and safety. Staying at home made people more dependent on the arts and creative content more than ever before.
Social media hit a big boom, as did streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime, and the like. Old movies and TV shows found new life, and new movies and content on streaming services found a captive audience voraciously consuming what was put out.
But how does showing film outside streaming services, and new film, in particular, work in our mid-Covid world? The Morning Brunch caught up with renowned Sri Lankan director Nilendra Deshapriya for some insight on how film festivals can adapt in the new normal.
Deshapriya, whose directorial debut film “Thanha Rathi Ranga” was screened at the recent Indus Valley International Film Festival, South Asia’s first borderless film festival, acted as one of the dignitaries of the festival which took place exclusively digitally from 1-9 August.
Speaking on film festivals taking place in a digital context, Deshapriya shared that almost all major film festivals this year were cancelled because of the pandemic, but this has not stopped them from continuing with their work.
This year, the world’s biggest festivals, like the Cannes Film Festival, made the move to go online due to the pandemic, with the move to go digital paying off. The Cannes Film Festival alone reported 10,000 participants from 122 countries to discuss around 3,500 completed films and upcoming projects, and view a total of 1,200 screenings.
“The pandemic has brought with it a paradigm shift,” Deshapriya commented, adding: “The digital film festival concept has opened up festivals to film lovers across the world, giving them the chance to watch the films, be a part of the festival, and share in the love of film. It’s very unique because they get to see their favourite directors’ and actors’ greatest and latest work.”
The shift to digital has also made it possible for new platforms to grow. For instance, We Are One: A Global Film Festival was an initiative executed exclusively on YouTube, born out of the idea that the film community can come together in times of crises – both in celebration and support of film by providing much-needed relief for Covid-19 efforts. We Are One: A Global Film Festival brought many film festivals together under the We Are One banner to celebrate films. The film festivals involved included the Berlin International Film Festival, BFI London Film Festival, Cannes Film Festival, International Film Festival Rotterdam, Mumbai Film Festival (MAMI), New York Film Festival, Sundance Film Festival, Sydney Film Festival, Tokyo International Film Festival, Toronto International Film Festival, Tribeca Film Festival, and Venice Film Festival.
There are various benefits to taking film festivals digital, Deshapriya explained; the main one being that the digital element opens film out to a much wider audience than it typically would. “Films are made for the public; they are forms of self-expression, so the wider the audience, the better it is. It’s not always the critics’ input that matters, but also how the audience feels.”
Digital film festivals do come with their challenges though, with issues like mitigating piracy becoming a priority, as well as maintaining the human element of a film festival. Deshpariya shared that in the case of the Indus Valley International Film Festival, following a film screening, there were virtual sessions with directors, actors, and crew members that helped capture this aspect of a film festival.
Speaking on the long-term impacts of the virtual paradigm shift created by the pandemic, Deshapriya shared that, in his view, digital film festivals are here to stay in some shape or form. “A merge should take place, with the physical festival happening at the same time as the digital festival; an online edition of the same festival for a wider audience. It’s something that should take place because a film is made for a wider audience. Many good films don’t reach the masses and penetrate their market because of issues with networks and distribution.”
From a revenue perspective, Deshapriya shared that with the recent pandemic, mindsets as a whole have shifted to understanding the importance and value of digital media, and that this will make monetising and building revenue off online film festivals easier, potentially moving to a subscription-based model. “Netflix and similar streaming services don’t sell seats. A big part of the film audience never goes to the cinema. This way, these people get to see these films as well.”