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Film Festivals Prepare for a 2021 Comeback: Cannes, Telluride, and More Aim to Prove Their Worth

Without a thriving global film festival scene, the film industry won't thrive. This coming season will show how relevant and vital festivals are.

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FILE - People attend an outdoor screening for

The Tribeca Film Festival begins its 20th year with outdoor screenings all over NYC


As we emerge from the pandemic and return safely to theaters, and movies, and yes, crowds of people, we can enjoy what we’ve missed: sharing laughter, tears, or excitement with strangers, as well as the joy of discovery that only happens at a film festival. As buyers return to live screening rooms and the summer beckons with TribecaCannes, and many more to follow, we’re all discovering the new normal; we’re not returning to the old one. Change brings new behaviors, new distribution models — and with that, the risk of losing things we care about.

Festivals will continue to play a vital role in the film ecosystem, but what has been gained and what has been lost?

Let’s cut to the chase: The 2021 Tribeca Festival is not, as a tweet by Governor Andrew Cuomo put it, “the first in-person film festival to take place in North America since before COVID.” There have been many smaller festivals across the continent. Still, as Tribeca launches its 20th edition with a premiere of “In the Heights” at the United Palace in tandem with outdoor screenings at all five boroughs, it will mark the first large-scale physical event for the North American film industry since the pandemic began.

It also kickstarts a festival circuit that is all too eager to prove its worth again. With Cannes on the verge of reigniting international festival activity and Telluride keen on reclaiming the Oscar influencer throne, festivals are mobilizing to become the frontlines for an industry that must assess an uncertain future.

Streaming continues to dominate and festivals are not immune. Tribeca quietly snipped “film” from its name, presumably to better embrace video games, television series, immersive media, music, and public conversations. The word “film,” it seems, is in danger of feeling archaic.

Festivals might be, too. Last year, most of them went virtual and became part of the streaming machine themselves. Meanwhile, traditional theatrical windows collapsed and people grew increasingly comfortable consuming entertainment at home. The effort, expense, and schlepping required for festival attendance can seem downright quaint.

Which is not to say they’ve lost their value. The Tribeca lineup captures the essence of the film festival paradigm. Movies like “In the Heights,” Steven Soderbergh’s HBO Max centerpiece “No Sudden Move,” and Focus Features’ Anthony Bourdain documentary “Roadrunner” will aim to capitalize on the interplay of public crowds and media hype to raise awareness for their impending releases, while the bulk of the 66 films in the lineup will be seeking U.S. distribution. Whatever the results, Tribeca’s existence proves that the festival circuit is poised to get back into action.

Online festival viewing, even when undertaken at the highest level by Sundance 2020 — when hungry cinephiles indulged in a frenzy of well-curated, mostly unknown films — has yet to yield the same impact that physical screenings and events can yield major media attention, marketing and sales opportunities, and word of mouth.

Virtual screenings did prove to be a constructive experiment for festivals. That’s particularly true for Sundance and the New York Film Festival, which expanded their programming to national audiences online. Companies like Shift72 became more prominent as festivals realized they had to create a digital presence to keep sponsors and audiences engaged.

There seems to be a limit to what the online experience can do for festival sponsors and audiences: They want experiential results, not digital metrics. Short of everyone strapping on a VR headset, the industry still thrives on the first-person experience, a powerful alchemy of in-person festivals, crowd reactions, party mingling, and career development.

“Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain”

Focus Features

In New York, where movie theaters have been open for three months, Tribeca’s 12-day event will tip right into Rooftop Films’ summer series, which begins June 17 and will include outdoor screenings of festival films looking to drive up buzz in advance of specialty releases, like A24’s zany Sundance road trip dramedy “Zola,” which premiered at the festival pre-COVID in 2020, as well as 2021 virtual festival crowdpleasers like Magnolia’s Udo Kier vehicle “Swan Song.”

As for Cannes 2021, more Cannes industry regulars who were on the fence are now voting to be on the ground with a dense selection of 63 titles (with more expected to be announced soon).

These range from A-list auteurs like Paul Verhoeven with the lesbian nun drama “Benedetta” (a recent acquisition by IFC Films) and Leos Caraopening musical selection “Annette,” an Amazon project starring Adam Driver); celebrities like Sean Penn (who directs acquisition title “Flag Day”) and Matt Damon (Focus’ “Stillwater”); and rising indie stars like Sean Baker (A24’s “Red Rocket”) and Mia Hansen-love (IFC’s “Bergman Island”). The festival will even provide a platform for the French release of “F9,” which has been given an out-of-competition beachside public showing.

Atmosphere - Marche Du FilmPreperations, 70th Cannes Film Festival, France - 17 May 2017

The Marche Du Film at Cannes will be held virtually this year.

Michael Buckner/Variety/Shutterstock

While the Marche du Film plans to host 10 days of virtual “pre-screenings” for buyers, these will not include films in the Official Selection, per Cannes rules. That creates an additional imperative for dealmakers to wade into the uncertain environment of Cannes, where screenings will take place at 100 percent capacity but require proof of vaccination (or a recent negative PCR test) to enter venues, where masks will be required.

Controversy is brewing among some press and industry in parts of the world including Turkey, Africa, and much of South America, among others, where attendees must quarantine for seven to 10 days upon arrival. That barrier for entry will turn Cannes into an even more exclusive and privileged gathering than usual.

“The sellers are putting out all their films in the virtual market,” wrote one top specialty distributor in an email. “They have been calling all to let the buyers know that Cannes for-sale films will be screened online in the States for buyers. Don’t know if Canada will let outsiders in the country. The virus is still much worse in Europe and other parts of the world with new variants popping up. We will have someone in Cannes, Telluride, Tribeca.”

Cannes will also provide another contrast since Netflix refused to show any of its films (the streamer has Cannes regular Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog” heading to Venice). Netflix likes to use live festivals (not virtual ones) to build awareness for its titles, but Cannes isn’t the only fish in the sea.

Cannes will kick off a circuit of European festivals with its own slate of international films. Karlovy Vary in late July and Locarno in August will introduce a range of lower-profile international films, serving the needs of buyers from territories around the world. Could these films still find their way to distribution through links and Zoom meetings? Perhaps, but the curatorial context of the festival (as well as the real-time buzz) has yet to find an equivalent in the online sphere. Buyers, finally, like to know how a movie plays with an audience.


Warner Bros/Lionsgate

And then comes the fall. Venice, the only major physical film event to take place last year during COVID, has been inviting major films for months. Warner Bros. is expected to open the festival with the world premiere of sci-fi epic “Dune,” while star Oscar Isaac could work the Lido with additional projects like Paul Schrader’s casino drama “The Card Counter” and the HBO miniseries “Scenes from a Marriage.” Last year, Venice maintained its prevalence as an Oscar launch pad by premiering Golden Lion winner “Nomadland” ahead of its successful Best Picture campaign, but Telluride is eager to get back in the game.

That festival, which chose to cancel its VIP mountain gathering last year when it could not stage a live event, is prepping a substantial comeback. The Labor Day gathering has ambitious plans, with an extra day of programming and a slate of expected Oscar hopefuls that may include both Wes Anderson’s Cannes entry “The French Dispatch” and the animated Sundance documentary breakout “Flee.” Telluride is returning strong with its recent acquisition of frequent screening site the Nugget Building, where it intends to create a year-round “cultural center devoted to film, filmmakers, and film culture.” Meanwhile, awards consultants are eager to return to in-person campaign events with a Telluride awards launch.

TIFF, known for its vast array of cinephile-friendly films, global acquisitions titles, and high-profile galas for studio fall releases, remains an open question for anyone other than Toronto locals. While Canada appears ready to loosen its two-week quarantine rule for anyone traveling to the country, the timeline remains murky and may not go into effect until July. Meanwhile, the pace of vaccine rollout in Canada remains glacial. TIFF is expected to take place with a hybrid format similar to the one it adopted last year, which would make it one of the only major fall festivals to maintain its COVID-era format.

Word is the festival’s program will be bigger than last year’s skinny selection, but scaled back from its heyday. The lack of clarity on safety protocols makes it tough for publicists and studios to book talent for travel. Schedules are tight, and many actors are in production with little room to maneuver. This could bring a scaled-back red carpet and press opportunities for TIFF as talent turns to Telluride with its clear mountain air, to New York, with its growing vaccinated population.

NYFF may also include hybrid elements, but is poised to take on a more familiar form after it was reduced to online screenings and drive-in events last fall. The Lincoln Center festival will benefit from the reopening of Alice Tully Hall at the beginning of September and its selection committee is already eying major fall titles without the burden of chasing world premieres. NYFF is likely to give more weight to the idea of the festival as an opportunity to showcase the power of curation.

Whatever their business models — sponsors, ticket sales, government subsidies — their existence is built on one idea: The global industry’s ecosystem is based on programming that must be seen in a live venues to build brand identity and talent recognition. Without it, film will fade into irrelevance. Even Netflix will be on the ground scouting new talent in Cannes. That’s the lifeblood, and the film industry cannot thrive without it.

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