Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal, co-founders of the Tribeca Film Festival, joined an online roundtable conversation Thursday about the future of the festival circuit as organizers navigate through COVID-19.
The duo, along with YouTube chief business officer Robert Kyncl and fest officials from Toronto, Tokyo, Sarajevo and Mumbai discussed preparations for the We Are One Film Festival. The online event backed by 21 festivals starts Friday and runs through June 7, with a selection of features, shorts, talks and performances streaming for free on YouTube. The hour-long conversation also addressed the role of festivals in helping communities on the arduous road to recovery as theaters gradually reopen and social gatherings tentatively resume.
“This is a lot different from 9/11, obviously,” De Niro said when asked to compare the pandemic with the terrorist attacks that happened just months before Tribeca’s first edition in 2002. “We’re in it for we don’t know how long. However we come out of it, it will be in stops and starts and spurts and here and there, until there are definite cures or a vaccine. It’s a whole different thing. It’s like a science-fiction movie. We’ll get through it. … We’ll get there. It’s just what it is.”
Without naming Donald Trump, he added, “We could have gotten out of it a lot easier and this whole situation could have been minimized a lot more if we had the right team in the White House. That’s even more distressing.”
Rosenthal noted that Venice is planning to open its usual in-person festival on August 28, but she said the broader outlook for festivals remains uncertain in the near term. Tribeca postponed its 2020 spring edition, joining South By Southwest, Cannes and others on the sidelines. “We don’t know when we’re going to gather again. That’s a question none of us here can answer,” she said. “We’ve found this in-between stage for us to gather together and be able to inspire and instigate imaginations. Hopefully, film festivals will go on again. What date, no one knows. Doing something in the virtual world and in the real world — one doesn’t preclude the other. They can happen in unison.”
The industry was already experiencing dramatic changes due to streaming and digital forces before the pandemic hit, Rosenthal noted. Several panelists said the We Are One effort is likely to provide festivals with digital capabilities that will be useful down the line. The Irishman, which Rosenthal produced, screened in 1,200 theaters globally in addition to streaming on Netflix, she said. De Niro is following his turn in The Irishman by co-starring with Leonardo Di Caprio in Killers of the Flower Moon, as Deadline was first to report Wednesday. Apple is co-financing the project with Paramount and will distribute on digital platforms.
“Change is good for all of us,” Rosenthal said. “As filmmakers, you want your film to be seen by an audience. It’s successful if it’s seen by a lot of people.” YouTube streaming is capable of providing that exposure to festival films, she added. Killers of the Flower Moon, which Rosenthal is not producing, will combine Paramount’s theatrical muscle with Apple’s digital reach. “One experience does not take the place of the other,” she said. “You can watch a film online and watch it in the theater and have two distinct experiences. Audiences now have more choices.”
Kyncl said YouTube and We Are One organizers have not looked beyond the debut edition to assess a more workable business model for future online events. Several fests — including Tribeca, Sundance, South By Southwest and YouTube a decade ago — have experimented with streaming premieres in tandem with theatrical fest premieres. The risk to films’ commercial prospects has often complicated negotiations with filmmakers and distributors. Amazon recently backed a portfolio of South By titles whose theatrical debuts were scuttled by the coronavirus, but a sustainable model has not yet coalesced.
“Right now, we can’t make commercial terms,” Kyncl said. “It’s just not the right time for it.” Transactional or subscription arrangements, or even advertising, would not have made “any sense” given the “crisis response” nature of the effort, he said, but “that doesn’t mean that’s how it would work in the future.”
Joana Vicente, executive director and co-head of Toronto along with Cameron Bailey, said work on the festival took on a different tone given the backdrop of 5.6 million COVID-19 cases and 356,000 deaths worldwide. Normally, festivals wage fierce battles for world premieres, an arms race that many critics and industry stakeholders have bemoaned in recent years. “I think we’ve all put aside any competition between festivals,” Vicente said. “It’s just been an incredible time when we’ve been talking to colleagues and sharing information.”
Takeo Hisamatsu, director of the Tokyo festival, noted that the home stretch of We Are One preparations came during a period when fest officials typically meet in Cannes. As to the path forward, he said he hopes festivals regain focus on their local communities, something that travel restrictions and safety precautions will necessitate. “If we all go global, we will lose our identity,” he said.