Bubbling close to the surface of this year’s Venice Film Festival are existential questions about the future of festivals and cinema itself.
The pandemic has thrown the already anxious cinema business through a loop. We have heard a lot from exhibition bosses in recent months that the fundamentals of cinema-going are strong. Today, it was the turn of seven European festival heads to do the same, gathering in Venice for the festival’s launch to express solidarity with cinema and the festival experience (Tilda Swinton and Cate Blanchett have also voiced similar sentiments today).
Cannes chief Thierry Fremaux said: “We have to stop announcing the death of cinemas when something new happens.” He’s right. But he also felt the need to gather with seven of his peers to underscore the “fundamental value of cinema, and the role and importance of festivals.” I don’t see Ted Sarandos, Jeff Bezos and Tim Cook feeling the need to gather anytime soon to express solidarity for streaming.
Festivals are feeling fragile. That’s normal, to be expected. If it’s not streaming, it’s the pandemic.
Thanks to Covid, Venice will look considerably different. Studios have largely sidestepped the event, which has become an awards bellweather over the last decade, and attendees are contending with a string of coronavirus protocols (which are more arduous for those attending from outside Europe).
Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland and Regina King’s directorial debut One Night In Miami are among only a few studio movies unspooling at the festival, which has nevertheless managed to amass a solid lineup of global arthouse films.
In recent days, I have spoken to festival directors, producers and filmmakers about the current landscape. I wont lie, I was slightly surprised by the widespread understanding of the decision by the studios to sidestep Venice, which has pulled out all the stops to put on a show (it’s probably the only major physical festival until Berlin). More predictable was a level of trepidation about when and how festivals fully recover.
Call Me By Your Name director Luca Guadagnino, whose documentary Salvatore: Shoemaker of Dreams plays this weekend, echoed the sentiments of the festival chiefs today: “I think it’s very important this festival happens because we shouldn’t forget the scale of the impact of the pandemic on the theatrical and live entertainment sectors. Anything that can help re-start the engine and help make people realize that theatrical isn’t passed forever is important. Because it isn’t true. That may be an agenda of the streamers, but that’s not what reality is telling us. Reality is telling us we have to deal with security measures and distancing and protection, but the theatrical experience is something that cannot be considered finished. Actually, it’s the opposite.”
A producer with a film in this year’s lineup was sanguine about a different type of cinema getting a chance to shine: “I feel like this Venice program is incredible. It feels to me like the Cannes program last year, which was so strong. I think there are a lot of younger voices, and I think it’s going to end up being an extremely strong program. Many of those studio movies are not necessarily the next coming in terms of cinematic voices, and I think this year’s program is going to be that way.”
One festival head I spoke to said: “My feeling is that we are all just trying to get by in an awful year. It’s very complex but I am seeing transparency between distributors, studios and filmmakers. Everyone is working through the same set of challenges: access, safety, income etc. But there is a generosity that is not always there.”
But another festival director I spoke to expressed frustration at the irony of Netflix debuting Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking Of Ending Things during the festival. “Venice would surely have loved that movie,” they said. “The same for Rebecca and any other of their many auteur movies. The stakes are not as high for the platforms because traditional studios rely on that theatrical release off the back of the festival launch. How difficult would it have been for Netflix to send some of their fall releases and stage virtual Q&As with the talent?”
Amazon is doing that for One Night In Miami. But Netflix says it made a blanket decision many months ago that it wouldn’t send any films to festivals this year due to the pandemic. It expects to be back in the festival game next year [they are missed].
“I understand their decision,” a respected festival regular told me. “Taking a big film to Venice is a $1M commitment minimum. You have to do these things properly with all your stars. If you can’t do it properly, it’s not worth doing, and you can’t make the talent attend if they have concerns over safety. The filmmakers understand the situation given the context.”
One veteran U.S. producer said: “The question for us is what is the impact of having a film at a festival at the moment if the movie doesn’t make a splash? It can feel like a dud and lack visibility. It’s problematic. I don’t think the impact of festivals will be the same without the crowds of people. You want that word of mouth and buzz.”
If a movie premieres at a festival and no one is around to watch it, has the movie premiered?
Attendance is likely to be down in Venice but thankfully there are enough people here to render that question redundant. That said, it’s a chicken and egg situation. The studios will need to send their movies to ensure the flocks come and the buzz abounds. It was the same with studios and general releases. Warner Bros finally took the plunge on Tenet and it seemingly paid off. Internationally, at least.
Covid is likely to challenge festivals until at least Cannes next year. And perhaps beyond.
As one well known insider told us: “I assume we’ll be back to normal after the pandemic, although there are a lot of things we thought were essential that we now realise are not essential, so who knows. Maybe big festival debuts will be deemed unnecessary expenditure. The history of festivals was traditionally to celebrate art, not commerce. The mayors, hoteliers, realtors and others have gouged over the last 10-20 years. They may have created their own death knell by charging so much. But time will tell.”