The Long-Term Implications of Films Going Digital in the Age of COVID-19

It’s safe to say, I think, that when 2019 ended, we weren’t prepared for what the next year would hold. As we struggle to maintain a sense of normalcy in 2020, however, we push on with the pursuit of our dreams. Having children, getting married, releasing a film; who would have thought these things would become such a challenge? As the world continues spinning, filmmakers around the world are turning to technology in order to keep the flame alive and make their voices heard.

Film festivals, one of the greatest resources available to those willing a movie into existence, are reinventing themselves in digital form. But what are the long-term implications of going digital? Is the Amazon Showcase a threat to SXSW? Can distribution deals survive digital festivals? Can movie theatres be the new Broadway show? We asked members of the film community to chip in. These are their thoughts.

No choice but to dance on

The general consensus regarding digital festivals seems to be: there’s no choice. “In the short term, I think this is a fantastic idea because there is literally no other platform right now”, says Mike Snoonian, a member of the industry media. These words are echoed by film fan Chris Anderson: “I think it’s the safest way to go in these uncertain times”.

With safety a primary concern, it is true that we must embrace the reality of digital-only festivals for the time being, and ensure that we can make the most of them while we cope with what the world looks like right now.

But what of the long-term implications of online events?

Festivals as living entities

While they’re thought of as a decent band-aid in the current climate, most people canvased feel that digital festivals pose no major threat to brick-and-mortar festivals. This is largely due to the fact that festivals are not only a place to screen films but much more besides. Filmmaker Ben Rock (The Blair Witch Project, Alien Raiders), feels like “[they] will lack the one-on-one contacts. That’s the biggest downside”.

The human element is the heart and soul of festivals, and beyond simply putting moving images on the screen, fests offer a platform to network. Deals are made at festivals, and while the word-of-mouth effect can be somewhat recreated through a digital experience, it remains to be seen if the opportunities for business ventures can also be replicated.

Michael Monello, Peabody Awards judge and former Florida Film Festival staff, says: “festivals are a connection point between filmmakers, fans, and patrons over their shared passion of unique and original storytelling”.

There be pirates!

Replicating the full festival experience isn’t the only thing that needs to be tackled when talking about going digital. Many are concerned over potential piracy implications of streaming films for digital events.

Jonathan Barkan, VP of Acquisitions at film distributor The Horror Collective, chimes in: “Online festivals pose a great risk when it comes to piracy and we don’t know how each festival is ensuring the security of the films”. This concern is shared by an anonymous film buff, who quipped: “Really depends on the DRM situation and a whole host of other factors”.

Barkan adds that in large part to this due to this, most distributors want to jump onboard a film earlier in its life-cycle before the movie joins the ranks of a digital festival.

Distribution woes

Another big issue highlighted by Barkan is that, if a festival is hosted on a mass-scale on a platform like Amazon, a film’s appeal to a distributor is greatly lessened: “the audience of people who would be willing to pay to rent/buy the film plummets dramatically, thereby making it a fool’s errand to acquire and distribute the film”.

Film distribution is already changing in a major way, however, even without taking festivals into consideration. Movie theatres are having their “iTunes vs. HMV” moment: Trolls World Tour, a seemingly innocuous film for kids, has been the digital harbinger of death for exclusive theatrical releases. Due to the pandemic, Universal Pictures (the distributors of the film), decided to make the film available for rent on the same day as its theatrical release. Trolls World Tour immediately became the most successful day-one rental in Universal history, which prompted the firm to state that it will look into the simultaneous release of its films on theatres and VOD moving forward. This, in turn, made chains like AMC Theaters announce that they will no longer distribute Universal films at their locations.

A war is brewing in the distribution world, and we have not seen the last of it yet. Not by a long shot.

Silver linings

One thing that digital festivals get undeniably right is accessibility. Film critic Michelle Swope makes a very valid point: “Being a disabled person, travelling is difficult for me, so I tend to miss out on festivals. So online festivals are definitely a good thing for people like me to be able to participate”. This is a feeling shared by most of the people who replied to our survey. Ben Rock adds: “[the situation] might make festivals feel more democratic to audiences who lack the money to go to far-away cities”.

There’s fear, too: film fan Maggie Sherrill shared that going to see a film is one of the only community events she and her disabled child are able to participate in. Though film festivals are sure to stay, digital distribution will surely change the way we think about “going to the movies”.

For a lot of us, however, digital means accessible. And the more people see a film, the more people are likely to talk about it. There’s a very strong sentiment of positivity towards what exactly this extra accessibility will mean for the future of a film’s sustainability.

What is to come?

Truly, nobody knows for sure what the future holds for films, festivals or theatres. There are many unanswered questions, and many kinks to be ironed out.

First and foremost, piracy is a very real and immediate concern that, if not addressed properly, could spell out the death of digital festivals before they even begin.

Secondly, the whole dynamic of festivals will need to change when migrating to a digital format. On the one hand, we need to make sure that online events do not jeopardize the distribution outlook of a film. And on the other hand, we must focus on recreating other aspects of a festival beyond screening a movie, such as forums, networking, and workshops.

Lastly, we need to acknowledge that digital distribution and digital festivals are here to stay. We need to factor this new reality into the way we make films, as well as how we promote them and consume them. As big studios break away from brick-and-mortar locations more and more, we will need to see what the movie-going experience means moving forward.

We must rejoice, however, in the fact that this new approach has the potential to democratize access to festivals for those who can’t, for whatever reason, do “the festival rounds”. Accessibility matters, and it matters a lot to many, many people. Perhaps, moving forward, we can learn to apply the lessons we’ve learned in 2020 to make sure that in 2021 and beyond, film festivals are not a factor of segregation or gatekeeping.

Are movie theatres going the same way as the arcades? Are film festivals the new Broadway shows? Nobody knows, and I think we will all learn as we go. But I have a feeling that, as long as we are all aiming to help films we love to become successful, we will cope. We will adapt. And films will thrive. As they have always done.


I would like to thank all of the people who replied to my online survey while researching this article: Jonathan Barkan, Emil Johansson Levin, Maggie Sherrill, Ken Stachnik, Cory, Mike Snoonian, Richard Waters, Michelle Swope, Michael Monello, Ben Rock, Chris Anderson, and a number of people who chose to remain anonymous. Please know that even if I didn’t quote you directly, your responses helped inform this article, and they are extremely valuable in my understanding of our current situation.

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