Brave new world: Doc fest organizers discuss going virtual

Tine Fischer remembers the exact moment when the world around her began to fall apart. As founder and director to CPH:DOX, Fischer was a mere nine days out from welcoming festival ...
June 30, 2020

Tine Fischer remembers the exact moment when the world around her began to fall apart.

As founder and director to CPH:DOX, Fischer was a mere nine days out from welcoming festival goers to the 17th edition of the Copenhagen-set festival where 65 films across its five competition categories were slated to screen. Instead, one of the largest documentary festivals in Europe was grappling with whether the doors to the Kunsthal Charlottenborg should open at all.

It was the week of March 9 and, for the next seven days, the CPH:DOX festival director would find herself locked in tense, hours-long meetings with the board of representatives, the Danish Health Authority, and the festival’s main sponsors and partners. “It was the worst seven-day limbo in our life,” Fischer says. “The health authorities were not willing to close the festival. We knew that gathering thousands of people from all over the world was not going to happen, it seemed tremendously irresponsible.”

Forty-eight hours before Denmark became the second European country to enforce a lockdown to limit the spread of the coronavirus, CPH:DOX organizers began preparing to migrate its live event to a digital landscape. The organizing team behind the Copenhagen International Documentary Festival has dedicated the better part of 16 years to building up the Danish event, growing the festival and market from 12,000 admissions in its first year to a record-breaking 114,400 admissions in 2019.

While the call to go digital was a very difficult and risky decision, given the time constraints, it was a decision that “somehow” made itself, Fischer recalls.

“There never was a real alternative,” Fischer admits. “We were so ready to bring all of it into the world, so ready for all the films to make a real difference. And suddenly you have to face the option of letting it all go.

To be honest, we announced that we would go digital before even knowing how to do it.

“I remember the moment when I thought that if we didn’t go for it, my team and I would suffer in an almost unrepairable way but the film communities in a much deeper sense,” she added. “We knew that all spring and summer festivals most likely would have to cancel. We needed to make it happen. We needed to bring people together in a new way.”

Local film festivals have long served as a launching pad for independent and emerging filmmakers to build and sustain their film careers. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, is forcing festivals to upend their deployment strategies, and pushing organizers to choose between canceling, postponing their live events or hastily shifting to an online model. The crisis is sending the film festival model barreling toward a new future, and possibly a better one.

“To be honest, we announced that we would go digital before even knowing how to do it,” Fischer admits. “We had made a deal with Festival Scope and Shift72 to build the streaming platform but the rest was not developed yet.

“From the moment the decision was taken we had little under a week to develop and implement it all,” the CPH:DOX director adds. “We’re a relatively small foundation so there’s no way we could bring in consultancy companies to solve the situation. We had to do it ourselves by asking friends and colleagues for help, and they were there.”

On the day the World Health Organization branded the COVID-19 outbreak as a pandemic, the 23rd annual Full Frame Documentary Film Festival was canceled amid public health and safety concerns. The four-day live event with ties to Duke University was meant to take place from April 2 to 5 in Durham, North Carolina. In the days since, festival director Deirdre Haj has moved to explore ways in which portions of Full Frame can be migrated to a digital realm. After confirming which individual filmmakers in Full Frame’s invited and competition programs still wanted to participate, Haj and her eight full-time staff began contacting the festival’s cash award sponsors to determine whether organizers could still hand out honors.

“They unanimously said yes,” Haj recalls. “From no point was this about making money or going to the general public; it was all about how do we maintain — for the filmmakers who chose to stick with us — their strategy of being seen by the Full Frame audience?”

North of the border, Toronto’s Hot Docs festival was facing similar hurdles. Executive director Brett Hendrie spent “a fair bit of time and energy” engaged in conversation with the festival’s key stakeholders, board and advisory groups, and producers and directors in order to “take their temperature” on whether there was interest in a virtual event.

“Everybody we spoke to recognized the importance of Hot Docs on the calendar as a key market event,” Hendrie tells Realscreen, “so anything we could do to sustain that momentum was really important. There was a lot of enthusiasm for it.”

But migrating an entire festival to the digital space is not without its own challenges and drawbacks. There are the very real concerns revolving around a film leaking online and hindering future sales; co-ordinating thousands of meetings between hundreds of participants; and, importantly, ensuring that online screening did not damage a doc’s status for Oscar qualification.

“Until we knew what way the wind was blowing, we didn’t want to really proceed,” Haj explains. “We didn’t want to ask any film that we felt we’d be putting in harm’s way before we knew that the Academy was going to allow documentaries to screen online.”

In time, the 93rd annual Academy Awards announced that it would, for one year only, allow a film to qualify for Oscar contention if it previously had a theatrical release but has since been made available on an on-demand platform due to coronavirus-related theater closures. Once theaters reopen, the exemption rules will no longer apply.

Even with having Academy eligibility in its new online status, Hot Docs has committed to showcasing all of the invited films in some capacity, having already announced the full 2020 lineup. Chosen from 3,068 film submissions, the slate spotlights 226 feature films and 12 interdisciplinary projects from 63 countries in 18 programs, with 51% of the directors being women.

“We’re doing that because we have heard from filmmakers that it’s important and useful for them, especially within an industry context, to be able to say that they were invited to Hot Docs and to advance their own commercial prospects,” explains Hendrie.

Across the pond, Sheffield Doc/ Fest in April announced that its flagship pitching initiatives, MeetMarket and Alternate Realities Talent Market, would proceed via video-conferencing in June. The South Yorkshire festival will additionally launch film screenings, talks, panels, artists’ events and community engagement activities over the course of a number of weekends throughout the fall.

The challenge that Doc/Fest is currently undertaking is a “logistical one,” according to Patrick Hurley, director of marketplace and talent. He says that Doc/Fest’s physical event takes “rigorous” steps to ensure filmmakers have their own schedule and space in order to focus their time and mental energy on networking and their prepared presentations. Now, as the festival switches to an online format, Hurley and his team are hyper-focused on digitizing those processes — whether it be through virtual meeting rooms and lobbies — while managing myriad variables like time zones.

“I really want to take a hands-on approach to making sure that connections happen smoothly,” Hurley states. “We’re trying to explore that aspect of virtual ushering, but it seems that there are definitely great technological solutions to that; we’re currently focused on using Zoom.

“We’ll continue to talk to our festival friends who are doing the same thing as us [to] learn from those that are trialing it first,” the Sheffield executive adds. “We’ll be happy to share our experiences with other events that are having to do the same.”

Despite the impressive leaps by various organizers to digitally present their festivals in a truncated period of time, Full Frame’s Haj doesn’t believe that digital engagement can ever replace physical festivals “because festivals belong to their communities,” offering an economic impact through tourism that uplifts the surrounding environment.

Still, says Hendrie, “I’m optimistic that this will make us stronger in ways we may not be able to predict right now.”

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2020 issue of Realscreen. Not a subscriber? Click here for more info.

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