Assessing the Film Festival Scene – Pamela Powell comments

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Times, they are a-changing. There was a hope, not that long ago, that we would be in the period called “Post Covid” by now. However, thanks to the delta variant and low vaccination rates, that appears not to be a possible reality. This, of course, effects everyone and every aspect of life, and in the entertainment industry, it changes everything from the creation of films, release dates, critic screenings, and film festivals. These festivals were not only a predictor of a movie’s success but also the Vitamin B12 shot for critics.

In 2020, after the Sundance Film Festival squeezed in its 12-day celebration and the U.S. recognized and reacted to the dangers of Covid-19, most festivals either cancelled or went the virtual route with limited success. For critics who attended these events, this new viewing format created a void and a distancing from filmmaking. With no true end to the pandemic in site, how will this effect the future of festivals and critics’ attendance?

After participating in the Sundance, Tribeca, SXSW, and Toronto film festivals on a consistent basis for the last decade, the new format of experience feels less important with a lack of luster. Attending virtually just isn’t the same. There’s no red carpet for photos and questions. There’s no bumping into the likes of John Hamm on a mountain sidewalk in the quaint town of Park City. The home experience just can’t replicate the film festival one no matter how elaborate your technological set up may be. And the Q&A’s after the films feel canned, rehearsed, and devoid of life. That’s no fault of the festivals; it’s just the reality of not being in-person.

During the (first?) peak of the pandemic, studios both large and small, showed us that streaming previews was a relatively simple task. It also leveled the playing field with independent and big studio films. Films with “success” at festivals in 2020 were still able to get their films in front of critics’ eyes to garner more buzz on Rotten Tomatoes, lending a hand in putting smaller films on movie goers’ radars.

Now, after a year-and-a-half since our initial lock down, the delta variant and the waning protection of the vaccinations nearly solidifies that attending festivals may be a thing of the past. While it’s not been that long ago, I look back fondly as I recall all the fun and craziness of the festivals. From hiking in snow boots up and down mountain streets, arriving completely disheveled to interview a graciously kind filmmaker (Jamie Redford) to zipping under the bustling city streets of New York or grabbing a trolley in Toronto to attend a red carpet with Keegan Michael Key and then sprinting to be a part of the Nicole Kidman or Adam Driver events, this exhaustingly exhilarating experience is like no other. The future of festivals with all the many unknown variables elicits a prediction that attending a film festival may be just a distant memory.

The festivals do promise to return, but attending one isn’t enticing at this point. We’ve learned that conclusions can change as quickly as the wind, so all of those unknown variables may help shift this decision-making process. Entertainment and filmmaking got us through our first long lockdown and its importance will never change, but critics and fans alike may not find the risk-cost analysis of attending the predictive and exciting film festival experience to work for them.

Is the film festival a thing of the past? Probably not, but it will never be quite the same. Times have changed and promise to continue to do so. Perhaps the virtual option will be the new normal of the film festival and for those of us lucky to have experienced the likes of both large and small film festivals of the past, we can look back fondly.

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Pamela Powell

Pamela Powell, a New York native and graduate of Northwestern University, writes for The Daily Journal and co-hosts a movie segment on WCIA TV, a CBS affiliate. Residing near Chicago, she and her film partner also have a podcast, Reel Talk with Chuck and Pam.