Thu 08 Oct 2020

Utrecht Boat Ride September 27: How Do Stories Shine in the Pandemic Age?

Steered by Hayet Benkara (Locarno Pro, IFFR, TIFF), a boatful of expert panellists told of their experiences in navigating the murky waters of the pandemic during 2020. Hayet’s fellow crew members were Hannah Verboom (Cine tree), filmmaker Déa Gjinovci, the Bristol Watershed’s Mark Cosgrove and Richard Pena, (director emeritus, New York Film Festival)

Hannah opened the conversation to explain how her cineaste streaming platform rose to the pandemic challenge. She described her company as a mission-driven platform, as a David within a Goliath country. But Covid “accelerated us to do what we are set up to do”.

She initially adjusted her programming online to offer up “hopeful” titles, and “we were able to make our service available for everybody for the first weeks of Covid, because we really felt strongly that we wanted to do something, that we wanted to give something in a time when everybody suddenly had to stay home.”

Numbers grew as the company solidified business relationships with festivals such as Movies that Matter, and they also put online collections from IDFA and IFFR and a small collection of NFF. “For TVOD we have been looking especially at how we can facilitate the film festivals because we saw that a lot changed there. We have a beautiful collection now with Movies that Matter, films about human rights. But for SVOD, our main core, we didn’t see that much difference.”

“Sometimes we have campaigns…we try to use certain films, like I Am Not Your Negro when Black Lives Matter happened, together with the distributor to make the movie for free. On social media it went viral and many thousands of people watched the film and there were so many discussions and conversations because of that film.”

“I think the audience is really hungry to watch these stories,” she added.

Filmmaker Déa Gjinovci spoke of her disappointment in there being no live world premiere for her debut feature documentary Wake Up On Mars, selected for Tribeca and Visions du Reel, among other festivals.

“It was quite devastating because everything happened so fast,” she says, after a long period of hard work for which she received no money, making a lot of sacrifices, and then no live premiere. “I needed this catharsis, this moment to have with my crew, with the characters of the film, and the film to really have a sense of completion and to see it more as a ritual to say, ‘now the film is done and it is going into the universe and will have its life’. We [normally] have this ceremony that is very important.”

She added: “There are subliminal moments in a filmmaker’s life where you can always imagine your first big festival or your first big screening and not to have that was very difficult.”

She voiced her dissatisfaction with some festivals which didn’t offer much by way of feedback, whether in terms of online viewing numbers, feedback or even the date of screening. “It is weird to see a work of art you have created, and not being able at all to engage with it and the reactions of the audience.”

But not so Visions du Reel. “Visions was good because we pre-recorded a Q & A. They gave us stats at the end telling us how many people watched the film. It was crazy. In 24 hours in Switzerland there were 4000 people who watched the film. That would never happen in a physical edition of Visions du Reel.”

Richard Pena was asked how, in these times of pandemic, festivals can keep the audience continually engaged with the films they select. “I used say to my colleagues that what we present at the Lincoln Centre is ‘movies plus’. In other words, if it’s just movies then you are competing even now more with platforms, people having enormous home systems, so you have to give people more than movies…People want more of an experience than that. So of course it starts with in-person dialogue with filmmakers, or experts or with panels.”

He pointed out how, as a example. when programming an African season they would organise a fashion a fashion show, as there are a lot of African designers in New York.

He continued: “Increasingly, programmers now have to think, what are we doing with this group after the screening, as our job as programmers doesn’t end just because the film is over. A new phase begins, and maybe the pandemic has made that audience even more available… So the work of the programmer has evolved to really think of that post-screening time as a time of active intervention.”

Mark Cosgrove of the Watershed cinema and arts complex in Bristol discussed the past six months as much within a political framework as an epidemiological one.

“The cinema that I have been working in, independent cinema, and the work that I do at the Watershed, the film is part of a conversation, part of a discussion, it does not come out of nowhere. Films come out of the shared culture that we live in, and audiences want to engage in more than just watching the film,” he said.

He cited the example of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave. “Bristol was involved in the slave trade. We just recently toppled the statue of a slave trader. When you show a film like that in a city like Bristol, you can’t just show it. People want to discuss what that means. We did a whole lot of events with black organisations in Bristol. We worked very closely with a group called Come the Revolution which is a black curating group, and we set up formal and informal ways that [the film] could be engaged with, and there were some of the most powerful conversations that that film started.”

“The film was a major focal point, but actually one of the most important spaces was our café bar,” he added. “I cannot reiterate how important a social space is for the pre- and post-, and its actually that point when the meaning of the film, and I am talking about when meaning becomes meaningful, when those conversations happen.”

On the subject of Covid, Mark stressed how “we no longer existed.. An existential crisis happened in the sense that for the first time in 100 years cinema didn’t exist… We thought we would close for 6 weeks… but then it was obvious it was more serious.”

He points out that he was very quickly approached by the online platform MUBI to offer online subscriptions. “They are a brilliant supporter of cinema and of film culture in its broadest sense, so we set up a free subscription for our members. We worked with the BFI to have a programme on their player, and then we started doing virtual cinema.”

“And now as we have reopened, what I am realising is that the tools that were talked about in terms of online, that Covid has driven exponentially the change that digital promised, which is that it’s all available, it’s all there. But there is so much [content] now that I think people still want a sense of curation, a sense of trusted engagement. ‘Who are the voices?’ What is it’ What is trying to be said?”

“We screened a number of films virtually like Clemency and Coup 53, and we have done box office splits with these, and I know that is going to become part of the vocabulary of film exhibition in cinema and online, and we will use these tools as we are at the moment as we go forward. But I still firmly believe that festivals are really the heartbeat of the international film world. Something happens at film festivals which is really important, and important for film in general.”

Richard added on mainstream exhibition: “I think the mainstream commercial world is going through a really radical change. They are ultimately only interested in the money, and if they can get the money through online platforms then they don’t need the theatrical. The demise of the movie theatre? The pandemic has speeded this up [and] I wonder if they will re-open. They’re not a profit point. Very few films make money and the recent failure of Tenet should serve as a warning.”

He also touched on the global versus local question, citing the example in Brooklyn of micro-cinemas popping up to show local films. “Maybe more attention will be placed on local product,” he said.

The panellists offered up some final words before disembarking from the film boat. Déa expressed how “there are still a few months left of 2020, so instead of seeing it in a negative light, let’s celebrate as the films of 2020 seem more as a triumph.”

Mark underlined how “film and filmmaking isn’t going away… and we are getting audiences that want to come back and see films. From my own side it’s about making sure we get through this pandemic as a business. I have seen three filmmakers locally already who have made their first features, and I want to help them get their films onto the screen. It will be a hybrid but I think that is now going to be part of the vocabulary of cinema going forward.”

Richard observed that “eventually things will return – but not to normal, if we mean by normal what used to exist. Some things I think are changing and I think what we have to do is to prepare ourselves to make sure that those changes are to the advantage of the independent film community, the world film community, but we’re not going back to where it was. That really is for me something that is beyond repair, and it’s because the world has changed.”

For Hannah, there were three issues. “We are in the world cinema, not commercial, so we really need to work together …we need to be innovative, we need to be so on top of things because it is really tough business-wise, even for an online platform we have already seen a small decrease because people are looking at their memberships and their fees so business wise we need to be really clever.” Secondly, she underlined curation to satisfy curious and smart, and thirdly we need to think of the films as campaigns. “How is this film relevant? Keep blazing a conversation.”

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Written by: Nick Cunningham