Like it or not, 2020 is the year of virtual film festivals

If not for the coronavirus, you’d be paging through NOW’s big Hot Docs issue right now, scanning our reviews and coverage to pick a documentary worth standing in a rush line to see.

And me? Having already written 30 or 40 of those reviews, I’d be walking around glassy-eyed, trying to enjoy a few moments of the May sunshine between screenings. (Also, in a perfect world it’d be warmer.) And I would be happy, because however much I might crab about being overloaded during the spring film festival season, I would be enjoying the hell out of it.

There is no spring film festival season this year, of course, unless you count the parade of cancellations and postponements that started in March, when theatres shut down due to COVID-19 concerns, and continued through April, as it became clear those theatres wouldn’t be opening back up any time soon. Now even the fall festivals are working on virtual editions.

As the film industry figures out how to negotiate this weird new normal, some festivals are taking themselves online. Hot Docs struck a deal with CBC to broadcast a modest selection of the festival’s premieres and this week organizers announced that over half of the festival’s 2020 titles will be available to stream online starting May 28.

The Canadian Film Fest – which was to take place at the end of March – will now hold a “virtual festival” on Super Channel Fuse from May 21 to June 6, and the Toronto Jewish Film Festival is going digital instead, announcing it will make some 35 features and documentaries available to stream in the GTA from May 30 to June 7 while still planning to hold a physical festival from October 22 to November 1.

And just a few days ago, Montreal’s Fantasia declared that its 2020 edition would be going virtual in August – and available to all of Canada, not just Montrealers.

While I’m happy that all of these festivals are going to continue this year, it brings up a certain existential question: can an online festival even come close to recapturing the spirit of a physical one?

Sure, we can all watch the same movie at the same time – TIFF has been doing its Stay-At-Home Cinema watch-alongs for several weeks now, with Cameron Bailey chatting with the likes of Mandy Patinkin, Sarah Polley and Ethan Hawke on Instagram Live before directing viewers to Crave to watch The Princess Bride, Away From Her and Before Sunrise, respectively – but those are more about nostalgia and celebrity than discovery.

Most film festivals have a retrospective component, it’s true, but the real thrills come from stumbling onto something new – a film, a filmmaker, a movement – surrounded by a rapt audience.

I’ve attended hundreds, if not thousands, of festival screenings over the decades – yes, I am old – and I treasure those rare moments when the whole room suddenly clicks onto the movie’s frequency.

I’m thinking of the world premiere of The Shape Of Water at the Elgin in 2017, when 1200 people swooned at Guillermo Del Toro’s romantic vision of a Universal creature feature, or the press and industry screening of Sound Of Metal last September in the IMAX room at the Scotiabank, where a few hundred critics held their breath at the audacity of Darius Marder’s final shot before exploding into applause. (That almost never happens at press screenings mostly we just nod appreciatively and start scribbling down notes.)

Can you replicate an experience like that at home? Is it even possible? Will a harrowing documentary like For Sama or On The President’s Orders grab you the same way if you’re safely situated in your own environment with a pause button readily available, rather than trapped in a dark auditorium with no sense of control?

Part of the bargain – and the appeal – of a film festival is our surrender to the collective experience: we walk into that theatre, sit down with everyone else and watch a movie together. In the best version of that experience, the audience becomes a single organism, laughing or crying simultaneously … or very nearly so, anyway.

I’m thinking about a benefit screening of Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell where a key moment sent waves of sobs through the Varsity 8, each person in the room processing the film’s devastating emotional impact milliseconds apart. I’ve never experienced anything like it before or since. Is anything like that even possible online?

The Toronto Jewish Film Festival is trying to replicate that thrill of discovery by releasing a handful of titles to its virtual platform every day, starting with its opening night movie, Keren Ben Rafael’s The End Of Love, at 9 pm on May 30. (In a remarkable coincidence, the film – shot in 2019 – is presented entirely as a series of Skype conversations between a couple temporarily living apart in Paris and Tel Aviv.) Each film will be available for 24 hours, with live Zoom Q&As for selected titles the following afternoon.

Hot Docs, on the other hand, is dropping all of its features and shorts at once on the morning of May 28, with pre-recorded Q&As attached to every title. (And because it’s a practical impossibility to watch 90 features and 40 shorts in a week, most of the programming will remain available until June 26, so people can catch up.)

There’s also the We Are One Global Film Festival, a 10-day digital festival featuring “films, shorts, documentaries, music, comedy, and conversations” curated from film festivals around the world, including TIFF, Cannes and Sundance. Produced by Tribeca Enterprises as a benefit for the World Health Organization’s COVID-19 Solidarity Response Find, it’ll launch on YouTube May 29, programming to be announced.

But of course the question isn’t whether online film festivals are a good idea. They’re literally all we have right now, and we have to make the best of it. And by “we” I don’t just mean moviegoers – a term that has become antiquated in a matter of weeks – but filmmakers as well. Festivals let them bring their work to buyers as well as audiences TIFF is one of the world’s splashiest festivals for film sales, and the Hot Docs Forum is part of the largest documentary market in North America, bringing together commissioning editors, producers and programming executives from all over the world to hear selected pitches from filmmakers looking for support.

This year, of course, the whole thing is happening online and the pitches are pre-recorded, which will remove some of the energy and spontaneity from the sessions. But it’s still going forward, and some of those projects will find homes as a result. Whether they’ll actually be produced this year is another question, of course, and one that no amount of funding can affect.

Which gets me back to the other reason we should look forward to these virtual festivals: if nothing else, least they offer us an escape from the day-to-day desolation of coronavirus life.

Watching something at home might not be as immersive or transporting an experience as it would be in the Lightbox 1 or the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema, but you might as well give it a shot. It’s not like any of us has a choice, after all.


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