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When a Film Festival Goes Virtual, What Do We Lose? Or Gain?


We had flown thousands of miles — traveled on boats, even — to see “Joker.” To be clear, last year’s Venice Film Festival promised journalists more than just the world premiere of that Todd Phillips supervillain origin story, then only an operatically pitched trailer. There would also be Brad Pitt in the space psychodrama “Ad Astra,” Noah Baumbach’s emotionally charged “Marriage Story,” and a new film by Hirokazu Kore-eda, the Japanese master who only a year earlier had made the devastating “Shoplifters.”

But trudging from the Lido’s oppressive beach heat into the cool of the Sala Grande theater for the morning screenings of “Joker,” we sensed a larger moment was at hand. Two hours later, a mysterious alchemy had occurred; you could hear it in the lusty applause mixed with a smattering of boos, in the patio debates happening over radioactive-orange Aperol spritzes. “Joker” was something you needed to argue about. That’s how quickly it transformed from a makeup-smeared interloper into a bona fide awards contender.

Provocation attends film festivals, and not just the dancing-clown variety. Festivals can serve as coronations, bestowing status or, even better, controversy. (Almost inevitably, “Joker” took home Venice’s top prize, the Golden Lion.) More valuably, they can channel the conversation toward worthier less-shiny objects. At a festival, you find yourself talking to strangers: in lobbies, shuttles, at bars, in snaking lines or seated next to you, as a way of sharing enthusiasm.

That undefinable component of a makeshift community — people coming together, sometimes grouchily, in the spirit of discovery — is what remains uncertain this year, as the annual fall showcases pivot mostly to online versions of themselves, making their films, postscreening Q. and A.s, and panels available to stream for those with special access. Venice, cautiously, will be going forward starting Sept. 2 with an on-site affair, its Hollywood contingent much diminished. The intimate Telluride festival, usually a secretly programmed Labor Day weekend event that generates early Oscar news, has been canceled. And with planners in Toronto and New York hoping to create safe, modestly scaled public events for their hybridized festivals this fall, is it too precious to call out what may be lost in translation?

The first casualty of any virtual festival, unavoidably, will be the collective voice of the audience: rising in laughter, shocked in silence, making its disapproval or happiness known. Festival films, more than others, need this barometer, since their charms are often untested. They’re desperate to make a connection. When we make noise together, as we did in the early days of the pandemic during those evening pot-bangings, we cease to be alone. But what does it mean to attend a festival by yourself in your living room?

Twice during the lockdown, I rented a car and cruised upstate with my wife to the Warwick Drive-In, where the air smelled like a forest and the evening crickets were deafening. We happily watched blockbusters, the booms blasting from our speakers. But the sound that moved me the most was the vigorous, sustained applause from the other cars, each having their own self-contained experience. I may have wiped away a tear (a first at a screening of “Jurassic Park”). Promisingly, the New York Film Festival, in conjunction with Rooftop Films, has plans to screen its slate at drive-ins in Brooklyn and Queens, a sign of savvy.

Returning home to our TV, silent and dark for a change, I felt like we’d cheated on it. But it felt good to be unfaithful. Streaming services have kept me sane over the last several months, especially during those late-night stretches — hello, Peacock episodes of “Columbo” — when anxieties threw off my sleeping patterns.

ImageJames Franco, a star of “Spring Breakers,” and fans at the film’s premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2012.
Credit…George Pimentel/Getty

But should film festivals be rushing to duplicate the same level of instantaneous 24/7 access? Maybe not. Significantly, they remain one of the last bastions of real-world appointment viewing, creating a temporary place of exclusivity where you want to be. In my years of moviegoing, I’ve never felt as giddy as I do in Toronto’s cavernous Ryerson Theater, where the Midnight Madness fanatics, sometimes more than 1,200 strong, bounce beach balls overhead and contribute to a shared sense of witching-hour electricity. In a show of solidarity, five of the fall’s jeopardized niche festivals — including the Overlook Film Festival, which has scored impressive premieres, and the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival — will be coming together for the all-virtual Nightstream, a four-day online festival in October. I hope that name is literal: Some of the streaming should happen only at night, and only once.

It’s too easy to “walk out” of a virtual film festival, another drawback. All it takes is a thumb. The less it feels like an event and more like a scrollable menu of options, the closer it is to losing a small but essential piece of magic.

And yes, sometimes that event is an endurance test: Some distributors, like the beloved indie company A24, forged their identities out of the mania of infamous festival screenings, like a chaotic 2012 showing at the Ryerson of Harmony Korine’s gloriously skanky sex-and-crime-drenched “Spring Breakers.” I saw alarmed mothers dragging out impressionable Selena Gomez fans (a star of the movie, she was in attendance), while those of us who stayed saw the early signs of a studio’s brand coming into focus.

You can be transformed at a festival. Part of that comes from the art, and part of it comes from the effort exerted to escape familiar surroundings. One wonders about the persuasive power of a gathering that won’t require anything more of a viewer than an access code and a laptop.

Those concerns may be outweighed by the near-heroic act of providing continuity, no matter how curtailed, with decades of cultural curation. (Venice, which dates to 1932, is the oldest film festival in the world.) Organizations that can show work virtually to a devoted audience thirsty for it may get away with sacrificing social interaction, at least for a year. And won’t the same conversations swarm on social media, as they have for such quarantine hits as HBO’s “I May Destroy You” or ESPN’s Michael Jordan docu-series, “The Last Dance”? It seems likely, but this fall’s festivals will be a test of that commitment, and of a splintered community.

We may be more up for it than we realize, especially when we consider all the smaller nuances that will, by necessity, be gone. That lovely New York tradition of looking up to the balcony in Alice Tully Hall while the spotlight illuminates a grateful young director whose film has just wrecked the crowd, everyone rising to their feet in celebration — none of that will happen. Running into friends and colleagues at the packed Smith bistro across Broadway, long an opening-night dinner scene: nope. Toronto and Venice won’t even let me get close since I’m an American and thus a viral threat.

There’s an irony to that, since festival-going has long employed the language of virology to evoke excitement. We’re looking to catch the buzz of a hot title. Sometimes, we critics are accused of being trapped in a festival bubble. Maybe the oxygen was just too thin at Sundance.

These days, though, the dangers of sitting in a theater are far too real. And an actual ecosystem is at risk, one that extends beyond filmmakers and viewers to managers, ushers, ticket takers, caterers, hoteliers and thousands of volunteers. All will be affected. It’s better to remember that art is the ultimate reason we go to a festival: experiencing the movies, being affected by them and lending them our attention. Art, in turn, gives us strength, acuity and solace. It gives us a reason to survive. In the end, art’s power is more important than where or how we see it.

One of my most cherished experiences at a festival was a private one, completely divorced from crowds. It happened at Toronto in 2011, when I emerged from Steve McQueen’s moody character study “Shame” — the lesser-known drama he directed before “12 Years a Slave” — into a light mist. Regardless, I needed to walk, to breathe. In that instant, I yearned for my city, New York, so keenly evoked in the film’s cinematography as a place of oblique reflections and cool detachment. I rolled the film around my head like a marble. Nobody bothered me.

I can do all of those things this year, too. McQueen himself will be back at the New York Film Festival with three entries, including the opening-night selection, “Lovers Rock.” Even if it ends up that I’m watching it on my laptop, I can turn it up, let the program wash over me and go outside and think about it. The only difference? I’ll be wearing a mask. One day, that too will fall away.


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