There’s a strange contradiction to Film Festivals endemic to their very existence.  

Intended to enliven a sense of community and appreciation of a form on as large a canvas as possible more so than any traditional cinema screening, they are also a celebration of a medium very suited and highly adaptable to home-centric, individualised experience and COVID-circumstance.  

A boon of Festivals both in attendance and their own numeracy predictably followed the wider availability of streaming services and stratification of cinema offerings between mega-budget and indie fare. Film fans typically wanted a curated experience of competent, experimental small to mid-budget fare and Festivals remain the place to get them, as well as a space more open to audible applause and sharing thoughts before, after and better yet between screenings. 

At the same time, cinema remains a form not best appreciated but highly accessible outside an orpheum, making it better suited than other cultural touchstones, ala White Night, Vivid, to enjoyment amidst a pandemic.  

Some Festivals have chosen to go online, pursue hybrid models or otherwise postponeStatic Vision and the Taiwan Film Festival in light of their particular audiences and more experimental filmic fare, itself in cases a commentary on digital consumption, made the early decision to go online following the recent case rise across Australia, as the Festivals managed in 2020.  

On the other side of the equation Cinema Reborn, dedicated to showcasing minute restorations of cinema classics on some of Sydney’s largest screens, were the first Festival to postpone for a full 12 months in 2020. Australia’s Silent Film Festival has similarly postponed recent events and repeatedly so until October when screenings can intendedly take place in the State Library. The St Kilda Film Festival, in addition to postponements of weeks past, have put off this Saturday’s regional Camperdown event and the Antenna Documentary Film Festival have delayed the impending October program until February.  

In any assessment of whether to postpone, go online or pursue a mixed approach every current Festival has to balance two factors; to what extent is a cinema experience intrinsic to appreciation of the work(s) and does the existing sense of community once engendered and further anticipated by patrons necessitate either or both of an indeterminate (and at this stage it is indeterminate) future in-person event or more immediate digital offering? 

These decisions aren’t just about maintaining artistic lifeblood but given these considerations’ impacts on both maximising and sustaining audience engagement they are also fairly of a related and necessarily commercial nature. 

The Sydney Underground Film Festival, focused in part on commentary on digital forms, yesterday announced that the planned September 10-12 run will head online from September 9-26 with the third annual Take48 filmmaking weekend and competition to run entirely online. It will join the Irish Film Festival, likewise in its second annual digital-only run, which screens from September 1-12. 

On Wednesday the Made in the West Film Festival ran an online networking event for filmmakers in Sydney’s west ahead of an in-person December 10-12 Festival. Hours before, the Adelaide Film Festival Youth (previously the Adelaide International Youth Film Festival), having postponed their in-person July 25-30 program announced that the Festival will run online and in-person from August 25 – September 8 and then September 15-16 respectively. 

Cancelling an in-person pre-event scheduled for this Sunday past, Brisbane’s West End Film Festival, intended to run in-person from Wednesday through today, has instead pivoted to online for the first time and only a day later than its anticipated start; offering films online until now August 31.  

Queensland’s Capricorn Film Festival, having postponed multiple physical events in the two years past while running a one-off online event in 2020, will champion a three-day virtual Festival commencing next Friday. The day prior the Indian Film Festival of Melbourne will commence a planned in-person run from August 12-21, overlapping with a virtual, Australia-wide Festival online from August 15-30.  

The Melbourne Documentary Film Festival, previously postponing the planned Jul 21-31 in-person run set to tie in with a streaming program running the length of July, will now present a physical event from September 7-17.  

More prominent still, the Melbourne International Film Festival, originally scheduled to commence an in-person run this week to be followed by and overlap with a streaming program, has pivoted to jump-start a nation-wide streaming schedule commencing 9AM today through August 22 following the digital premiere of Coda yesterday evening.  An intended in-person run initially set to take place from August 13-22 will be subject to a flagged pending announcement from MIFF early next week in light of the lockdown implemented in Victoria commencing yesterday evening. Switching to a wholly online run in August of last year and seeing record attendance rates, MIFF in 2021, reflective of increased engagement, has too for the first time scheduled multiple events in new regional venues.  

Occurring when it did last year, Melbourne audiences even beyond traditional Film and Festival fans were primed for a major Melbourne cultural event absent the ability to travel very far or at all, and MIFF provided. Irrespective of the impact of current or future COVID-related restrictions on the in-person program MIFF have championed and effectively utilised capacity to reach audiences digitally for the duration of the intended 2021 run.  

This contrasts heavily with this week’s Sydney Film Festival announcement of the postponement of an in-person Festival until November 3-14. This follows the Festival’s physical cancellation in 2020, an online event in June of last year alongside participation in an international digital event, a brief physical run in January of 2021, the scheduling of this year’s physical Festival for August 18-29 rather than a traditional June run following a like shift in the scheduling of major international Festivals (and consequentially select titles’ availabilities) and the July postponement of a full program launch set to follow an already announced handful of titles. 

Aside from the impact on SFF itself, this will directly affect the slew of Film Festivals which typically take place in early November including the Sydney Science Fiction Film Festival which is currently scheduled for November 4-13, with the previous June to August shift already impacting a number of Festivals who prioritise the August window. Notably advertising campaigns run in recent months have emphasised the Festival holding a physical event as a priority with Festival Director Nashen Moodley noting in 2020 that SFF “do not currently have plans for an online component in future years (and that) the Festival very much looks forward to seeing our audience in cinemas next year for a fully immersive and connected Sydney Film Festival.” 

An assessment of this a sensible decision or not comes down to whether the near exclusive appeal of the Festival is in fact in-cinema offerings and the extent to which the SFF audience are seeking forthcoming over in-person engagement.  

The response to last year’s online SFF program demonstrated a desire amongst its audience, more of whom than any other Australian Film Festival except perhaps MIFF are composed of such significant numbers of both dedicated and casual filmgoers, for not just engagement but consistent engagement whichever the form. SFF’s decision to host an online component last year followed months later by successful physical sessions bore scope for replication in the latter half of 2021 and moreover over one or more calendar windows.  

Sydneysiders and film fans right now across the country are seeking a sense of community denied in forms by current COVID-related restrictions and SFF could have borne that same significance MIFF heralded when faced with such a similar circumstance in now successive years. MIFF, making the decision to go online last year and again in 2021 unlike SFF, continues to recognise the potential to grow its audience (as MIFF has done) and reach film fans in rural and regional areas and/or who are immunocompromised and might not have in months past or otherwise in the immediate future sought out a physical Festival. This is moreover the case in light of yesterday’s announcement impacting Victoria incidentally coinciding to the hour with the commencement of MIFF’s digital run.  

SFF could too have run in June as traditional but as delayed permitted the attainment of select titles that make up a fraction of a typical program. The appeal of this particular Festival, ala MIFF, overly relates to its general curatorial breadth and sense of community as opposed to individual showcases and the platform’s decision-making has not prioritised the aforementioned with many creatives now too directly impacted. Rather than a few films and filmmakers it is a plethora thereof of both name and emerging talents that have continuously proven themselves both artistic and commercial life-bloods of the Festival. To the extent that there was such an overly marquee focus rather than artistic emphasis on the heft of talent and fixtures of the kind that overwhelmingly typify and further both SFF’s creative and commercial bona-fides the outlet has shown many filmmakers concerned and fans too no favour.  

Yes some filmmakers prefer and demand as is their right films to premiere or otherwise screen in particular environments but the extent to which the Festival in the current environment did not account for this when negotiating titles or otherwise prioritise to a requisite degree fixtures which could screen wholly digitally in the immediate term represents an omission as it would for any Festival neglecting to fully anticipate audiences’ demand to go ahead in part or entirely online and avail itself where affordable of digital infrastructure as needed.  

Following the Festival having gone online last year with works not ideal but adaptable to the form via willing filmmakers there remains evident desire and certainly scope for the platform to replicate something similar in 2021 with the announced titles alone representing a sizeable draw. Communication on this front has been notably lacking with the Festival previously indicating on their dedicated site that SFF had been postponed and withdrawing the statement once it was reported on. This was too days before any further public clarification which came at the outset via select media’s positive reporting of the Festival’s call. 

Such calls in recent months engendering the lack of momentum for the Festival and sidelining thereof represents an absence affecting appended-filmmakers as well as dedicated and casual film fans alike seeking consistent and meaningful engagement who can and should, in addition to whenever the Festival screens and in any case, seek out other outlets who have taken the opportunity.   

Glen Falkenstein

on FalkenScreen