Sight&Sound - 05.2020

(Jacob Rumans) #1

8 | Sight&Sound | May 2020


daily meetings: work is progressing, and it
has to. The film will happen, eventually.”
Many smaller-scale productions disrupted by
the crisis don’t have that assurance. After two
years gathering funding for a follow-up to her
acclaimed first feature The Levelling (2016), the
Glasgow-based writer-director Hope Dickson
Leach was set to begin production in the US
in May and June, and was going to shoot a
trailer for an additional documentary project
in March. Now, both plans hang in the balance.
“I don’t know how it’s going to happen,” she
says. “The financiers have said not to worry,
but if we’re talking about a delay of six months,
a year, with tax incentive qualifications and
so on – who knows?” Days after we spoke,
independent British filmmakers and workers
like Leach received an unexpected lifeline
from Netflix, which donated £1 million to the
BFI’s industry-backed Covid-19 Film and TV
Emergency Relief Fund: it’s a hopeful sign, but
the need is great and emergency funds finite.
Meanwhile, the lifeblood of arthouse and
independent cinema, the film festival circuit, is
in panicked suspension, with no end in sight.
The ultra-hip South by Southwest festival in
Austin, Texas, scheduled for mid-March, was
first to fold, announcing cancellation just a
week ahead of time. Not covered by insurance,

the festival has lost millions and laid off a
third of its staff; whether it can return next
year is unknown. Others to cancel outright
include Tribeca in New York and Toronto’s Hot
Docs, while Cannes, after weeks of stubborn
insistence that it would go ahead as planned
in May, finally announced a postponement
to late June: the dates are unconfirmed, and
few are certain the coast will be clear then.
Others have opted to go ahead in digital form.
Copenhagen’s cutting-edge documentary festival
CPH:DOX, which was due to start on 18 March,
has made a number of its premieres available
online to jurors and journalists, reasoning that
remote coverage and socially distanced prizes
are better than none at all. The BFI’s public-
oriented LGBT+ film festival Flare, also planned
to begin on the 18th, swiftly improvised a
reduced At Home programme of 14 shorts and
features via the BFI Player streaming service.
For Tricia Tuttle, the BFI’s director of festivals,
the benefits of a digital Flare outweighed the

drawbacks. Films need exposure: “Festivals
really can help smaller distributors, producers
and rights holders find their audiences –
particularly LGBTIQ+ fests and audiences.” The
crisis has jump-started innovations that festival
directors were already thinking about: “This
is an idea we have been working towards for
several years, and I see online iterations of film
festivals very much as part of the near future,”
Tuttle says. As for this year’s BFI London Film
Festival, she assures me they are “very much
planning to deliver”, and digital meetings
and online film viewings are in full flow.
Still, there’s more doomsaying over the
landscape ahead, whether it’s about once-secure
films that may never reach the production
stage, or about scores of cinemas that might not
survive months of closure. Blockbusters may not
suffer much from being moved back a season or
two, but smaller titles may get lost in the crush
when the gates reopen. How many potential
festival successes will fall below the radar – or
into unmarketed VOD anonymity – if the red
carpet remains rolled up? Beyond practical and
economic concerns, others wonder what post-
corona cinema will look like. Leach speaks for
many with her trailing question: “After all this
finishes, whenever all this finishes, what kind
of films will people even want to watch?”

“Going to VOD in an emergency is one thing, but
there’s just not enough money without a theatrical
window. What I’ve been experiencing is that this
model of financing — this pre-sales, co-production
model — is basically broken and nobody knows how to make it work. It’s
the streaming platforms or nothing. So for this to happen at this moment
is potentially devastating. Or we’re all just going to have to make movies
for less than half a million. Maybe there’ll be a DIY movement that I can
embrace: a bit of Varda, a bit of Andrew Kötting. But who’s going to pay me
to do that? I have bills, I have kids. And as always, this is going to hit women
in the industry hardest. It just does. We’re the default carers in society and
there’s a lot of caring to be done. It’s just another thing we’re facing.”

“We were all already starting to grapple with long-
term sustainability, and the urgency of reducing
the environmental impact of this annual circuit of film
festivals. It is a really sad and sobering thought that this
year is going to be financially disastrous for many film companies who rely
on existing models of international sales, distribution and exhibition. But we
are also all taking different kinds of risks and radically departing from some
age-old practices to try new things; that will almost certainly result in long-
term changes. The fact we were able to respond so quickly with Flare to make
work available online shows an appetite from filmmakers, distributors and
sales agents to find different models of reaching audiences. It will require
a great deal of flexibility from film to film rather than a one-size-fits-all
approach, but I believe there will be continued interest in experimentation.”

“My greatest fear is about young talent coming up
who are just getting their breaks at the moment.
Just through the summer, there’s so much production
that was set to happen in Britain by artists about to get
their first foot on the ladder, and suddenly the carpet is pulled from under
them. And they may just decide it’s too erratic and unstable an industry to
be in with no job security. This might strike them as just the first example
of obstacles to come, telling them it’s a career they don’t want to risk.
Because not every first film can simply pick up where it left off. To me,
that’s the real tragedy of how this may affect the industry in the long term.
And there’s only so much the industry can do to support them, since its
lifeblood is the work itself, and that’s being asphyxiated by the virus.”

“What we’re all about to realise is just how
important theatrical distribution is. There’s been
lots of talk recently about digital releasing and Netflix
becoming the new normal, and yes, in this time we’re
going to see more and more indies giving up on theatrical and going
straight to VOD. And what Universal has done with The Invisible Man and
Emma makes sense for films that had their runs interrupted. But something
like Marvel’s Black Widow is simply too expensive to go that route when it
can make a billion in theatres. And in an industry that’s always about the
newest material, it’s a reflective moment for critics and journalists like
us: we’re having to find new angles, and to feed big demand from people
at home for older movies to watch and discover. Who thought [Steven
Soderbergh’s 2011 thriller] Contagion would be the movie of the moment?”






Blockbusters may not suffer

much from being moved back,

but smaller titles may get lost in

the crush when the gates reopen

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