Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 4 July 2020

Will ‘We Are One’ change the format for film festivals?

The new collaboration, which brings festivals including Cannes and Venice together for a celebration of film, is an opportunity for audiences and festivals

American actor Jamie Foxx poses with fans ahead of the premiere of 'Just Mercy' at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival (Tiff) in 2019. Tiff is among the festivals that will participate in a free 10-day virtual cinema programme starting this month hosted by YouTube. AFP
American actor Jamie Foxx poses with fans ahead of the premiere of 'Just Mercy' at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival (Tiff) in 2019. Tiff is among the festivals that will participate in a free 10-day virtual cinema programme starting this month hosted by YouTube. AFP

We are hearing a lot about “the new normal” recently, as countries around the world prepare to ease restrictions on movement brought about by the spread of the coronavirus. With many governments retaining social distancing measures and the use of masks in their exit strategies, it is clear that even post-quarantine life may be anything but "normal". Then could a new online collaboration between YouTube and some of the world’s biggest film festivals represent “the new normal” in the film festival world?

We Are One: A Global Film Festival brings together about 20 leading festivals, including big names such as Cannes, Venice, Berlin, Sundance, Tribeca and the BFI London. Closer to home, the Marrakesh and Mumbai festivals are among the collaborators, who will team up to offer content for a 10-day online festival available free, globally on YouTube from Friday, May 29.

A different scenario to play out when cinemas reopen

It is a welcome show of unity at a time when, certainly at the commercial end of the spectrum, the film industry seems to be heading towards an all-out war under the financial pressure brought on by the pandemic. This week, the world’s two biggest theatre chains, AMC and Cineworld, said they would boycott films from Universal – the oldest of Hollywood’s five major studios and home to blockbuster franchises such as Jurassic Park and Fast and the Furious – when cinemas reopen.

The boycott is a response to the studio’s announcement that following the success of Trolls World Tour’s direct release to video-on-demand this month, it expected to continue to release films for download on the same day as the theatre release, even after cinemas reopen. This breaks the long-held, and fragile, truce between cinemas and studios over the exclusive window for cinema screening, and was clearly crossing a red line for the struggling, closed cinema operations.

It’s not only cinemas who have a historic aversion to online platforms. Cannes has long barred Netflix productions from entering in its competition, and as recently as April 7, its director Thierry Fremaux told Variety that as far as Cannes is concerned, an online festival is “a model that would not work.”

Fast forward about three weeks, and Cannes has moved some of its content, including its prestigious film market Marche du Film, online and is now lining up with 19 of its biggest competitors and one of the world’s leading online platforms to present a festival.

FILE - This April 20, 2011 file photo shows a view of the outdoor screening area at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York. Film festivals worldwide are teaming up to launch “We Are One: A Global Film Festival,” which will play out over 10 days and be available for free on YouTube. Tribeca Enterprises and YouTube announced Monday the online festival will feature movies, shorts, documentaries, music, comedy and conversations. (AP Photo/Evan Agostini, File)
View of the outdoor screening area at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York, which started in 2020. The festival has been postponed this year due to the coronavirus pandemic. AP

This may seem contradictory, but in reality, maybe not. Fremaux and Cannes president Pierre Lescure may have been full of enthusiasm in his welcome for We Are One, saying: “We are proud to join with our partner festivals to spotlight truly extraordinary films,” but his words had barely reached the press before The Hollywood Reporter revealed that Cannes would not be releasing any of the titles from this or previous year’s event. Instead, Cannes will only supply footage from its past masterclasses – the onstage conversations with actors and industry figures.

Although the We Are One line-up is yet to be revealed, its organisers have not suggested of any big-ticket online premieres or even mid-scale new releases, and it seems unlikely there will be any. Economic damage to any future release and the danger of piracy could be a reason. Also, with festivals such as Venice, Toronto and even Cannes still hoping to pull off some kind of live event this year, they are unlikely to be putting any of their biggest films forward, even if producers and distributors would allow it.

'We Are One' is an opportunity for everyone

There is a probability to have a line-up of more films from previous years, alongside content like the Cannes masterclasses, and that is not necessarily a disappointment. Festivals can still keep their brand in the public eye and make the most of a time in crisis. Some of the smaller festivals can even grow their profile thanks to sharing the bill with globally renowned events such as Cannes and Sundance. For audiences, there is an opportunity to see films, for free, that may never have crossed their radar otherwise, and perhaps learn more about previously unknown local festivals to visit in the future.

We Are One should not be considered as a replacement for traditional film festivals, but rather as a temporary measure in difficult times, which offers opportunities to festivals and audiences alike.

Long term, no online event can ever replace the economic benefits of people on seats, nor the prestige and attention that celebrities, premiere parties and big name sponsorships can bring to a festival and its host city. Purists might argue that such trivialities distract from the serious matter of the movies at hand, but no festival would willingly exchange all that for a virtual event.

Indeed, by the time many of these festivals do finally take place again, perhaps in 2021 at the earliest, the experience with a bit of red carpet glamour and the opportunity to sit in a cinema with other people will probably be something the whole world will welcome.

Until then, a chance to watch quality film content while we are at home is surely a good thing.

Updated: May 2, 2020 11:17 AM

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