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Roderik Smits • Film academic

“The question is to what extent film festivals with international appeal will continue to function as premiere events and provide a springboard for the distribution of high-profile films”


- The academic shared some key findings from his recent study titled European Film Festivals in Transition? Covid and Beyond

Roderik Smits  • Film academic

We took the opportunity to chat with Dr Roderik Smits, a researcher at Madrid’s Carlos III University. Last November, the scholar presented his research paper European Film Festivals in Transition? Covid and Beyond at Thessaloniki. The study was commissioned by the Greek festival, and supported by the CONEX-Plus research project of the Carlos III University and the Berlin Senate. During our conversation, we discussed how the European festival scene is being transformed by the healthcare emergency, its work with online platforms and the future of hybrid events. You can access the full study by clicking here.

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Cineuropa: What is the main purpose of your research?
Roderik Smits: The study examines how European film festivals are responding to the challenges imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic on physically sited events and in-person gatherings. Lockdowns and other policy restrictions have reduced the capacity of many festivals to work together with physical cinemas in order to offer a collective, in-person viewing experience for audiences. Such developments have fuelled discussions about the contradictory nature of physical, hybrid and online film festivals, and particularly whether they can co-exist in harmony. The long-standing reputation of the physical festival format is at stake as the COVID-19 pandemic accelerates engagement with hybrid and online formats.

Which festivals did you focus on, and how did you collect your data?
The study draws on 12 interviews with festival directors, artistic directors and lead programmers at some of the largest film festivals in Europe, including Berlin and Venice. Five events were organised in a physical format, three in a hybrid format and four in an online format. The interviews were conducted in spring 2021. The purpose of the interviews was to learn about the festival format in the period leading up to the gathering, the programmes they put together, their audience engagement strategies, and the continuing value of film festivals in the future.

What were the most challenging aspects of organising physical, hybrid and online events during the pandemic?
There is uncertainty about the availability of films and release strategies for movies through the festival circuit. Festivals are, of course, organised in different countries and on different dates throughout the year, and are therefore confronted with different policy interventions and audience restrictions. Some physical festivals were necessarily cancelled or postponed, while others turned to hybrid or online events. Rightsholders play an important role in the process of enabling the circulation of festival films, but even their strategies changed during the various waves of the pandemic. The perception of the physical festival experience is deeply rooted in the film-festival culture, but the hybrid format and online format are closely aligned with developments in today’s society, increasingly based on the rise of online streamers and online viewing. One important issue is the extent to which films can continue to create value through hybrid or online festivals.

What are the major advantages and drawbacks of working with online platforms?
One advantage is that online platforms provide opportunities for festivals to expand their audience base. Online access allows audiences nationwide to participate in festivals. Geo-blocking measures are usually developed for films to prevent them becoming accessible beyond national borders. Another advantage is that online platforms provide opportunities to encourage the participation of disadvantaged groups in society, including people with disabilities.

In terms of drawbacks, online initiatives have been developed to bring festival audiences together and enable them to watch films at the same time, but there are limits to the extent to which the physical festival experience can be replicated. It is also the case that rightsholders remain hesitant to show films on online platforms. They continue to value a release in cinemas, particularly for high-profile films.

What are the main conclusions you can share from your study? Is the future set to be “binary”?
Some film festivals continue to introduce and promote films as part of exclusively physical screenings. In particular, they rely on the privilege of being the first to release and show films. Other festivals are adapting to new circumstances created by on-demand culture in order to be more accessible and inclusive. For them, the hybrid format clearly makes sense for the world we live in and is a response to wider changes in film culture.

The question is to what extent film festivals with international appeal will continue to function as premiere events and provide a springboard for the distribution of high-profile films in the future. There are collaborations between festivals and powerful streaming platforms to develop conventional release strategies for high-profile films. At the same time, there is the risk that festivals might become dependent on release strategies developed by streaming services.

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