Rocky Shi Looks at the Current Film Festival Landscape and COVID’s Impact on the Industry

August 09 19:15 2022

Film festivals honor and celebrate filmmakers and everyone involved in the process, as well as the important work they create, and are underwritten and subsidized by governments, the film industry, or individual promoters. Attendees get to screen a series of films at theatres, attend panels and Q&As, meet and greet filmmakers from all walks of life, win awards, and land film distribution deals.

Hundreds of film festivals are held all over the world to showcase films from different countries. Among the most famous festivals are the Cannes Film Festival in France, Berlinale in Germany, the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in Canada, and the Sundance Film Festival in Utah, among many others. When COVID hit in 2020, however, the curtain closed on in-person film festivals and organizers had to pivot and reimagine the thrill of premiering films at theatres and reinvent the artist and audience experience, says Rocky Shi, founder/CEO of media company Rise Entertainment and a film and television investor and producer.

Film Festivals Were Canceled While Others Went Virtual

The Tribeca Film Festival in Manhattan, which typically takes place in the spring, was among the first to cancel its event when the city and country shut down due to the pandemic in March 2020. Awards were given but no public premieres took place. Other festivals later that year turned virtual, explains Rocky, with many in the industry at that time considering the shift to an online platform a mere blip. But the online festival experience now has a permanent place in the industry even today when many in-person events have returned. 

For example, the 2022 Sundance Film Festival took place virtually this past January amid the Omicron COVID variant. Films were screened online, Q&As took place via Zoom, and attendees socialized and hung out in Sundance’s “The Spaceship,” an online hub to discuss films. 

The Benefits of the Online Film Marketplace

While some may miss the glamour and fanfare surrounding an in-person film festival, it’s no longer a sustainable option on its own. The introduction of an online film marketplace in the wake of the pandemic was indeed a silver lining, Rocky Shi says. The rise of streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, HBO Max, and others has changed how movies are distributed. This has led to a high demand for content, which has brought new buyers and investors to the festival circuit. 

An online marketplace is able to connect more undistributed films with potential buyers. Fundraising can take place in the online marketplace. Rocky Shi explains that as it does at in-person festivals. Distributors are willing and ready to engage online with filmmakers. Studios and streaming services can have multiple representatives at the same online festival meeting with multiple filmmakers rather than simply sending one individual to an in-person festival to represent them. 

Not only does the online platform allow for connections between filmmakers and potential buyers, it also delivers a broader audience reach – something every filmmaker wants. Hundreds of films premier at festivals and don’t get purchased. The public may never get to see these films other than at a film festival. Technology has made the introduction of films more accessible to a wider audience by eliminating the need to travel to an event. An online platform enables more people to screen films for a lot less money. You could say the online marketplace has democratized access to films that would otherwise go unseen.

The Future: Hybrid Festivals 

Looking ahead, Rocky Shi sees a place for both in-person film festivals and an online marketplace. The pandemic and digital acceleration has shown film festival organizers and their stakeholders that there is real value in continuing to have an online marketplace where greater opportunities exist for filmmakers, distributors, and audiences alike. 

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