Skip to main content

The Virtual Festival Circuit: Filmmakers Reflect on The COVID Months

By Addie Morfoot

Image on TV screen is from David Osit's 'Mayor.'

After completing the second of what would be four Q&As at the True/False film festival in March, David Osit, who directed the documentary Mayor, found out that the 2020 South by Southwest Film Festival had been canceled.

"At the time [other filmmakers and I] were joking with each other that we were at the last [in-person] film festival in the world," Osit says.
"Then True/False literally ended up being the last film festival that proceeded as scheduled in North America. It was remarkable."

Osit's Mayor, which follows Musa Hadid, the Christian mayor of Palestinian city Ramallah, is looking for a distributor. So after True/False, Osit decided to take Mayor to the virtual Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival (CPH:DOX), where it won the NEXT:WAVE prize. Any fears Osit had about participating in his first virtual festival were alleviated by the festival's commitment to using proprietary streaming technology to prevent piracy. CPH:DOX also incorporated geo-blocking and audience-capping. "They were at least replicating the experience that the film would have had in terms of audience numbers at an actual film festival," says Osit.

The film later streamed at Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, which is also geo-blocked with audience caps. Measures were also taken to avoid piracy, but Osit admits that virtual festivals might not have been in the cards for Mayor if the film hadn’t had an in-person premiere.

"I have this very happy memory of a room filled with 1,700 people giving Mayor a standing ovation and realizing for the first time that the film works," says Osit. "Filmmaker friends of mine who haven't had their films at a physical festival but were slated to premiere at SXSW or Tribeca—that's something that is hard for me to imagine. But I didn't have that option anymore because I had my world premiere. I'm really one of a few films that was able to actually have physical screenings this year, at least at one film festival, and that makes a big difference even just for me personally in thinking the film festival life has begun, 'for the movie.' I can't pretend it hasn’t at this point just because the world has changed."

Jeff Daniels (no relation to the actor) didn’t have the opportunity to see his film Television Event premiere in front of a live audience at the Tribeca Film Festival. An archive-based doc that examines the making of a 1983 ABC television movie about nuclear proliferation, Television Event was offered a place in Tribeca Extranet—the festival’s online resource hub for industry professionals, but with a sales agent (Submarine) already in place, Daniels declined.

"The hope now is that we can try and create a premiere that really does justice to how the film was meant to be experienced," says Daniels. "Festivals are so important in connecting filmmakers and their work with audiences. So now I'm trying to figure out a way for my film to be experienced in a way that's appropriate for a film that was really made with a cinematic experience in mind. Having an event screening like the one Television Event was supposed to have at Tribeca—one that includes press and industry—are a great way to get clued into certain parts of the film that really resonate with audiences. So as a filmmaker, that's what you really want—that event screening possibility when a film like mine is in its discovery phase. I need online festival programmers to tell me how are they going to do that."

Michael Lumpkin, director of both AFI Docs and AFI Fest, created event screenings at the 2020 virtual AFI Docs that ran last month. Five films—Boys State, Jimmy Carter Rock & Roll President, The Fight, Rebuilding Paradise and Portraits and Dreams—made up AFI Doc's Special Presentation section; all five films had secured distribution prior to their festival screenings. Each film screened in a certain time spot on a separate day and was followed by live Q&As with the filmmakers. "Those films will be appointment viewing," explains Lumpkin, in an interview prior to the festival.

Osit is skeptical about online Q&As helping discovery films like Mayor.

"Crowd excitement and standing ovations are really special and all of the social media posts [about a film at a festival] are usually coming from a great Q&A following a screening. Now we just simply can't have those on at online festival. I mean, what would an Instagram post from someone who enjoyed Mayor at an online film festival look like? How many times can my pre-production stills be reposted on social media to good effect?"

Daniels is hoping to find the answer to that question come fall. That's when he would like to see Television Event premiere at a festival. Since the film is an evergreen, he can wait. "I'm in a very lucky position because of the subject matter," says Daniels. "My film, it seems like it was as relevant three years ago as it is now and as it will be three years from now or hopefully decades to come, and for that reason it gives me faith that I can patiently hold out for a time when I can find the right festival to work with me, either online or in theaters."

From Judith Helfand's 'Love & Stuff'

Veteran doc director Judith Helfand decided not to wait. Like Television Event, Helfand's Love & Stuff is an evergreen that explores grief through Helfand's journey of losing her mother just before the filmmaker becomes a mother at age 50. "I was a little on the fence about premiering the film virtually," Helfand says. "My team was wondering,'Should we? Should we not?' Then we decided, 'Okay. This can't hurt. It can only help.' It felt more important to be able to say we're having a world premiere somewhere than it did to hold it and start that whole process all over again, which could've been for 2021. The film has a real resonance right now during this pandemic. So to me it felt like this was the right time."

Love & Stuff made its world premiere at Hot Docs on May 28 to a geo-blocked, capped audience, who also got to see a pre-recorded Q&A with Helfand and programmers. Since it was a virtual premiere, Helfand was sitting at home in her New York City apartment during the film's debut instead of in Canada.

Like Osit and Daniels' docs, Helfand's Love & Stuff is a film that is in its discovery phase. To create buzz before the première, Hefland wrote two op-eds for The New York Times and The Daily Beast. In addition, The New York Times re-published her 2014 Op-Doc iteration of Love & Stuff.

"I'm trying to build audiences right now in any way that I can," Helfand explains. "We have to do all of that work from our homes, from our kitchen tables, from our home offices, and use this virtual space in a really radical and vibrant way."

For his part, Osit is relying on the good reviews and press coverage that described Mayor as a dark comedy documentary based in the Middle East. "I've been leaning into that [description] more when we talk about the film because I think that when you have the program for an online film festival, the feeling of excitement and discovery is maybe absent," Osit says. "I imagine that choices about what films to watch are much more predicated on if the film's synopsis sounds interesting versus being at an in-person film festival and not knowing what a film is about but going anyway because you have an empty slot between 11 and 2:00 p.m. So I feel like it’s more incumbent on me and my team to try to put an angle on Mayor that makes it stand out a little bit more if possible."

Without reviews to rely on, Daniels is hoping that virtual festivals will help distinguish Television Event and other discovery films looking for distribution."Some recognition [from festivals] would help filmmakers feel supported as they try and find a new business model through online screenings," says Daniels, who would also like to see online festivals provide networking opportunities for filmmakers.

"Everyone hopes for that opportunity to walk down the red carpet, but I think more importantly there is this opportunity to meet up-and-coming filmmakers when you go to festivals in person,” Daniels continues. “You make new connections. You’re able to have possibilities to collaborate on future projects. You meet established filmmakers as well who may help you on a mentorship basis with some of your next projects. I hope that festivals that are shifting to an online platform are able to continue that ability to provide networking opportunities for filmmakers, especially independent filmmakers."

Osit hopes that film festivals like AFI Docs do their part when things go back to "normal" and the masses are once again allowed to fill movie theaters. "Every festival that is able to exist physically in the next year and a half or two years should program their [2020 selected] movies again. It’s owed to the films and to the audiences. It's owed for the understanding that these festivals exist to show new art that's being made every year. At the moment there is not really any other infrastructure to do."

Sidebar: A Conversation with Josh Braun of Submarine Entertainment

The Braun brothers—Dan and Josh—are the co-founders and co-presidents of Submarine Entertainment, the New York-based sales, production and distribution company that sold American Factory, The Edge of Democracy and Honeyland to Neon after their 2019 Sundance premieres. Launched in 1998, Submarine has become the go-to sales company for nonfiction films. Currently the company is working on deals for the South by Southwest doc winner Elephant in the Room, and recently secured a deal for what was to be the opening night film of Tribeca, Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President; CNN Films acquired North American broadcast rights for the film. In addition Submarine is looking for homes to festival orphans like Enemies of the State, The Sit In, In & Of Itself and Television Event.

Documentary spoke to Josh Braun about how the pandemic has impacted documentary sales, the festival circuit and distribution.

DOCUMENTARY: What was Submarine's approach to the lockdown?

JOSH BRAUN: We embarked upon a process to try to control an uncontrollable, unknowable scenario as much as we could. So our process really was just to try to keep things as normal as we could in terms of communicating with buyers; screening films for buyers; and trying to figure out what people want and need. From our point of view, the more that we just embraced trying to normalize the process, the more that the process has felt more normal.

D: What does the documentary sales space look like right now?

JB: It's really not so terribly different than normal times just purely in respect of, We have films for sale and there are buyers out there that are looking for films. So when we went into the lockdown, and South by Southwest and Tribeca were both canceled, we took that aggregate of films that were available and reached out to all the buyers and more or less had an understanding that we would start showing them all the films. We started with the South by Southwest films and then we moved on to the Tribeca films. We're largely through screening most of those films for most of those buyers and we have two or three closed deals that haven't been announced. We have three or four offers. So it sort of feels a little bit like it would have during a normal year. The difference might be that in a normal year we would have gone to Cannes, and a lot of the buyers would say, "Don't talk to me about anything until we get back from Cannes."

D: Are streamers like Netflix, Apple TV+ and HBO Max buying more than ever since there is no production happening, which might leave them without as much new fiction content in 2021?

JB: As far as the platforms and the TV outlets, many of those places like Apple, Hulu, Netflix, HBO Max and Amazon have docs already that were either in post or being finished [when COVID hit]. My guess, or my hope, is that maybe in like a month or two, if production is still as shut down as it is now, I could see more realistically some of those outlets trying to fill in their schedule. It’s not like a gold rush happening exactly, but there’s definitely an interest. I think there might be more of an uptick than there is now.

D: Are documentaries going for a lot of money right now?

JB: When there’s competition and the competition is between big companies that have deep pockets, then the deals can be bigger. And that's just a virtue of the competitive nature for something that multiple people want and we're in a position to get the best deal. What we're not seeing is a fire sale. I don't think anyone thinks that they can get away with spending nothing to get something valuable. So I feel like it's either normal or it might be a little bit better than normal for the right film.

D: Are timely films selling more than evergreens?

JB: There’s starting to be a lot of interest in Television Event. It's an unexpected film, that's one of the things we loved about it. If you're of the right age, you remember when The Day After (1983) came out and you remember how it affected you seeing it for the first time. So for people who are of a certain generation, they're definitely nostalgic. And for people who weren't there, then they're kind of like, "I can't believe this." It's like an incredible discovery. So something more evergreen is for the most part—I wouldn't quite put the driving force behind the sales in that bucket as much as is it the right fit for how [a distributor] is programming.

D: Are you advising filmmakers what to do in terms of festivals right now?

JB: From Submarine's point of view, part of the reason for doing a festival is to start to get exposure. We're trying to be as flexible as we can but the way we look at it is, If the distributors are telling us, "If your film shows up in an online festival that's too big or too widely available, then we're going to be less likely to buy it," then we just have to be responsively cautious on behalf of filmmakers. But let's face it, filmmakers all want their films to be seen and so do we, so it’s just a fine line.

D: Geo-blocking is important when you're trying to decide whether to do a festival, right?

JB: For sure.

D: What about holding films until there are festivals again?

JB: We went to every filmmaker [with a doc] and said, "Do you want to do [the online festival circuit]? Because if you feel like maybe we should just [put the film] on the back burner and just wait until festivals are back, we would totally respect that." We try to give our filmmakers all the factors as we know them, and a lot of it is just unknown. Something like Television Event, which was supposed to premiere at Tribeca—the filmmaker debated what to do. We decided to go forward now on that film. If we don’t find the right deal now we could wait, and if we find the right deal now then we’ll go full steam ahead.

D: Do you think a lot of films will die or disappear because of the online situation?

JB: I mean, hopefully not on our watch. But I think it's a hard environment out there if you don’t have a rep and you want to get your film out there and no one's advising you. You could take the wrong step and then it's a question mark if it might damage you later. But it's a very harsh, Darwinian environment out there. It's survival of the fittest. On the more positive side, really good films tend to surface, and that’s just the reality of the marketplace. But in this environment, where they’re not having the same level of festival exposure where something could be a discovery; it's obviously harder and I feel bad.

D: Are you taking on any more films?

JB: The marketplace is—hesitantly, I say—healthy on some level. Just in the sense that as we start selling the South by Southwest and Tribeca films….And now that we’re starting to get some movement, we’d be less hesitant to sign something. We would never hesitate to sign something great that we loved.

D: What's going on with the theatrical markets? Are you talking with them?

JB: I think they're interested in buying films, but they might be more likely to hold until theaters are back. But we’ve closed one theatrical deal that has not been announced, and it just has a provision in the agreement that says, "If we mutually decide to release the film in a certain timeframe and theaters aren’t open yet, then we may go directly to VOD."

D: Have you talked to any filmmakers in post-production now about waiting to submit to Sundance, when theaters might be open again?

JB: We signed a film recently that we saw and loved and think it would thrive in Sundance and has a decent shot at getting in. So in a certain sense, definitely send it to Toronto and send it to other festivals, but then you have to weigh it to see if you’ve got any invites at Toronto, you might want to take the bird in the hand. But I think just waiting for Sundance is never a great strategy because the odds are just categorically against you.

D: Will it be even harder this year to get into Sundance 2021?

JB: I think it’s going to be as hard as it's ever been.

D: Have you been approached by any filmmakers who are trying to do COVID-related projects?

JB: The funny thing is, in speaking to a lot of the buyers, like the ones that pre-buy or produce like HBO, Netflix, Hulu, etc., I think they're sort of jokingly saying, "We’re looking at projects, but please don’t bring us another COVID-19 thing." I guess there has been a ton of [COVID- related] pitches. We're not involved in any, but if something really great came along we’d probably take it on if we felt like it could stand on its own and maybe not just be a COVID-19 doc.

Addie Morfoot has been covering the entertainment industry for the last 15 years. Her work has appeared in VarietyThe New York Times MagazineCrain's New York BusinessThe Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles TimesDocumentary and Adweek.