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The Festival Fallout from COVID-19: A Filmmaking Team Weighs In

By Tom White

Filmmaker Todd Chandler in production on 'Bulletproof.' Courtesy of Daniella Varga

Film festivals are so crucial to launching your film, giving it that initial exposure to key thought leaders in the press, test-driving it in front of audiences, making valuable contacts and finding distribution. Where you premiere your film is just as important as the apparatus you build to fortify your launch. It takes a team beyond your filmmaking team—of publicists, sales agents, advisors and participants in your film. And it takes money: travel and accommodations, marketing and promotional materials, etc.

This winter, the coronavirus pandemic has been devastating in so many ways, and for our community, we have witnessed a cavalcade of cancellations and closures of festivals and theaters through April and probably into May. As True/False was getting under way, SXSW—the film and music festivals and the conference—announced its cancellation, resulting in a potential loss of hundreds of millions of dollars to the Austin economy and the film and music communities. Full Frame, Hot Docs, SFFILM, Tribeca and a host of other festivals followed suit.

One filmmaking team that was impacted by the SXSW cancellation was Todd Chandler and Danielle Varga, whose Bulletproof, an IDA Enterprise Documentary Fund grantee, about school safety in 21st century America, was to have its World Premiere, followed by an International Premiere at Hot Docs.

We asked the filmmakers to share their thoughts about how losing their festival premieres has impacting their launch strategy, and how the community is coping and moving forward

DOCUMENTARY: What were the immediate repercussions of the SXSW cancellation to your premiere? Had you engaged a publicist and sales agent for the premiere? Were you bringing participants from your film?

TODD CHANDLER & DANIELLE VARGA: The City of Austin definitely made the right decision in canceling. It set an important precedent in the early days of this public health crisis. When the festival was first canceled, though, we were, of course, deeply disappointed. The premiere at SXSW marked the beginning of what we hoped would be a very robust festival run. We had engaged a publicist and a sales agent. That feeling of disappointment was compounded by taking a big financial hit. We had made posters, booked flights and accommodations—none of which was refundable. SXSW is not a festival that provides travel or accommodations for its filmmakers, so we’ve just had to eat that loss. Most importantly, we had pushed really hard to finish the film in time for the festival, and it's been hard to escape the feeling that all of the hustling to finish was in vain. 

D: How has the cancellation impacted your festival strategy? 

TC & DV: It's very important to us that Bulletproof have a strong festival run. SXSW was supposed to be our World Premiere. We'd been invited to Hot Docs for our International Premiere. Both of those are obviously no longer happening, and more cancellations are happening daily. Remotely juried awards and online "virtual festivals" are nice gestures, but these are not a substitute for a real festival run. Right now we just have a lot of questions regarding strategy, and how to ensure that Bulletproof screens widely at festivals once festivals begin to ramp up again. We're not alone. There are dozens of filmmakers asking these same questions: What will happen to all of our films? Will we be offered spots in next year's festivals? Will premiere requirements be suspended? What about films that have upcoming broadcast dates—will they still be considered for festivals after broadcast? It's complicated, of course. Festival organizers and programming teams are contending with a lot right now. We hope that the festivals and the industry on the whole approach these challenges with a spirit of deep generosity, and utilize this moment as an opportunity to truly support independent films and filmmakers.

D: You do have ITVS support, but were there prospective theatrical and/or OTT distributors? Is a theatrical release part of your overall strategy? 

TC & DV: We're so thankful that we have a committed broadcast partner in Independent Lens via ITVS. This guarantees that the film will be seen by a massive audience, and have support to do community screenings. But the festival, theatrical and cinematic experience has been something that we've been excited about since the beginning. Part of Bulletproof's approach is a reframing of questions around fear and violence. Festival and theatrical runs present rich opportunities for audiences to experience the film together, and to continue the conversation after the screening. In addition, the momentum that would accrue from a theatrical run would be crucial to build an audience ahead of the broadcast, and for the longer term life of the film.

Danielle Varga in produciton on 'Bulletproof.' Courtesy of Danielle Varga

D:  How has the cancellation, and the pandemic overall, impacted your outreach strategy? 

TC & DV: We’ll have to postpone plans to screen the film in real-life community and educational settings. There's certainly potential for online outreach screenings and discussions, but we haven't yet explored those possibilities. At its core, this is a film about the infrastructure, culture and fear that live between moments of crisis. There’s not really an expiration date on its relevance, and when this current crisis has subsided, we'll be thrilled to get it out into the world and to be part of the conversations it might generate.

D: What have you heard from your fellow filmmakers who were to premiere at SXSW? 

TC & DV: People are obviously very upset. We feel for our fellow filmmakers who don't yet have any form of distribution in place, and hope that the festivals and the film industry come together to recognize and support their work.

D: What advice would you give to filmmakers who have a premiere at an upcoming festival that is yet to cancel? 

TC & DV: This is a difficult time for everyone, and we hope that people are staying safe, and looking out for each other (from a distance). Everyone is struggling right now—globally. Many people have lost jobs, or have jobs that don’t allow for them to work from home. Vulnerable populations are more vulnerable. All of the deep inequality so present in the United States, and around the world, is being amplified in this crisis. It's difficult to balance the larger concerns around public health and safety that are so massive and pressing, and our own, more localized worries about the films that we nurtured into existence over many years. These things aren’t mutually exclusive, of course. It's important to maintain perspective, but also to remember that even in the middle of a pandemic, it's okay to be upset about and concerned for the fate of your film. Know that you're not alone. We've found it helpful to connect with other filmmakers. There are a lot of us in the same boat, and there's both consolation, solidarity, and the possibility for mutual aid in that. We hope that filmmakers and the filmmaking community can support each other in this challenging time, even if from afar. One example of this we've seen in the last couple of days is the Cinema Worker Solidarity Fund, a crowdfunding campaign started with the help of Light Industry, Screen Slate and others to support cinema workers who are now without work while movie theaters are shut down. 


Tom White is editor of Documentary magazine.