COVID-19, Festivals, Film and where we’re at

It’s a concerning time for the Australian industry with a number of Film Festivals cancelling or postponing events and indeed calling off Festivals mid-run.* Filmmakers, Festivals, musicians, cinemas, visual artists and venue operators are but some of the pillars of the arts community already significantly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic which has spread uncertainty across industries and communities worldwide.

This afternoon’s announcement of the Sydney Film Festival’s cancellation, for the first time in the Festival’s history, lands as yet another major blow to Australia’s cultural scene. The Festival, like many others, are offering returns or replacement tickets for future screenings in light of restrictions on public gatherings whereby major Festivals’ events cannot continue.

At the time of writing, the directive from the Federal Government to limit non-essential gatherings to 500 people has been updated to restrict non-essential gatherings to 100 persons in indoor areas. Cinemas including Dendy, Palace,* the Hayden Orpheum and the Golden Age among others are advising patrons of precautionary measures taken including implementing social distancing, limiting the capacity of theatres, ensuring visitors sit seats apart, regular cleaning taking place and hygiene options such as hand sanitisers that are available on sites.

The Melbourne Indie Film Festival, which kicked off a nine-day run on March 16, has cut individual screening capacity by half to a maximum of 35 patrons, while the Sydney Czech and Slovak Film Festival, which cancelled a March 18 Opening Night party preceding its five-day run, split the opening screening across two cinemas. Numerous other Festivals have maintained scheduled events in the coming weeks and immediate months ahead and advised attendees of precautions being taken.

Looking to another avenue, Filmonik Melbourne are turning their scheduled March 24 shorts night into a freely accessible live-stream featuring flicks from local filmmakers that can remain online afterwards. Film collective Static Vision, which recently ran the successful weekend-long Hyperlinks iteration in Sydney, are hosting a free six hour live-stream Festival of curated features and shorts called Lockdown on March 27 where you are invited to “self-isolate with us.”

We’ve already seen the very evident impact of these steps, social distancing and preventative measures taken by individuals on film and Film Festivals with many finding cause to cancel screenings. In the case of Dark Mofo the event’s founder made it bluntly clear that the 2020 run had to be cancelled to ensure, from a financial perspective, that the venture remains viable and that programs can proceed in the future; a challenge now widely facing arts organisers. It is also a quandary for many whether immediately forthcoming events are financially viable given prospective turnout, with cinemas and screening venues seeking direction from the Federal Government in order to prepare for the coming months and adequately advise employees many of whom, alike artists and filmmakers, rely on casual or non-permanent work. It remains to be seen to what extent arts institutions and artists will be provided economic support via prospective Federal and State stimulus or relief measures.

The Melbourne Queer Film Festival (which this year ran in conjunction with the Melbourne International Youth Film Festival) suspended the remainder of its 2020 program from March 16, including the Victorian regional tour. The Festival had previously been scheduled to run in Melbourne from March 12-23.

Sunset Cinema North Sydney, which was scheduled to run until March 21, cancelled its remaining screenings from March 16. FlickerFest has cancelled upcoming March appearances in Victoria, the Gold Coast and the ACT and foreshadowed forthcoming postponements and rescheduling. The Ocean Film Festival has postponed scheduled March events in New South Wales and Queensland with the Russian Resurrection Film Festival postponing a Sydney event set for later this month and the Dead End Film Festival cancelling a forthcoming March event in Melbourne.

The Travelling Film Festival, AACTA and Brisbane Openair Cinemas have too cancelled the Festivals’ remaining March events, with Moonlight Cinema, who are not running their forthcoming March screenings in Sydney, Melbourne, Perth or Brisbane, set to resume in November.

The Queer Screen – Mardi Gras Film Festival has postponed its March tour to Parramatta (Sydney), Lismore, Newcastle and Mount Victoria, which was set to take place from March 20. The Whyalla Film Festival has postponed its March event while the Geelong Pride Film Festival, Indonesian Film Festival, Bendigo Queer Film Festival, Sydney World Film Festival and Benalla Shorts have postponed their April runs.

The Alliance Francaise French Film Festival, which commenced in March and was scheduled to run through to April across Australia, has postponed all its screenings effective March 19, as has the Spanish Film Festival which, also set to operate from Palace Cinemas, had scheduled an April-May program. The German Film Festival, also set to operate out of the chain nationally from May through June, has also been postponed.

The Gold Coast and Cradle Mountain Film Festivals, scheduled for April, have been cancelled. Underground Cinema has postponed its Melbourne event, scheduled for April, until June-July, while Half Symbolic postponed scheduled screenings for April and May. The Tasmanian Breath of Fresh Air Film Festival, scheduled for May in Hobart and Launceston, has been cancelled, while Melbourne’s St Kilda Film Festival, set for May through June, has been postponed.

Festivals which have cancelled shortly forthcoming events and maintained scheduled events post-May 2020 include the Byron Bay Film Festival, Revelation Film Festival and Australia’s Silent Film Festival. Festivals across the country are maintaining their scheduling for events several months ahead as the situation develops with the Children’s International Film Festival, having cancelled an upcoming March event, postponing CHIFF’s May runs in Melbourne and Sydney to July 25 onward.

The Melbourne International Film Festival, which cancelled an upcoming March 23 event, are continuing planning for this year’s run scheduled for August 6-23, while the Irish Film Festival have rescheduled the Fest’s May Sydney and Melbourne runs to November and December respectively.

Cinema Reborn, which had scheduled runs in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra for April through May, have cancelled the 2020 run and set dates for April and May in 2021.

The Caloundra Film Festival has brought its anticipated March 31st screening of Honeyland forward to March 18 in case, in the Festival’s words, “the whole world… is in lockdown by the 31st and we don’t want you to miss it.”

The Independent Cinemas Association (ICA) also announced its annual conference, scheduled to take place in May, has been postponed until May 2021. Netflix, Disney and many other major production companies including Australian stalwarts have halted production while major cinemas releases such as No Time to Die, F9, Mulan and Black Widow have been postponed.

Significantly, Universal have brought up the home release schedules for The Invisible Man & Emma to this Friday, films that are still in the cinema release window. Disney+ has also now released Frozen 2 ahead of schedule. Many have been agitating for a change to limit the length of time following which a film can be released for home entertainment or streaming following a theatrical release, a move which cinemas have strongly resisted. With film releases via online forums being moved up, a move which other studios will follow, it is unclear if once the prevailing situation eases if and to what extent there will be a return to the status quo.

It is evident that many in the coming months will look to streaming as distributors will too potentially seek to feature titles that might not have appeared on streaming platforms, or otherwise make them available via these services much earlier than would normally have been the case. Those production companies looking for Awards consideration in the coming year may too seek these avenues in order to qualify, while direct sales to streaming services altogether bypassing cinemas, amidst the prospect of traditional international Festival markets not operating as regular, could soon increase.

Importantly, Film Festivals worldwide have looked to create virtual markets to ensure sales can go ahead, with such a market being planned pending an announcement on Cannes’ viability. International Festivals have too looked to maintain their plaudits, allowing for awards contenders to be streamed to judges.

It’s a difficult time; be kind to each other and if it brings some joy or relief, watch a movie and better yet, if you can, enjoy it with someone else until we’re all out and about proper again.

*This article was updated with further Festival information, postponements and cancellations which occurred subsequent to publication on March 18, 19 and 20

*Palace Cinemas have announced that all Palace Cinemas will be closed temporarily from Thursday March 19

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