Al Cossar: Celebrating Cinema Digitally in a Covid World

May 18, 2020
We speak with the Artistic Director of the Melbourne International Film Festival [MIFF] about the challenges of putting on a film festival in 2020.

Are you able to summarise the process that led to the decision to go digital with MIFF in 2020?

We got to a point where the decision had to be made in consideration of what is most appropriate for public health first and foremost, as well as what remains possible within the festival’s operations and programming. There are two elements to that – what does August look like? Cinemas may reopen, but the combination of gathering ban restrictions, social distancing protocols, and levels of social anxiety regarding cultural gatherings at an audience level all contribute to a very uncertain and complex scenario. MIFF is also part of a vast ecosystem in terms of how we develop and produce our programming and events – and on that front, the massive impact of covid both already seen at the point of cancellation and projected beyond that made it very clear that there was not a path to a regular festival in August. It was not a decision taken lightly – but between risk consultancy, scenario modelling, and a huge level of internal and external conversation and consideration – it was the necessary one.

How did you come to the decision to go with Shift 72 as the platform?

Lots of different reasons – they provide a huge degree of adaptability and flexibility as a platform developer; they are from our corner of the world [New Zealand] in terms of being able to work closely together, and we were incredibly impressed with their thoroughness and thoughtfulness in how they saw this space, and the potential in it. They can provide studio grade DRM and content security aligning to MPAA standards, a particular point of sensitivity and consideration in the online space. They have very impressive credentials in terms of activating festival offerings online for substantial partners (eg. CPH:DOX, SXSW, New Zealand International Film Festival, among others). As a result, they’re suddenly, as you would expect, very in demand within this space internationally as a market leader – when we confirmed them, they had had a hundred enquiries from festivals looking to scope or engage their services in a very short space of time.

What sorts of challenges have you come across with the programming this year?

Well, we’re still programming! We essentially had to do a ‘hard reset’ on the MIFF 2020 festival program. MIFF 68 1/2 is not a direct substitution for the festival; it isn’t as simple as moving everything that was there previously online. We’re rebuilding things from the ground up, as we want the films to be suitable and have integrity for the context as well, and as we’re working to a more narrowly delivered program (around 40 features, 30-40 shorts, and virtual events, such as a virtually delivered MIFF Talks and our Critics Campus program), we need to build it from the ground up again, considering program balance in those terms specifically. More broadly than that, there’s a huge raft of festival cancellations over the last few months which would have been priority scouting locations for us, and as a result hundreds of films are now in varying states of limbo as to their future plans, all facing a multitude of different pressures and opportunities in unparalleled circumstances. So confirming titles is very complicated on a film to film basis in ways unique to this situation, especially as the conditions of the pandemic itself and surrounding social and cinema restrictions change, or the perception of how they may change or not change becomes a dynamic point of consideration for rights holders.

Can you tell us what audiences can expect from the programming?

An exciting, diverse, and adventurous program of 40+ feature titles. Majority contemporary (although we are considering some retrospective programming additionally) world cinema and documentary, animation, with work ranging from broadly appealing/accessible to that which is more challenging and formally adventurous; Australian and international work, including regarded auteur names in combination with discovery titles, will include celebrated films from across a regular programming cycle from a variety of festivals as you would normally expect from MIFF (we are currently building or programming but have films already within program from settings such as the most recent editions of Venice, Toronto Sundance, Berlin, etc).

We will have a range of Program Spotlight films that will be elevated in the program, acting as gala substitutes. The intention is that we will have a variety of virtual activations to those films specifically, from filmmaker attendance, to potentially virtual afterparties with bands playing, or performative elements (which we are developing at the moment).

Additionally, we are profiling an incredible range of short filmmakers within MIFF Shorts Awards, as well as a virtual delivery of our Critics Campus program, as a talent developmental setting for emerging film critics, with the program having specific crossover to the digital film program.

We are currently programming MIFF 68 1/2 through to the end of June for program lock, with a virtual Program Launch scheduled for Tuesday, July 14th.

Is rights exploitation a particular issue when you’re putting a film online for the festival?

As per above, this is a very complicated space, for both filmmakers and festivals emerging into it in sudden ways, and while negotiating film placements into the festival can be involved in a regular edition of MIFF, there are a lot of sensitivities that are unique in terms of rights holders – to negotiate being involved while safeguarding from their side what is seen as future opportunity for the film in question. There are considerations externally that impact the broader availability of films as well or how we present them in the space, such as the Academy’s reconsideration of its eligibility criteria as to how and when films play; as well as other legal considerations, such as how we are working with the Australian Classification Board in terms of moving what our regular cinema based classification exemption would be online. There are many different intersecting pressures in this space that require a considerate, and potentially different approach, to be taken at the level of each individual title.

Festivals are obviously a social event, how do you hope to create that atmosphere with the 2020 edition?

One of the ways we view MIFF centrally is through its importance in connecting artists to audiences, and we are currently talking to some really interesting collaborators as to how we can reimagine what is possible in delivering virtual events around our screenings; how we can consider what the positive opportunity is here – what can we do that is something specific to this space that we never have before in a regular setting? As I say, we are programming at the moment, but we’re looking at all manner of things from some interesting co-presentations, virtual guest attendances, virtual afterparties with bands playing or performative elements tied to films – watch this space!

Do you think that this move will inform future MIFFs, even after covid?

We see the creation of a proprietary streaming platform as an investment, that will allow us to be flexible to the conditions and consider a whole range of different programming activities where there may not have been that possibility before. It’s something for instance, where there could be some really positive opportunity for regional community access, or could change the way we think about members screenings or MIFF Schools offerings, for example – we’re thinking about those kinds of things at the moment.

But to be clear – MIFF is always something that, at its core, will be delivered in cinemas, and one of our strong reasons for being is to bring people together in physical spaces to celebrate the work of extraordinary artists. But at a time of such uncertainty, the attraction of this platform is that it will help us find and be relevant to audiences where they are and where they can be, and that may continue to present a degree of opportunity in different ways as the situation evolves.

With restrictions seemingly being eased, and the promise of cinemas opening in July, will it be bittersweet to have the festival online after that?

If cinemas do open in July, there is no certainty that the way they open will immediately look like it did before. The complex overlay of gathering bans, social distancing protocols, the potential for social anxiety regarding re-entering cultural spaces, incremental changes in viewing habits in the interim; all of these interact in complicated ways as to what could be presented in August in cinemas to what kind of audience, if they were to open in July. So, what we have focused on, is what is possible now, and what we can offer now; we want to do something for people that is positive to the spirit of MIFF – we are focused on how we can find and foster audiences in this space when the world is a more distant and disconnected place. We will look forward to normalcy (incrementally), to being back in cinemas, and to reclaiming the experience of celebrating cinema together as soon as we can be back!

MIFF 68½ – A Digital Film Festival for 2020 is on from August 6 – 23, 2020

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