The coronavirus pandemic has upended the entire business of producing, distributing and exhibiting movies, with film festivals taking a particularly hard hit.
That’s because the whole idea of a festival goes against the Japanese government’s appeal to avoid the “three Cs”: closed spaces with poor ventilation, crowded places and close-range conversations. Here and abroad, seeing films in crowded theaters, mingling with filmmakers and engaging in other festival activities that don’t align with social distancing protocols are now ill-advised.
Organizers of film festivals scheduled for the spring and summer months have responded to the crisis by canceling, going online or postponing in the (probably vain) hope that the number of infections will recede enough to make their new dates feasible. Even Cannes, the world’s biggest festival, announced this week that it will not hold a physical edition. However, it has joined with Berlin, Venice, Toronto and other major film festivals to present We Are One: A Global Film Festival, an online program streaming from May 29 to June 7 to raise money for the World Health Organization’s COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund.
Most of the festivals abroad that specialize in Japanese and other Asian films lack the deep pockets of Cannes: Instead of sponsoring a charity event, they are desperately looking for ways to survive.
One festival I have advised for the past two decades, the Udine Far East Film Festival in Italy, was originally scheduled for April 24 to May 2. On Feb. 27, however, organizers announced that they were pushing the dates back two months. Now, with Italy slowly recovering after recording the world’s third-highest COVID-19 death toll — 30,911 as of May 13 — the festival has decided to go online in partnership with MyMovies, Italy’s largest movie streaming site.
One of the hardest countries hit by the novel coronavirus, Italy is still recovering and so the Udine festival is partnering with MyMovies, that country’s largest movie-streaming site, to hold the festival online.
From June 26 to July 4, movie buffs will be able to access films on the program free of charge. The opening and closing ceremonies will be streamed live, though the festival’s main venue — a 1,200-seat opera house — will be devoid of the usual throng of film fans looking for content from Asia.
“In the future, all the festivals will need to confront the internet, so we are trying to take advantage of this by starting something that we haven’t done before,” says Udine FEFF director Sabrina Baracetti. “I think of this more of an enrichment than a loss.”
Also making the online leap is Nippon Connection in Frankfurt, Germany. Since its start in 2000, this volunteer-run event has become the world’s biggest festival devoted to Japanese films, as well as a wide-ranging Japanese cultural showcase. Festival director Marion Klomfass says that after the German government recommended the cancellation of all events with more than 1,000 people, “it was already clear to me that this situation would last longer than a couple of weeks.”
Postponing the event was not an option due to the difficulty of securing venues. Neither was canceling, due to insurance issues.
“We also thought it would really be a pity for the filmmakers if their films couldn’t be shown this year,” Klomfass says. “An online version seemed to be an alternative solution.”
After securing the agreement of their main sponsors, the organizers announced that, from June 9 to 14, Nippon Connection would present about 70 shorts and feature-length films online, together with workshops, concerts, presentations and filmmaker Q&As. “Some films have country restrictions, but we also have quite a few that can be seen worldwide,” Klomfass says.
Meanwhile, another Asia-themed festival I advise, Chicago’s Asian Pop-up Cinema, canceled its 10th season, scheduled for March 10 to April 9, though it still plans to hold its 11th, set to take place in September. Launched in 2015 by long-time Chicago resident and festival scene veteran Sophia Wong Boccio, Asian Pop-up Cinema screens films biannually, each edition lasting about a month.
“In the best-case scenario, the upcoming fall season will be presented 80 percent virtually and 20 percent with a live audience,” Boccio says. “We sincerely hope that the percentages will gradually reverse starting with the spring season of 2021.”
“Unfortunately, without any cure or vaccine in sight, COVID-19 will remain a challenge, at least through 2021,” she adds. “I imagine that social distancing, temperature scanning for the moviegoers and 14-day self-quarantine requirements for international visitors will become the new normal in the foreseeable future.”
Klomfass is worried that even with a hopefully tamed virus in 2021, a worldwide recession will cause funds for cultural events to dry up.
“It’s already quite stressful to organize a festival with the low budgets we’ve had in past years,” she says, “but I’m afraid that if our budget gets smaller we won’t be able to continue.”
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