I never want to sit through a film festival in my bedroom again.
No, I don’t mean streaming all 24 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies in a futile attempt to fill a weekend. The 2020 Toronto International Film Festival — a hugely impactful 45-year-old event — went digital.
While some lucky Canadians snagged seats at glamor-less reduced-capacity screenings or enjoyed a premiere at a drive-in, Americans experienced the 55 movies, press conferences and chats with talent at home — on our laptops and small TVs.
Virtual screening rooms can be a useful Band-Aid for wounded festivals, which are largely prohibited by law from carrying on as normal. Cannes and Telluride canceled altogether, while this month’s New York Film Festival will mix mostly online viewing with a few outdoor screenings in Brooklyn, Queens and The Bronx. Only Venice has been totally brick-and-mortar.
The pandemic has taught us a few things: For starters, more straight-to-digital releases from major studios will come in the future and many of us will work from home indefinitely. However, the main lesson to take from TIFF 2020 is that film festivals need to resume being in-person experiences ASAP.
“What’s the big deal?,” you ask. “These days, we watch most movies from our couch.”
For the past seven months, so have movie critics, and it’s been OK. But festivals are a different animal. The word-of-mouth from a TIFF premiere not only sets the tone for awards season, but has a vital trickle-down effect — tweets, reviews, podcasts, friend recommendations — that makes you crave seeing a relatively small movie that lacks Disney’s marketing war chest months before you actually can. The buzz from festivals is essential to an increasingly struggling business.
But this year, the only buzz I heard was from my air conditioner.
On one hand, that’s a good thing. Occasionally critics become too intoxicated by the mountains of Sundance or the tuxedos of Cannes — the equivalent of kids who are high on Pixy Stix. An empty apartment, then, is the great equalizer: There’s no riotous laughter, standing ovations or celebrity step-and-repeats to sway you. If there is a post-premiere cocktail party, you’re throwing it for yourself while Googling “How to make poutine.”
But a festival is about more than reviews and soirees — at stake are also paychecks and visibility. While TIFF is a hot spot for big-budget studio premieres (last year’s festival had “The Joker” and “Hustlers”), it’s also a buyer’s festival in which ready-to-go movies seek distributors. Major acquisitions in recent years include Best Picture Oscar winner “The Hurt Locker” and “I, Tonya.” But a report in IndieWire said that buyer interest in most films was low this time, and nobody anticipated any hits. How can a hit emerge in silence?
Fine movies up for sale such as “Good Joe Bell,” starring Mark Wahlberg and Connie Britton, and “One Night in Miami,” directed by Regina King, would have attracted more attention with teary audiences and deals made at parties. The festival’s best film, “Pieces of a Woman,” starring Vanessa Kirby as a pregnant mother whose baby dies during a home birth, thankfully sold to Netflix.
On a purely selfish note, festivals are manna for movie critics. They tend to pop up during moments when we — and the public — are exhausted from talking about what we’ve already seen. Sundance arrives in January when no one can bear opining on the same 10 Oscar films anymore. And TIFF kicks off at the end of summer, right as we’re sick and tired of superheroes. Festivals reboot our brains, and make us better at our jobs.
Now, we’re over being at home, and the virtual gatherings only make the voluntary prison sentence worse. Good though the movies were, the experience of discovering a new film in the company of others has no online equivalent. What’s better? Coming into a film with too much enthusiasm, or pressing play once again with an unshakable malaise?
I choose the first one.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, the New York Film Festival is about to begin … from my flippin’ mattress.